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Essay

Acts of Restorative Kindness

Mary Reynolds

Mary Reynolds is a renowned landscaper and garden designer from Wexford, Ireland. She is an author, a graduate of University College Dublin in landscape horticulture, and a garden philosopher. She recounts becoming lost on her family farm as a young girl and feeling how the grasses and plants were letting her know that she was with family. That experience has never left her. Reynolds made her mark in the studied world of traditional British horticulture with her submission to the famed Chelsea Flower Show in 2002, at age twenty-eight. Her proposal to the Royal Horticultural Society was wrapped in mint leaves and read: “People travel the world over to visit untouched places of natural beauty, yet modern gardens pay little heed to the simplicity and beauty of these environments.” Her entry, “Tearmann si—A Celtic Sanctuary,” was as different as anything ever seen at Chelsea. It had druid thrones, a moon gate, and a fire bowl placed over a pond, and was surrounded by a profusion of native plants from Ireland. It was a sacred place within a wild setting. It was awarded the Gold Medal and became hugely influential in the garden world for showing us how landscapes can be created that heal our relationship to all that is precious and wild. In 2015, a biopic was made about her Chelsea exploits, Dare to Be Wild, featuring actors Emma Greenwell and Tom Hughes. It has been viewed in theaters and streamed all over the world. —P.H.

For too long we have barely acknowledged that we share the earth with millions of other life forms, rooted and unrooted, above and below the ground. Until we recognize this, wild creatures will have fewer and fewer places left to go. Agricultural land, public land, and private gardens are treated with potent chemicals that make it impossible for most life to exist. Our water systems are poisoned, our soils are being degraded to dust, blown or washed away by wind and rain, and native habitats are being depleted at a rapid rate. The steadily warming climate is forcing wild creatures to migrate in order to adapt and survive, but urban and agricultural sprawl has left them with no safe corridors to travel through. They are trapped in small island sanctuaries and they are running out of options. The Web of Life is being shredded and we two-legged creatures are inextricably tethered to that web. They go, we go.

It was a winter’s morning in Ireland when this all came home to roost, leading me to form an idea that could help anybody lucky enough to have a garden or even a window box to become part of the solution. It wasn’t the startled fox that grabbed my attention from the drawing board where I was daydreaming out the window at home that day. It was the pair of hares that were unusually chasing the fox across the garden. Soon afterward, I spotted a hedgehog scurrying along, following the hare’s path, but well tucked under the protection of the thick hawthorn hedge that edged the lawn in front of me. They all disappeared into the scrubby wildness that was one half of the land I was minding. Seeing as it was early winter and a bright midmorning, I figured something must be up for these normally hibernating and nocturnal creatures, so I went outside to investigate. I followed the direction they were coming from, and wandered to the end of my laneway, onto the quiet country road where I lived.

Not so quiet today, however. Across the road, there was once an acre of thick, impenetrable, self-willed land, dense with prickly gorse, thorny brambles, spiky hawthorn, blackthorn, and lush fern and bracken. Today, a big yellow monster of destruction had landed. My neighbors had finally gotten planning permission to build a house on the field and so they did what everyone does, they sent in a digger to clear out “the rubbish” and make a garden, without any thought for the multiple families that already called it home.

I stood there in horror, forgetting to breathe. I had done this myself so many times in so many places. For over twenty years I worked internationally as a garden designer, carrying out similar clearances everywhere I worked. It was only in that moment that I realized what I had been doing, and my career as a landscape designer, in the traditional sense, was instantly over.

I went back inside and started researching the collapse of nature. I learnt quickly that the biodiversity crisis was as insidious and dangerous as the looming threat of climate collapse. It has not been given as much attention and yet it is rapidly reducing the ability of the earth to maintain clean air and water, and to provide food and habitat for all her creatures—including us. It is happening at incredible speed, principally within the last fifty years. Multiple species are falling prey to extinction every day. They are never coming back. Some of our most beloved creatures are on the Red List of endangered species, or were. Most everyone is suffering from a phenomenon called “shifting baseline syndrome.” Within a couple of generations, we forget how abundant and alive the earth, seas, and skies used to be. How oceans were kept crystal clear by 

the vast fields of oysters on the seabed and how the waters were literally hopping with life. How the flocks of migrating birds and butterflies could block out the sun with their sheer numbers. At this rate, we will be living on an almost barren planet that we will accept as “natural” because it will be all we know. This is the Great Forgetting.

