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Radical Garden: Weeds and Wildflowers

et502's picture

“Creation of a society without dominance”

On October 3, I found that an area of my site had been sectioned off from the rest. On the hill behind Arnecliffe, there were little yellow flags, a thin yellow border sprayed on the grass around the space. And inside, the grass was either dead or dying. This was very upsetting. What could possibly be the cause of this removal, this mass extinction?

(note: Ed Harman is the Assistant Director of Grounds at Bryn Mawr)

Since receiving Ed’s email, I’ve given a lot of thought to these spaces on campus. I looked at Sarah’s postings about her site, which is a conservation space, and I set up a meeting with Ed to talk about the development of “meadows.” I also looked back at my first paper, and re-read my reactions to one of these conservation areas. I was surprised both by my negative response and by the actual intention that went into these spaces. I recognize that I’ve made certain assumptions about the “environmentalism” sported on our campus; I suppose I am skeptical of what real environmentalism looks like. I asked in my first paper, What is the campus saying to us, residents? To visitors? Here I ask the same question, but also, What are we saying/doing in response?


Radical Environmentalism

I’ll start by re-visiting some terminology: liberal, radical, and environmentalism. In class on October 24, we discussed Feminism and Environmentalism, noting that environmentalism is a much “younger” movement and, perhaps, is not fully developed yet. The distinction between liberal and radical feminism struck me – liberal feminism as a movement to allow equal access to the structures in place, addresses specific needs. On the other hand, radical feminism is a movement toward critique and change of the system, a movement towards a revitalized culture. Moreover, radical feminism recognizes the fear and resentment that initiate and perpetuate the social structure (Spretnak 3); the problem this movement addresses is not “maleness,” it’s dominance. The distinction between radical and liberal interests me because, in our discussion, it seemed clear to me that the environmental movement, as it exists today, is primarily reactionary, primarily “liberal.” So this begs the question, what would a radical environmental movement look like?

This is my notion of Environmentalism: I think it is an eco-friendly attitude that demands some level of awareness about nature, and spawns some changes in human behavior. I think there are varying levels of intensity within this movement. The OED defines it as “concern with the preservation of the natural environment, esp. from damage caused by human influence; the politics or policies associated with this." The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates on this definition, describing environmentalism as a “political and ethical movement” that calls for a “reassessment of humanity’s relationship with nature.” Such a reassessment is meant to change politics, economic, and social structures. Based on these definitions, if I identify as an environmentalist, I am aware of nature, I preserve what exists, reflect on the damage I’ve caused, reassess my interactions with nature, and change myself because of this process. But again, I think that there is a spectrum of environmentalism – at the one end, we recycle, and at the other end, we work together toward something culturally and ecologically deep. Something radical.



That being said, I want to return to some of the ideas put forward in my first paper, and also ideas from Sarah’s posts and class readings. When I wrote my first paper, I generally assumed that the campus valued appearance based on certain capitalist priorities. I thought that, perhaps, the campus had been arranged in order to attract eco-interest and thus, future students, guests, and general environmental prestige.” There is a pleasant sort of wildness, evergreen bushes, roses, grasses, all thrown together, carefully artless. It reminded me of how someone might stage their living room, casually setting books on the coffee table that will reveal their good taste to house guests, without overtly saying to them ‘I HAVE GOOD TASTE’”(Web Event 1). Being green is in; so I assumed that actions taken on our campus were done in an effort to be fashionable, more than environmental.

This initial set of assumptions informed my reaction to changes at my site. My concern was whether the conversion of some spaces into meadows was in an effort to be “environmentally conscious” or just parading as such. Even after receiving Ed’s email, I was still skeptical of the work that Grounds has been doing on campus, particularly on my site. Then, on October 25, Sarah posted about a disturbance in her spot: “they MOWED my spot. Mowed it! All the wildflowers (and all plants, minus the trees) are shorn to the ground." Is mowing a part of preservation? How could this be eco-friendly? Also, there’s a sign on the spot that clearly states: “Conservation/Wildflower Area – No Mowing – No Herbicides.” Isn't this contradictory?

A few days after this event, I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson criticized the lack of disclosure about industrial action- the  “little tranquilizing pills of half truth” that had been fed to the public in response to their protests. “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts” (13). For some reason, the signs around conservation areas suddenly seemed like “half truths.” All of these ideas lent to a single story, a single interpretation: I read the meadows on campus as examples of false or shallow environmentalism.


