It has taken me years to begin seeing difference in natural ecosystems—a bare ridge and a shaded forest are dissimilar enough, but one forest and another easily blur together. A horticulture degree and years of pouring over native plant ID books helped, but it was the intangibles that truly made the difference.
Looking is a slippery act: look too closely and you miss the web of connections, look too broadly and you ignore the enriching details. Look for one right way to look and you miss the boat entirely. And though I am still (and always) a student of looking, what has taught me, more than anything, how to observe the natural world is my own fumbling imitation of it. Hours of planting, weeding, watching, and loving my own cultivated spaces have taught me how to sit in a wild garden.
Anyone who has battled a weedy plot knows the power of ecosystem succession. As gardeners, we focus on curating a space of beauty, fascination and function. Meanwhile, the plants in our garden are engaged in a constant struggle for access to light, water and nutrients. We help by placing them in an auspicious site, weeding out competitors, feeding and watering them. Yet, even with our limbs and affections as allies, they sometimes fail.
The first time I entered an old-growth temperate rainforest and knew I was in an old-growth forest, I was awestruck. The gardener in me wanted to know how such fragile beauties lived in profusion there—trillium, orchids, lilies, and many others I couldn’t yet name—arranged in artful clusters on mossy stumps or as glorious trailside specimens, growing as any plant would in a weed-free utopia.
But old-growth forests, and other undisturbed ecosystems, are not utopias, nor are they static in their achievement. What impresses us in such a forest—its vaulted ceiling, open stillness, mossy softness and handsome plants—is balance, accomplished over hundreds of years of struggle similar in spirit to that which we deploy against our weedy garden beds. Such balance never stops to rest or admire itself, and it is its centered harmony, one it runs its bow back and forth across, which mesmerizes us so completely.
Forests that have been disturbed by logging, fire, landslide or other calamity grow back somewhat like our own gardens—thick and ferocious with life, specialists exploiting their particular skills, vying as individuals and as species to either capitalize on their moment in the limelight or eventually win long-term standing in that more open, tranquil place, where the may stretch into idyllic versions of themselves.
As gardeners, we are more disturbance than balance. We fancy ourselves balancers, concocting careful strategies to allow our gardeners to thrive, but each scratch of the soil is like pressing a reset button. Embrace it, for the struggle it brings is why we garden and how we earn any sense of accomplishment in our work.
Out on a rocky ledge, breathing the fresh mineral air, sitting in the white sunlight, I try to bring as little disturbance as possible. It is in such a place that my favorite type of garden grows. Alpine rock gardens, fragile and resolute, offer spectacular wildflower specimens and fabulous views to boot. The contrast of macro and micro is endlessly delightful to me—a neat foliage clump shooting out stems of brilliantly colored flowers can, with a quick shift of my gaze, give way to a long drink of conifer-covered mountains, rocky outcroppings, maybe a snowy peak.
June and July are the season for wild alpine gardens (higher elevation sites flower later than those at lower elevations, rewarding persistent hikers with many weeks of show-stopping blooms). What looks at first like a bare slope reveals itself to be a museum of highly adapted species; the alpine garden’s specimens, spread widely among cracks in rock faces and loose gravel, demand close looking and reward the careful observer with an eclectic diversity of shapes, textures and colors.
Rocky alpine gardens are not everyone’s ideal—most gardeners certainly prefer the fantastic blooms and foliage that dazzle us (and me) at nurseries and botanical gardens. Yet the sense of awe I feel in the alpine garden is as a student in the presence of a masterwork. Many alpine species are notoriously difficult (or impossible) to grow in cultivated gardens. Up on the ridge, they sit in effortless arrangement, embodying their breezy perfection in what seems like an impossible home.
Here, the wild garden teaches me to un-garden, to witness instead of act, to sink into the inimitable and shifting balance of wilderness left to its own devices.