Were the real Nazis “native-plant” Nazis?

We recently published an article about the conference of the California Native Plant Society that featured this concluding photo of Doug Tallamy’s presentation opening the conference on February 1, 2018.

Doug Tallamy’s closing photo, CNPS Conference 2018

This photo generated some discussion among the readers of Million Trees about nativism in the natural world.  Is it related to nativism in the human realm?  This is a timely question because American politics are presently consumed by anti-immigration sentiment, AKA “nativism.”  As members of our communities are unceremoniously rounded up in immigration raids and deported from America, this is an association that is getting more attention.

We are pleased to publish a guest post by Professor Art Shapiro (UC Davis) in answer to this question.  Although Professor Shapiro is a renowned expert on the butterflies of California, he is knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy and history. 

Professor Shapiro offers us a nuanced answer to the question at hand.  This is an example of a general principle about such debates:  the more we know, the more complicated every issue becomes.  I have had the pleasure of a few long conversations with Professor Shapiro that were similar experiences. Professor Shapiro teaches us that we must examine issues from every angle, considering the pros and the cons.  More often than not, we can’t reach a definitive conclusion that does the issue justice.

But I will demur on the issue of nativism.  I will venture my opinion that nativism in the natural world is ultimately as pernicious as nativism in the human realm.  They both do more harm than good.  They are both fundamentally unjust.  However, I do NOT generalize about the motivation of native plant advocates. I doubt that the majority are appropriately called “native-plant Nazis.” 

I remain grateful to Professor Shapiro for sharing his knowledge and wisdom with me and with the readers of Million Trees. 

Million Trees

Various observers have noted similarities in the rhetoric used by native-plant activists and that used by xenophobes. The comparison has generated a derisive term, “native-plant Nazis,” to describe the most strident of those opposed to the use of non-native plants in gardens. But were the real Nazis “native-plant Nazis?” The answers are rather complex and in some ways surprising.

The German Romantic Movement stressed the “organic unity” of the German people and their landscapes. In 1818 the artist Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell in his book Beitraege zur bildenden Gartenkunst (“Contributions to Instructive Garden Art”) prescribed the planting of “patriotic species” to create landscapes of “patriotic character.” The great explorer-naturalist-geographer Alexander von Humboldt referred in 1806 to vaterlaendische Pflanzengestalten (plant character reflecting the Fatherland) and stressed that “the natural character of different regions of the earth is most intimately connected with the history and culture of the human race,” a notion that persists today, as witness the excellent book Landscape and Memory, by the historian Simon Schama, and is not in itself reflective of xenophobia.

During the Romantic period the intense longing for the unification of the fragmented German polity bred not only intense patriotic feeling but a concomitant disdain for the alien. Thus Fichte argued that the Germans’ “natural disposition to freedom dates back to prehistoric times, when they had been a pure and untainted race…before the influence of foreigners and the introduction of class division.” After the establishment of the First Reich in 1871, all things German were ever more aggressively touted as superior to all else, and this included landscapes. The writer Willy Pastor and the art historian Josef Strzygowski enthusiastically promoted these ideas in the early 20th Century. Pastor invoked the Ice Age as the crucible in which the German national character was forged; the glaciers “not only influenced the racial breed of humans, but also selected trees and plants….the European primeval forest, which finally evolved as the strongest out of this severe school, was no less of Germanic, Nordic race than the people…”

Nature garden designed by Willy Lange

The quintessential embodiment of such ideas was the work of the landscape architect Willy Lange. Lange and Pastor were friends and shared their nationalistic vision. Pastor published a collection of essays entitled Lichtungen (clearings) and a book The Earth in the Time of Man, in which he argued that the natural habitat of the true Teuton is a clearing in the forest. Lange translated that view into a prescription for garden design: he utterly repudiated the formalism of most European gardens and argued instead that the ideal form of garden was a well-designed, visually pleasing simulacrum of a natural forest clearing, employing whenever possible (but not exclusively) native plants characteristic of the natural landscape. His ideas were taken up by Alwin Seifert, who rose after the Nazis came to power to be the ultimate arbiter of garden design.  In 1939 Hans Hasler’s book Deutsche Gartenkunst (German Garden Art) spelled out the essential unity of the German national soul and the surrounding environment. Heinrich Friedrich Wiepking, who held the landscape design chair at the College of Agriculture in Berlin during the war, taught this doctrine as the rationale for gardening and invoked ancient Teutonic artifacts, burial mounds, and such as proof of this essential “organic unity.” Wiepking’s student Werner Lendholt “proved” that Germans already had a refined sense of landscape unity in the Bronze Age.

The idea of the “nature garden” arose repeatedly as a byproduct of romanticism, not only in Germany but throughout Europe and even in America; it can be seen as a reaction against formalism, with its rigidity and symmetry. But only in the Reich did it become so tightly fused with nationalism. There is nothing inherently political in Lange’s definition of his philosophy as “the derivation of ideas from nature and their translation in an artistic manner into garden design.”

