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A landscape ethicist answers the call of the wild

Silphium laciniatum and Amorpha on the High Line in NYC.
Rick Darke
Silphium laciniatum and Amorpha on the High Line in New York City.

We live largely in a world of neatly manicured lawns, where rows of flowers and meticulously trimmed topiary signal our commitment to order and control.

But what if we were to let things grow a bit wilder? What would happen if we could cede an element of control back to the natural world?

Rick Darke thinks it would be a whole lot cooler if we did.

Darke is an author and naturalist who describes himself as a “landscape ethicist.” He has spent years cultivating his own property in Pennsylvania into the kind of dynamic natural environment that’s increasingly rare in a world of hyper-developed lawns and gardens.

Darke describes waking up in the morning to the sight of a hawk outside his bedroom window, perched high in an Oak tree amid a thicket of other flora. He looked over to see his dog equally enraptured with the view.

“A landscape that is virtually alive like that will entertain you more than any number of plants lined up in a neat row,” Darke said.

Darke has been a practicing horticulturalist for more than 40 years. His work is grounded in observation — an ethos of responding to the natural world rather than imposing upon it. In his view, gardens and landscapes are less about maintenance than about care. That philosophy gives rise to a practice that falls naturally in sync with nature.

“Because care and stewardship are constantly reiterative, you're constantly responding to changing things,” Darke said. So much of what we understand about landscaping centers around imposing our will on the natural world rather than submitting to it. But according to Darke, there’s beauty in allowing the natural to take hold.

“You'll lose your fear of change when you give yourself over to these dynamic, resilient landscapes,” he said.

Darke will be featured during a Jan. 10 virtual event hosted by the Illinois Prairie Chapter of Wild Ones, an organization that promotes biodiversity through the preservation of native plants. In his presentation entitled, “What is wild and why it matters,” Darke will discuss the ecological and personal benefits of cultivating a wild landscape.

Darke is a big advocate for what natural landscapes can yield for fauna like foxes, hawks, and pollinators. But he also swears by the life giving benefits of cultivating and stewarding the land.

“You'll live longer; you'll live better; you'll be healthier; you'll be less stressed. You won't use as much data on your plan,” he said.

And for anyone concerned that there’s not much inspiration in the Illinois landscape, flat and unchanging as it can often appear to be, Darke said there’s plenty of material to work with.

“You can make a garden on a flat that is just spectacular. You have to think about the space, about the reveals, about the discoveries, about the directionality, about all of the dynamics between the interacting spaces on a plane. It's entirely possible to do,” he said.

Darke’s presentation “What is wild and why is matters” will be at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10. Registration information is available here.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.