There is no sanctuary for wildlife in gardens filled with pretty, purchased “garden plants” that have not evolved within the local food web. Gardens are controlled and sprayed to the point of being a still life, with no room at the inn for anything other than our own creative visions. Unwittingly we were at war with nature; thus, at war with ourselves.

So, sitting with a cup of tea and my thoughts at the kitchen table, I came up with a plan. Great changes in history come from the ground up, from small movements of passionate and focused people. After the parade of animal refugees I had witnessed from my window that day, I started writing about a seed of an idea called “We Are the Ark” (Ark standing for Acts of Restorative Kindness to the Earth). It is a simple concept that asks people to give as much of their garden as possible back to wildness, to share it with as many other creatures as possible. To restore lands so that they are true to nature. To mimic the natural, successive processes and rebuild a network of native plants and wildlife in the island nations we call our gardens. These would be supportive corridors of hope for our nonhuman kin that are being cut off and herded to the edge of life.

It seemed quite a leap, to get people to think so differently about their gardens. To allow grasses to grow long and let the native weed-seed bank to emerge from the earth to reboot the ecosystem. To tackle nonnative invasive plants at a local level and add native plant diversity back where nature needs a hand. Native plants are the foundation stones of nature, the earth’s protective clothing. They 

give us oxygen to breathe, filter our water, clean our air, feed us, and yet we barely give them any heed unless they look pretty or taste good. Insects have intricate, specialized relationships with native plants that has a knock-on effect on everything else. We ask people to replace outdoor lights with amber-toned bulbs (or better still—darkness), to build wildlife ponds and log piles, and to consider wildlife access tunnels in the boundaries. Our Arks are about what we can do for the web of life, not what our gardens can do for us.

The key to making a movement is a simple thing that captures people’s imaginations. I ask people to put up homemade signs in their wild patches exclaiming THIS IS AN ARK so that they can remove the stigma of people seeing a messy garden. Instead, they can be proud of being part of a new and kinder world. A world where we are embracing our roles as caretakers of the earth and as many wild plants and creatures we can fit into our Arks as possible. We need to learn how to share, and where better to start than at home.

We have an informative, homemade website, a resource for people to reference and turn their garden, farm, window box, park, or school into an Ark. It tells how they can add more creature support systems depending on their abilities and the size and scope of their land. We ask that people try to step outside of the destructive food system as much as they can. To grow their own food if possible and support local, regenerative, organic producers. Nature needs as much of this earth returned to her as possible. We need to become guardians, not only gardeners.

This is something different, an action anybody with land can undertake. Hope is gold dust these days and it is astonishing to observe the speed at which nature recovers. Within months we had thousands of “Arkevists” around the world, all active members of an online group. Some Arks were as big as fifteen acres in the U.S., and one was as small as a window box full of local weed seeds in Norway. All were precious symbols of hope.

People were finding meaning and joy in their Arks. Their families had expanded to include each hedgehog, dragonfly, dung beetle, and wild weed that came to stay. Having watched how many creatures of all types came to live in the simple Arks they had restored, people were suddenly looking over the neighbor’s fences and seeing the wasted opportunities that nonnative gardens are. Unused green spaces in universities, schools, parks, and industrial estates were suddenly obvious places for Arks. People began campaigning at their local councils and schools to give over those spaces to nature, a win-win for everyone, as it required much less maintenance, if any.

In our relatively small Arks we can’t re-create wild, balanced landscapes such as those being restored on a large scale through rewilding processes. Apex predators and large herbivores are ecosystem engineers that ensure balance in the web of life. There is constant destruction and re-creation in all the stages of an ecosystem. The earth, like us, is in a constant state of death and renewal. We obviously cannot introduce larger, wild creatures into our Arks, as they cannot survive in fragmented habitats. Therefore, we must become the wolf, the deer, the beaver, and carry out the ecosystem services these creatures would normally assume. Depending on your part of the world you inhabit, it helps to learn the attributes of your local ecological systems. If you don’t have that information, a simple way of structuring your role is to create as much diversity as possible in the small Arks.

Everything you can possibly imagine already exists on this magical planet we call home. The beautiful, weird and wonderful creatures that we can and can’t see are our reason to be here now—to mind them, provide for them so that they may thrive, and that we may survive.

It’s time for human beings to step up and learn to become the weavers of the web of life, to restitch the threads we have broken. Set your land free. Build an Ark for life and your heart.