A Wilderness in Strawberry Canyon?

By: Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a horticulturist for the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, where he is responsible for maintaining…

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Nature is dead, if by nature we mean something that stands apart from man and messy history.

Michael Pollan

I am a gardener. It‘s not just what I do, but somehow, more deeply, what I am. So it is with gardener’s eyes that I have observed and photographed a “natural,” untended area in Strawberry Canyon, below the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, between Snowberry and Strawberry creeks. “Natural” is a subjective term: to my gardener’s eyes, it looks profoundly human influenced. My natural area could be fairly described as a garden of the last 150 years of mankind’s horticultural castaways and accidental introductions—sometimes benignly referred to as volunteers, brought by wind, water, and animal conveyance. Gardeners have a harsher term for such plants: weeds.

I have watched the progression of the seasons with a mixture of feelings. The lovely yellow flowers that catch my eye on a hardy, invasive shrub are appealing in themselves; yet, in the context of what they supplant and overwhelm, that curtain of yellow leaves me with sadness and dismay. The dominance of recently introduced plants is overpowering; yet, through it, we can still observe the remnants of, and can hope for, the native flora.

Outside the garden fence, in Strawberry Canyon and many other spots, “nature” is at work, proceeding from a disturbed past to an unpredictable future, mostly unfettered. Humans do not intervene to weed, fuss, prune, plant, or water. However, such laissez-faire gardening does not lead to something “natural” or “wild;” on the contrary, in this case, it has led to declining diversity and a degraded habitat, less suited to the needs of native wildlife, both vertebrate and invertebrate.

Inside the garden fence, we have created an almost entirely contrived landscape, whose maintenance requires monumental inputs of materials, know-how, and labor. Much of my time is spent in such maintenance, and I take great pains to evoke an image of the “natural” vegetation that existed here, maintenance-free, for countless millennia, but now could scarcely persist for a year without our intervention.

Nature is dead, and not even within the steep walls of the ivory tower can we rebuild it. We can approximate it, creating a vision of the past that may be subtle or idealized. Weeds, like angry masses, beat at the gates and flood through the waterways. They are catapulted through the holes in the fence. They are brought in on fur, feathers, hair, and air. They march in with their Machiavellian ways and mutter under their breath “survival of the fittest,” while tender biology students wander safely within the garden walls, wide-eyed at the marvels of the “natural world.” The Sisyphean torment of weeding my small Eden is somehow justified by providing those few, short, instructive moments.

In a few years the biology students will be pushed out of the ivory tower, over the garden fence, and into the world of “man and messy history.” I can only hope that they, too, will find the tools to build a garden out there.