I often write about the landscape where I grew up, there at the little hump of Missouri - right where the Ozarks tumble down to meet the beginning of the Mississippi Delta. As a child, and then as a teen, I was searching for knowledge about this specific landscape in which I lived. I was continually frustrated in trying to identify wild plants, understand how and where they grew, as well as any kind of horticultural knowledge about the cultivated plants I admired in books and garden magazines. Which form of wild hydrangea grew in our sinkholes? When should I prune the cherry trees in our orchard - and what varieties had any chance of fruiting with our surprise late-spring frosts? Should I plant mizuna?
People in books always seemed to have mentors - bearers of local knowledge who instructed them in the deep wisdom of place. Maybe a first nations neighbor, wise in the ways of forest and field. Maybe a grandparent. Maybe a local back-to-the-lander. Even Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies - though played for laughs - reflected a myth of deep knowledge about plants, their cultivation, their uses.
My grandparents weren’t much help. One gardened in northern Illinois with its flat plains and chocolate cake soil. The other set grew up in row houses in downtown city Saint Louis. No help there. And the country people around me didn’t know squat about the landscape in which they lived. They could tell you about growing the big three - corn, beans, wheat - which mostly involved large machinery, RoundUp and industrial quantities of nitrogen (unless the methmakers got to it first). They might have some tips for growing the biggest tomatoes (generous applications of Miracle Grow) or keeping racoons out of the sweetcorn (big guns).
The closest I came to finding about about the wild things to be found and foraged was on a spring day when we wandered down the road to take an elderly neighbor a strawberry rhubarb pie. Mary lived at the edge of the woods in a ruined trailer with her twenty-seven cats (we counted). My mother stepped gingerly up the splintered stairs, hoping they wouldn’t fail. She tapped on the door. Mary leaned out. “We brought you a pie,” my mother said. Mary looked down and considered it. “It’s a pie,” my mother said, “strawberry rhubarb. From the garden.” Mary looked confused. “It’s the time of year,” she shouted, “When I used to go out into the woods and harvest mushrooms.” I asked what kind of mushrooms, where we might find them, in what parts of the forest they might be found. But Mary’s mind had wandered on to other things. “Can’t go out anymore. Can’t even get down the steps.” She pointed to the blue tarp pulled over one side of the trailer’s roof. “Rusted through,” she shouted, “Tarp keeps the rain out.”
I never found out what kinds of mushrooms Mary used to harvest. No one in town or country had much use for knowledge about the wild things that grew. They preferred animals. Those, you could shoot, trap, or catch on a hook.
A few years later, during the mushrooming of hot takes that followed the removal of 50+ nature related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, I found myself reacting with a shrug more than anything else. While they may have had more access to unstructured play in nature, the boomers and their parents that I grew up around didn’t have any richer knowledge of the landscapes where they lived than their iphone-toting grandchildren. And this within a highly rural community that hadn’t changed much for the past 120 years. Knowledge of local environments and plants had always been shallow in North America, after the colonizers killed off the people who lived here and knew the land. The shallow of knowledge retained during colonization was erased in the Industrial Revolution, not because of cell phones.
As the cottage nurseries gave way to larger more commercial concerns, one way that such deep knowledge-building worked in the late 90s and early 00s was through personal websites and blogs. I built much of my knowledge through reading different individuals’ - some professional, some amateur - pet projects. Consider Paul Barden’s Old Garden Roses, which is now only available through the Way Back Machine. The amount of detailed information about different heritage rose varieties and Paul’s breeding experiments contained here are a phenomenal body of work that’s incredibly fragile.
A multitude of blogs emerged at this time. Miss Ruphius’ Rules (now Susan Cohan Gardens’ blog), Noel’s Gardens blog, Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design, Deborah Silver’s Dirt Simple, and others blew up my bookmarks bar with hard-won advice. The comments on blogs like ThinkinGardens and James Golden’s View from Federal Twist brought together people and ideas who are at the forefront of planting design today.
There was also an array of other wilder online spaces. I spent hours on Baker Creek Seeds’ forums - now I DigMyGarden.com - as well as some time on GardenWeb (now part of Houzz). The information on these discussion boards varied significantly in quality. It was also a great introduction to the reality of human behavior online, before we were all on the internet all the time.
Social media offered another opportunity to build knowledge - more visually oriented, perhaps, but still offering some of those enlightening conversations. From the personal blogs, discussions shifted to special interest Facebook groups. Emergent: A Group for Growing Professionals gathered professionals, particularly from horticulture and public gardens. Tony Spencer’s Dutch Dreams has assembled a wealth of people and imagery of naturalistic planting. Both have resulted in many in-person meetings and assemblies, as well as deep online conversations. Instagram and Youtube have their own vast networks of plant enthusiasts and landscape lovers.
The popularity of shows like BBC’s Planet earth and Netflix’s You vs Wild demonstrate the very human need to learn about the places and ecosystems in which we live. Citizen Science projects like iNaturalist and Audubon’s Certified Backyard Habitat program show that contemporary humans are interested in ecology and want to actively engage with it.
The poor state of knowledge about landscape today doesn’t mean that modern humans aren’t interested. Instead, it reflects that our current knowledge infrastructure fails to foster learning and curiosity. There is so much room for individuals and organizations to fill this need. And if you’re a kid today living with people who can’t tell you what that plant is that’s growing in the ditch, why it’s there or what you can do with it - the answer is out there waiting for you. Go find it!