Lange and his successors drew inspiration from the earlier work of the Irish garden writer William Robinson, who in turn was influenced by Gertrude Jekyll. And they in turn were influenced by William Thompson, who promoted the idea of the semi-natural “English flower garden” as early as 1852. The Austrian Robert Gemboeck, beginning in the 1880s, advocated “the reproduction of nature in the garden,” and was quite influential; he gave detailed prescriptions for how to create a simulacrum of wilderness—what kind of wilderness being dependent on the soil type available.

But none of this meant that the German garden had to be composed exclusively of native plants!

The era of both Robinson and Lange was the era of the “grand tour,” and both men traveled widely and assimilated their observations into their concepts of the natural garden. Lange’s disciple Hasler wrote that the master developed his art “as a result of his experiences and knowledge he gained on a north-south tour of Europe and North Africa.” After 1907 he explicitly advocated the introduction and naturalization of plants he regarded as esthetically in harmony with the true Teutonic landscape. During the 1930s the Nazi regime, primarily under the guidance of Heinrich Himmler, sponsored a series of famous expeditions to the Himalaya. There were several reasons for doing so. Himmler was entranced by the crackpot Welt-Eis Lehre (world ice theory) of Hanns Hoerbiger, which amplified the Romantic notion of the Ice Age as the crucible of German character. Himmler was interested in learning as much as possible about the Ice Age by studying what he viewed as the people living most like the ancient Teutons: the Tibetans, whom he imagined to be a pure and unadulterated race. But a subsidiary objective of the expeditions was to collect living material of Himalayan plants deemed suitable for naturalization in the Fatherland. In a sense, this represented an attempt to restore an imagined Edenic past.

Only those non-native plants judged to be inconsistent with the German landscape-character nexus, as largely defined by Alwin Seifert, were to be excluded. Seifert’s official title was Reichslandschaftsanwalt, or national landscape advocate. When he first received the title he presented two proposals to his superior, Fritz Todt: one embraced the use of non-native plants while the other did not. Seifert is a complex and problematic figure. He was anti-Semitic but never a really enthusiastic Nazi and he had a strong independent streak which often led him into trouble. He was a passionate advocate of organic gardening and sympathetic to anthroposophy, the cultish philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (today best known for the Waldorf School movement). His many contradictions led his biographer Thomas Zeller to call him “The Nazis’ environmental court jester and Cassandra, rolled into one.” His attitude on non-native plants hardened somewhat late in his tenure, when he took to calling Colorado blue spruce “public enemy #1.”

There was much in German garden philosophy and design to be admired, if one strips out the pugnacious racial and nationalistic rhetoric. There is really little difference from the natural-garden traditions developed elsewhere. Nazi Germany, early in its history, enacted what would today be characterized as the most progressive legislation in the world dealing with conservation, esthetics, and environmental health. Hence we have such books as The Green and the Brown and How Green Were the Nazis? that explore the contradiction between those facts and everything else we know about the regime. The contradiction becomes less bizarre when we remember the roots of Nazism in the Romantic movement.

At any rate, the real Nazis were never thoroughgoing “native-plant Nazis!”

Arthur M. Shapiro

Further Reading:

Bruggemeier, F.-J. and M. Cioc. 2005. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment and Nation in the Third Reich. Ohio University Press.

Uekoetter, F. 2006. The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany. Cambridge University Press.

Wolschke-Bulmahn, J. 1992. The ‘wild garden’ and the ‘nature garden’ – aspects of the garden ideology of William Robinson and Willy Lange. Journal of Garden History 12: 183-206.

Wolschke-Bulmahn, J. 1997. Nature and Ideology: Natural Garden Design in the Twentieth Century. Dumbarton Oaks collection on the history of landscape architecture, vol. 18.

Stevie Nicks, Naturalized Species, and the future of the biosphere

Professor Arthur M. Shapiro, at work, UC Davis

Art Shapiro is no stranger to the long-time readers of Million Trees.  Professor Shapiro is Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at UC Davis, and a renowned expert on the butterflies of California.  He is the author of a seminal, frequently cited study of California butterflies that reported the results of 30 years of observing butterflies in his research transects. (1)  He summarized this study in his Field Guide to the Butterflies of the San Francisco and Sacramento Valley Regions:

“California butterflies, for better or worse are heavily invested in the anthropic landscape [altered by humans].  About a third of all California butterfly species have been recorded either ovipositing [laying eggs] or feeding on nonnative plants.  Roughly half of the Central Valley and inland Bay Area fauna is now using nonnative host plants heavily or even exclusively.  Our urban and suburban multivoltine [multiple generations in one year] butterfly fauna is basically dependent on ‘weeds.’  We have one species, the Gulf Fritillary that can exist here only on introduced hosts.  Perhaps the commonest urban butterfly in San Francisco and the East Bay, the Red Admiral is overwhelmingly dependent on an exotic host, pellitory. And that’s the way it is.”

 Professor Shapiro has given us permission to reprint his Amazon review of the most recently published critique of invasion biology, Inheritors of the Earth, by Professor Chris Thomas (University of York, United Kingdom).  We recommend Professor Thomas’s book to our readers.  Although it is learned, it is accessible to the general public.  This book is another step forward in the long march to acceptance of the reality of existing landscapes that are adapted to present climate conditions.