Revisions and Nuances

When I met with Ed Harman, he told another version of the campus story: the over-arching project of meadows. First, explained the intention behind the project. They were not the “capitalist priorities” that I had initially assumed, but much more rational, practical. Bryn Mawr Facilities is making an effort to convert lawns on campus into wildflower meadows for several reasons: first, some areas are not easy to maintain. Maintenance of these spaces (in particular, steep hillsides or very small medians) is either dangerous or illogical. Second, the costs of maintaining a wildflower area is much lower: Bryn Mawr Facilities only has to mow a few times a year, and they don’t have to use herbicides or other products. Third, these lawn spaces have been underused, and look more aesthetically pleasing as wildflower areas. So, as stated in a Bryn Mawr blog post, “wildflowers are a win- win.” So far, Facilities has converted 4 acres of turf into wildflower areas or meadows. The signs are in place to prevent visitor confusion: they designate the areas as intentionally created spaces, so people don’t think that Facilities forgot some section of campus.

Ed also explained to me some of the methods behind the project: it has been that a process of thoughtful “experimentation.” He considers the ways that other institutions are using their spaces, and what projects are successful. For example, many golf courses are converting lawns into meadows, the Atlantic City Expressway installed wildflowers in the highway medians, and both cases have been economically and environmentally beneficial. This has lead to some adjusted experimentation on our campus. After some trial and error, Facilities found that the wildflowers are much more successful if competition is eliminated; there are some kinds of grasses that are highly competitive, so in order to create a wildflower area, these grasses must be removed.

I was still a little confused about Sarah’s site. Why did they mow the wildflowers there? Ed explained that these spaces still need annual maintenance. Until they are well-established, Facilities will continue to care for them, mostly through manual dead-heading and weeding. This caught my attention – what is a weed in a conservation area? What is a weed in a meadow? Again, Ed explained that the wildflowers can only thrive if they are not competing with other species. In Weeds Are US, Michael Pollan wrote that a weed is a plant in the wrong place – an aggressive plant that competes successfully against cultivated plants. So I need to adjust my perception: I had been thinking of wildflowers as “wild,” when really, they are part of a man-made garden.  Yes, they may be “native” to this area, but that doesn’t mean that they can exist and thrive without some support.

I considered this revised telling when I looked at my site again. Facilities cut back the wooded area because there were invasive species had proliferated to such a degree that they were choking other plants. The grass has been sectioned off and exterminated in order to create a new kind of garden, a meadow. Creating a meadow, eliminating competition – I wonder whether this is a way to eliminate dominance? It still privileges humans over nature, humans as the factors that decide what is eliminated. Could this anthropocentric model really be environmentally sound? Pollan seems to think so – he writes that “we cannot live in the world without changing nature irrevocably; having done so, we’re obligated to tend to the consequences.” We, humans, are involved – so now I ask, what are we meant to do with that responsibility?

So this goes back to my original questions: how do are we responding to the campus? And what would a radical environmentalism be? In class, we spoke of ecofeminism, and while we didn’t exactly define it, we identified a possible goal of this movement: the “creation of a society without dominance.” Who is doing the “creating”? It’s us. We have to be proactive. We have to experiment, garden, cultivate. And I believe that our campus is moving in that direction. Ed made a valuable connection here: he remarked on Bryn Mawr’s academic qualities of groundbreaking and progressive thinking. These qualities are reflected in Facilities’ intentions for the campus, and the methods they use to implement new projects. So, with the assumptions set aside and room for nuances and understanding, I’m now reading the campus a movement toward radical gardening – we are cultivating a new structure of use and (social) interaction.




Anne Dalke's picture


I like the way you end, reflecting on "Bryn Mawr’s academic qualities of groundbreaking," "cultivating a new structure of use." And I very much appreciate your account of your evolving understanding of how the groundskeepers are keeping these grounds--following not liberal, but radical presumptions; not capitalist advertising, but eco-friendly gardening; accepting that “we cannot live in the world without changing nature irrevocably"; that "having done so, we’re obligated to tend to the consequences"--and/but we can do that with the aim of creating " a society without dominance.”

It's a nice story.

And it actually contains quite a bit of nuance--I especially appreciate your recognition that wildflowers, in this context, are not really "wild," but a cultivated "part of a man-made garden.  Yes, they may be 'native' to this area, but that doesn’t mean that they can exist and thrive without some support."

So I'd nudge you to go on thinking in these eco-feminist directions. As I asked ekthorp, who envisions an eco-feminist academy, "What might a college 're-built' on ecological principles look like?" You've described some visionary appropriate techniques. Now what about the buildings? (smacholdt reports, for example, that Erdman was designed in belief that a "dormitory should not express a nostalgia for home, it is not a permanent place, but an interim place.") And what about the practices therein? (hira points out that "students at Bryn Mawr have historically not needed to worry about cleaning up after themselves").

How to break (out of) these grounds?