For Earth Day: Who Cares?

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

I admit it. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. As I’ve grown older, I find it more challenging to have faith in humanity.

What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed every day – are the wild ones – the animals and plants that share my five acres of southeastern piedmont green chaos with me.

But as much as I love my green world, I am also deeply worried about its long-term survival. Climate change is undeniable and accelerating rapidly. Massive deforestation due to the invasion of concrete and asphalt throughout the world – and definitely in my region – grows every day, leaving the wild ones nowhere to live.

I am wondering how long my native wonderland will hang on when the world it evolved to inhabit disappears. As dramatic temperature swings become increasingly common, as record snowfalls are followed by record drought followed by record rainfall, how will the tulip poplars that prefer evenly moist ground and relatively cool – but not cold – sites survive? How will tadpoles that rely on ephemeral spring pools to shelter their metamorphoses become the frogs we rely on to devour summer’s abundant insects? What will the berry-loving bird species – that also dine on myriad insects – eat if the native food plants they rely on don’t set fruit because of late killing freezes? Where will the deep-rooted oaks, pines, hickories, and maples find water when prolonged 100-degree summers don’t deliver significant rain for months?

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

I am worried, because most of the people around me don’t seem to care. Most of the folks I meet at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, even at the public garden where I volunteer to answer plant-related questions from visitors are plant-blind. Most cannot distinguish an oak tree from a maple, much less determine if the species is native or non-native. And they see nothing wrong with that. They are oblivious to the environmental context in which they live – the context they share with native animals and plants that struggle to survive in a world made increasingly hostile by the utter indifference of the humans that have intruded upon their habitats.

Native or non-native?

Native or non-native?

Every day, I see examples of this profound indifference/ignorance. Recently, a woman on my neighborhood chatlist posted a recommendation for an exterminator company that she employs to spray insecticide all over her yard once a month, ostensibly, to kill ticks and mosquitoes.

Perhaps she recently relocated to my area from a part of the US where the summertime insects are less prevalent. Folks who grew up in my region understand that summer bugs are the price we pay for mild winters and lush forests. She wants, I imagine, to enjoy her outdoor patio in the summer while wearing her summer outfits, and she doesn’t want to get bitten. She thinks she’s being environmentally sensitive, because the exterminator says the poison used doesn’t kill bees.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

I went to the exterminator’s Web site to learn the name of the pesticide they use, then researched it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide database, the insecticide in question does not kill bees outright, but the poison does accumulate in their beeswax. I doubt that’s a good thing, but there was worse news. The insecticide in question – at any concentration – is known to be fatal to all aquatic life – that’s anything that lives in our creeks, ponds, rivers, ephemeral streams, etc. That’s a lot of frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and fish that won’t be around to eat the insects this woman is apparently so worried about. In exchange for being able to sunbathe without being possibly bitten by a bug, this woman is absolutely willing to kill all aquatic life within range of the monthly poison being applied to her yard – which the exterminators spray 30 feet into the treetops, by the way, because, they say, that’s where the bugs hide. I doubt it’s great for the insect-eating nesting birds that are probably in those trees too, however. Or the squirrels, possums, bats – you get the idea.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Unless we all begin to understand that the battle cannot be Man versus Nature anymore, both sides are going to lose. Some experts I know believe we are already teetering on the edge of an avalanche of cascading impacts that – once begun – will be unstoppable. Some people may believe humanity can outwit Nature with technical innovations. But if the climate becomes unpredictably erratic and most ecosystems die, how will we produce food? What will pollinate crops? Where will the clean water come from? How will healthy soil chemistry be maintained when the life that controls those processes mostly dies?

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

So often these days, I meet people who distrust science. They seem to think it is a belief system, equivalent to religious ideology. They therefore feel entitled to reject uncomfortable scientific facts, such as what climate change is doing to our world. Or they think the natural world exists to serve as accessories to their outdoor “decor.” Not infrequently, I am asked questions like, “What tree can I grow in my yard that will only be 15-feet high, produce red – not pink – flowers in July, and have evergreen leaves?” They seem to think they can place an order for a plant in the same way they order a new outfit, or a refrigerator.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

I believe that our last hope for a healthy Earth can only come in the form of a transformational paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the thinking of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It requires that we all accept the reality that we inhabit complex ecosystems that are not infinitely resilient. They require constant nurturing.

And there is one thing that any human who owns/controls a piece of land can start doing today. If you’re not growing crops or raising livestock (ideally, sustainably), populate your land with mostly (or all) native plant species. Even if you only own a quarter-acre lot, you can contribute to the health of our ailing planet by providing places for dwindling native insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, and plant species to survive.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters safe habitat in which to reproduce.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters with safe habitat in which to reproduce.

In my region of the southeastern US, eliminate or reduce your ecologically inert fescue lawns. Dig out the boxwoods, English ivy, Asian wisteria – all the non-natives – and replace them with some of the beautiful, well-adapted shrubs, trees, and wildflowers that evolved in our region. When your yard is a balanced system of native plants, insects will not overrun you, because the insect-eating animals will appear to devour them. Restoring balance to your home landscape by welcoming in native species will transform the environmental health of our region, and ultimately result in less work and lower costs for land- and homeowners.

Going native is not about being “politically correct,” or “green,” or “liberal,” or whatever pejorative term the defenders of the status quo use this week to characterize this strategy. Going native is now about ensuring the physical survival of plants and animals upon which we rely directly and indirectly. In my curmudgeonly opinion, it is time to paradigm-shift – or die.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

I know that the kind folks who read my ramblings here (and I appreciate you all), already understand how imperiled our world is. I know most of you are like me – lifelong gardeners and lovers of the natural world. What I don’t know is how we can persuade the plant-blind, the bug-phobic, and the rigid, traditional landscapers to see the need for this planetary transformation to a world that preserves and restores every sliver of green we have left into vibrant native ecosystems. I do know that if we don’t come up with paradigm-shifting solutions very soon, there won’t be much world left to care about.

Transform or die.

Transform or die.

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  1. #1 by Laura Cotterman on April 26, 2016 - 1:00 pm

    Hi Catherine! Sounds like one of the best things you could do is to engage in conversations with that neighbor, working up to an eventual explanation of why the pesticides are ultimately destructive to her own future, and at the very least, the birds and beauty that she probably loves….yes, a challenge

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on April 26, 2016 - 1:29 pm

      Hi, Laura.

      I actually did that via the forum, and got many thank-yous and statements of agreement from other neighbors. From this one — radio silence. But perhaps she is reconsidering privately. One can hope. Thanks for stopping by!

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