 Million Trees

2011 Chris Thomas published a paper in the journal “Trends in Ecology and Evolution” entitled “Translocation of species, climate change, and the end of trying to recreate past ecological communities.” I immediately e-mailed him (April 11, 2011): “I have been delivering the same message in my advanced courses in Community Ecology and Biogeography for years, and have found the students by-and-large highly receptive, especially when they have internalized the overwhelming evidence for wild fluctuations in climate and vegetation since the end of the Ice Age 10-20,000 years ago. But over and over I have been told ‘but of course that is not the Party line…restoration ecology,’ blah, blah….Thank you for giving me a respectable citation, since merely citing one’s self can never do.” He e-mailed back: “…the conservation community in Britain seems mainly to be treating me with bewildered patience! I think that it will take time for everyone to become re-programmed to accept change as a reality.”

But of course change is not only a reality, it is the norm in ecology. Belief in equilibrium states and a “balance of nature” has been a dogma without a rationale beyond sentimentalism for many decades. There are coevolved segments of communities that are intimately synchronized and interdependent (say, figs and fig wasps or yuccas and their moth pollinators), but a great deal of any community is the product not of coevolution but of what Dan Janzen calls “ecological fitting,” whereby things haphazardly thrown together by the vicissitudes of geology, climate or commerce just happen to click. We are surrounded all over the globe by functioning communities and ecosystems with little to no history in geologic time. For about 40 years I have asked my students on their final exam how one might go about telling the difference between coevolved communities and “communities” assembled by chance. It is an exceedingly difficult question.

So this book is an expansion of the TREE [Trends in Ecology and Evolution] paper, and its message is vital. Resources for conservation are limited, and one must prioritize. The vast majority of naturalized alien species are harmless and many may be potentially beneficial. The ones that are genuinely harmful should be fought tooth and nail, but of course we do that anyway–we call it “pest management” and “public health.” The blanket indictment of “invasive species” makes no more sense than the blanket condemnation of human immigrants. Of course, when we say this, Thomas and I and Fred Pearce and “that Marris woman!” are immediately called out as shills for the extractive industries or the nursery industry or the Bilderbergers or the Zelosophists (conspiracy theory villains!!) or some despicable cartel of nature-haters. Pure poppycock. Truth-tellers attract trolls. That’s just the way it is.

Quite a few years ago a group of us took a prominent visiting British ecologist (not Thomas) on a field trip to the Sierra Nevada. We had half a dozen grad students and a few faculty crammed in a van. On the way up, one of the students sort-of apologized for the predominance of naturalized alien plant species in the lower foothill landscape. Our guest demurred forcefully: “Why must you consider this some kind of tragedy? Why don’t you see it as an opportunity for all kinds of evolutionary novelty to arise?” Indeed.
Thomas asks (p. 104): “How long will it be before the environmental police force of ecologists and conservationists is prepared to step back and decriminalize introduced species that have had the temerity to be successful?” An excellent question.

Stevie Nicks got over her fear of change: “Time makes you bolder…children get older…I’m getting older too.” Maybe conservationists can mature after all.

Arthur Shapiro

Professor Thomas’s book is very much in the mainstream.  The Economist magazine included it in their list of important books published in 2017.  It is one of only a few books in the category of “Science and technology” and it is at the top of the list.  The Economist says of the book, “Humans have consigned species to extinction at an alarming rate.  But hybridization and speciation is happening quickly too.  An ecologist at the University of York shows how humans are bringing about a great new age of biological diversity.  Extinctions ain’t what they used to be.”

The New York Times published a review of “Inheritors…” on New Year’s Eve.  The reviewer summarizes Thomas’s main argument: “He argues that new species are arriving and evolving faster than old species are dying out globally…Instead of the sixth extinction, it’s a sixth genesis.”  The reviewer faults Thomas for not portraying the “wonder of nature” and for giving oceans short shrift.  But, the reviewer concludes with this observation about the unhelpful role that humans often play in conservation efforts: “It is human concerns that determine everything here on Earth now.  An animal that arrived in a particular location hundreds or thousands of years ago is fine with us, while a more recent immigrant, like garlic mustard, is cause for alarm and extensive campaigns to extirpate the interloper.  Nostalgia is deadly, as people kill to preserve or restore some ill-remembered but more natural past, and we disdain new species as weeds.”  That observation about human attempts to control nature says it all.  Plants and animals are not to blame for the damage we are doing to satisfy our ideological commitment to the distant past. They are symptoms of change, not the cause of change.

Happy New Year!

Million Trees

Update:  Professor Thomas gave a presentation to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco on June 19, 2018.  HERE is a video of the introduction to his presentation.
And HERE is a presentation at the National Academy of Sciences, “Moving Times for the World’s Biodiversity.”
If you haven’t read his book, his presentation is a good summary of the issues he covers in his book.  MT

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel. Courtesy urbanwildness.org

  1. Arthur M. Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation,110, 413-433, 2003