Gardeners Of Eden, Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature (2005, Santa Barbara, CA: Thatcher Charitable Trust). Written by: Dan Dagget
Reviewed by: Brian Katzman, December 2007
If you are like me, then you probably feel that the most beautiful landscapes on this planet are all natural, and exist today as a result of natural processes occurring over thousands of years. You may also feel that human land use, such as ranches and cropland, is harming the earth; nature would be much better served if we just got out of the way. If this does describe your attitude, then Dan Dagget would argue that you have been misguided.
Dan convincingly shows throughout this book that humans have a long standing mutually beneficial relationship with the earth. For example, the landscape of old California, made up of large open savannahs stippled with oak trees, was in fact a “garden” that was cultivated by humans. Similarly, the Amazon rainforest was managed and created over thousands of years by populous societies. These “Gardens of Eden” were created through human intervention and are now havens for thousands of plants and animal species. These gardens are widely considered beautiful landscapes that appeal both aesthetically and spiritually to people. It is these features that we should be concerned about when we, as a society, discuss ecosystem health.
Unfortunately, as Dan points out, many environmentalists are more focused on the process of leaving the land alone instead of the ultimate outcome of having a healthy and stable ecosystem. The basis of this flawed thinking is in the definition itself; as a society we equate a protected habitat to one that is healthy, while land used for crops or livestock is considered unhealthy. This is so ingrained in our culture that NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) does not require protected land to be assessed or negative affects mitigated because it is assumed that in the absence of human use it will be healthy.
Dan uses the Drake Exclosure in Arizona throughout the book as the poster-child for protected land. The Drake Exclosure represents the “leave-it-alone” approach which can make land and ecosystems worse off. He regularly compares it to human cultivated areas of land bordering on the Drake Exclosure which contain much more vegetation, running water, and biodiversity. This effective contrast makes it easy to imagine a lay person looking at these two swaths of land and choosing the human cultivated land as the most natural and healthy of the two.
The book emphasizes how managed land can, and most often does, outperform land that is left on its own. There are several complex relationships that Dan highlights through a series of case studies. Each study looks at a specific piece of land somewhere in the US that is managed by a member of “the Lost Tribe.” (Members of the “Lost Tribe” are people who think and act like indigenous people once did, and whose actions and philosophy are often considered strange and illogical.)
The Tiptons are but one of the members Dan discusses throughout the book. They are a couple engaged in unconventional land rehabilitation and focus largely on cattle grazing as a solution to rehabilitating degraded environments. One story begins with a piece of severely damaged land from mining operations that never responded to any of the efforts by the mining company to restore the land. The Tiptons spread hay over the land area and let their herd of cattle graze for a few days. This simple act stirred up the earth, enabling it to more aptly absorb water, and generated natural fertilizer via the cow dung. These few ingredients combined with seeds for native plants yielded fertile soil, and an ecosystem on its way to recovery after just six short months.
The other stories throughout the book touch upon many of the same principles while highlighting other interesting points or applications of a particular finding. Dan shows how water management, policy, fire prevention, and BOP strategies can all be impacted by a few key learning points. These points have been laid out below.
Key Learning Points:
• Parched soil, like that in the desert, only absorbs 25% of the precipitation that falls upon it.
• Cow and bison dung provides immense amounts of natural fertilizer
• The sheer weight of herds of cows or bison brings water up to the surface level which can be utilized by plant species.
• Increased water storage within an ecosystem generates large amounts of growth.
• Water storage can be increased via small dams in rivers and creeks and increased amounts of vegetation.
• Increased water content within vegetation decreases the likelihood of fire.
• Humans can create healthy ecosystems via creating trincheras (small dams) and pulsed grazing by cattle and bison.
Overall, Dan does a wonderful job of clearly conveying his point that humans should not abandon land, but rather manage it sustainably as it has been for thousands of years. He makes it an enjoyable read by educating the reader via the personal stories of the various members of the Lost Tribe. The reader can easily form emotional bonds with the protagonists and root for them to overcome the illogical shortcomings of many environmentalists and their leave-it-alone methodology.
Despite his great writing and examples, Dan does leave at least one large hole open to exploitation. One of this book’s major shortcomings is its lack of breadth. He focuses much of his time on comparisons between the Drake Exclosure and other managed land areas that have been rehabilitated. Therefore, it could be easily argued that his examples are myopic and may not be applicable on a larger scale. For example he never addresses rainforests or natural parks. These untouched areas seem to play vital roles in terms of ecosystem and spiritual services. He leaves the reader to decide whether or not these types of areas are best left protected or to allow humans to cultivate them.
Who should read this book?
This book raises many interesting points and educates the reader in the many ways that human interaction with the environment can be beneficial. If you are interested in water management, BoP strategies, or policy issues, then this book could be very useful in thinking about these problems.
Dan offers an interesting perspective on water management and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in this field. He discusses water absorption and storage. He starts by making the clear point that just because land is dry does not mean it will readily absorb water. In fact, he shows that the extremely dry areas of land often only absorb 25% of the moisture that falls on it. This is an important fact because ecosystem health largely hinges on the amount of moisture and water found in the soil.
Therefore, to create larger ecosystems with more running water, there needs to be substantially more plant life and water storage. Through his following examples, the reader grasps the chicken and egg relationship that plant life and water storage have with one another. Water storage is created by three different mechanisms; by absorbing precipitation, slowing down running water, and increased vegetation. Dan then uses examples to illustrate how one can modify the environment via cattle and trincheras (small dams) to increase water storage initially and how this starts a virtuous cycle that improves land health.
In addition to those interested in water management, I’d suggest this book to people who are interested in BoP economics as it relates to agriculture. Dan points out that this simple approach could be used worldwide, especially in developing countries, to turn infertile dry land into various types of crops to help support the poorest people who most often rely on their land resources for their livelihood. They often have all the resources needed, livestock, seed, and some type of cheap sustenance like hay, to turn their land into productive crops.
Lastly, this book is incredibly important to those people interested in policy as it relates to protected land. As is made clear in this book, protected land cannot be equated with healthy land and there is clear evidence that where humans have stayed for the longest period of time, fewer species of plants and animals have gone extinct or become endangered. Policy needs to be changed to reflect this basic tenet, and it is instrumental for policy makers to understand that process, as it relates to nature, does not necessarily dictate the outcome.