Posts Tagged Earth Day
Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.
Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”
When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.
I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.
On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.
You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.
Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.
On this blog on past Earth Days, I have mounted what I call my green pulpit to preach about the struggling biosphere on our beleaguered planet. Frankly, I am so discouraged by what humanity is allowing to happen these days that I almost didn’t bother to write anything today. But a recent local event motivated this post.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on the same wonderful five acres for 29 years. Because we live beside a perennial creek with an adjacent wetland, beavers have moved into our immediate area several times. Photos throughout this post are of the current beaver pond adjacent to our property. The transformations they manifest on the local environment are immediate and mostly wonderful. From a human perspective, though, because they cut down and eat trees and raise water levels to flood multiple acres, they are often considered a nuisance.
About ten years ago, the last healthy 1000-acre stand of forest near our house was erased and replaced with a truly enormous subdivision full of houses packed so closely together that I am sure neighbors can hear each other with the windows tightly shut. Yards are tiny and all look alike, adhering, no doubt, to strict HOA rules. Frankly, the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.
But the California company that erected this monstrosity over fierce objections from the local community was clever. They market this massive people prison as “nature-friendly,” because they left alone small patches of forest around creeks and wetlands (where they couldn’t build houses easily anyway). They built trails through it, and I gather it is used heavily by residents. In fact, many of the residents claim they chose to live there because they are “nature lovers.”
One border of this suburban nightmare is less than a mile from my house, so it is no surprise that the creeks that run through it host a healthy beaver population. Recently, beaver activity there covered one of the expensive pedestrian bridges in their trail system, and the HOA voted to have the beavers exterminated, which created such an uproar from some of the residents that their protests gained local news coverage, and the HOA has temporarily halted their extermination plans pending further review of possible solutions to “the beaver problem.”
On this Earth Day, I describe this to you because I am flummoxed by the ability of the residents of this massive subdivision to see trees but no forest. In other words, they pick and choose what bits of the natural world they like and which parts they dislike, oblivious to the reality that nature is a system of complexly interlocking parts that evolved over spans of time beyond their easy comprehension.
These residents have decided they like beavers. But these same residents team up in blocks to get a group rate on poison applications in their yards to kill ticks and mosquitoes. The poison doesn’t outright kill honeybees, but it is concentrated in their honey. More important, the poison, which is sprayed 30 feet high into the trees, also kills aquatic animals like fish and frogs (big mosquito eaters). Imagine what it likely does to nesting birds!
So on the one hand, these beaver-lovers are fighting to save the wetlands created by these industrious rodents, while simultaneously poisoning that environment, all because they want to be able to sit on their patios without being bothered by the insects that are a key food for that aquatic environment.
These same residents trap squirrels visiting their bird feeders and release them elsewhere. This is illegal, by the way, but also demonstrates ignorance of ecology. If you remove squirrels, more squirrels will move into the vacated spaces. I guarantee it.
Another resident of this suburban monstrosity told me of the big argument she had with a pesticide company over not spraying poisons in her house. She told me that it is apparently a selling point of this subdivision that all the homes are constructed with pipes running through the walls. Once a month a pesticide company hooks up its tank of poison to the outlet to these pipes and fumigates inside the walls to kill any insect foolish enough to consider moving in.
As for ticks — which I readily admit are significant disease vectors — balanced ecosystems are less likely to be overwhelmed by them. White-tailed deer and white-footed mice are two key transporters of ticks. Both species are very happy dining on over-fertilized lawns and shrubbery and beneath messy bird feeders. Adding clusters of native shrubs that feed and shelter birds and reducing lawns in favor of, say, small pollinator gardens of flowers would help dwindling insect and bird populations and reduce the need for supplemental bird feeding except during winter months when food is scarce. Small brush piles provide habitat for birds and opossums — known by ecologists as “tick vacuums,” because when they are present, the ticks they pick up are eliminated by their meticulous grooming habits.
To all these residents who moved here from elsewhere, I ask you to embrace the fact that you now live in the southeastern United States. Our mild climate means insects thrive year-round. We who grew up here know this and long ago adapted to that reality. When you attempt to kill or remove every animal that you don’t like, your choices impact more than just those target species. You hurt the environment you profess to love. You hurt the home of those furry rodents you have anthropomorphized into your friends. This is not an either-or situation. Nature is a system, an orchestra composed of myriad instruments, a chorus of many voices. The richness of the song is diminished every time you exterminate a voice. The viability of the entire system becomes more fragile every time you impose your will onto the environment that supports all of us.
On this Earth Day, I implore my neighbors to embrace all of Nature’s parts, whether or not they inconvenience you. If you can find a way to co-habit with beavers, that’s great. But if at the same time you do not protect the health of the wetlands they create by ceasing to poison and over-fertilize your yards, by replacing biologically sterile lawns with native flowers, shrubs, and trees that support wildlife, by learning the names of all the native plants, animals, birds, and insects in your environment and teaching those names to your children, then you are merely killing your beloved beavers by slower methods than those planned by your HOA.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wilderness – empty, untamed land unaffected by humans – no longer exists anywhere on Earth. No spot, however remote it might seem, remains untouched by the hand of man. Although an increasingly obvious reality for some time, a recent study by Haddad et. al at NC State University (Habit Fragmentation and its Lasting Impact on Earth’s Ecosystems) provides compelling evidence.
Haddad and his colleagues looked at data for ecosystems all over the world. They found that 70% of existing forestlands are within a half mile of forest edges. Think about that. In most forests all over the world, you can stand in the middle of the tract and you’ll be only a half mile from its outer edge.
When these researchers assembled a map of global forest cover, they found very few forested areas that were not impacted by human urbanization/farming/ranching/mining/roads – some kind of human development. Even more alarming, almost 20% of the world’s remaining forestlands are no more than the length of a football field – about 100 meters – from a forest edge. To my mind, such areas are not forests anymore; they are woodlots at best. The study’s conclusion: no wilderness remains.
Trees are trees, right? Wrong, my friends. This is why we are in trouble. As I wrote here, the plant-blind humans among us far outnumber those of us who can distinguish native species from non-native invasive ones. We know green does not equate to healthy.
More Bad News from this Study
The intricate interweaving of plants and animals, fungi and bacteria evolved over millennia. These complex interdependencies are not fully understood for all ecosystems, but this recent study provides some staggering results. They looked at ecosystem data from all over the world – everything from forests to grasslands – over time spans encompassing decades of collected data. Impacts varied with the fragility of the ecosystem being studied, but in a mere 20 years, some ecosystems showed a decline in plant and animal species of 50% – or higher!
In the Blink of an Eye
Think about that. In two measly decades, over half the native plant and animal components of ecosystems were gone. Many species require a minimum amount of land – unfragmented land – to maintain themselves. Now that these ecosystems have been chopped into tiny bits – ghosts of their former selves – the native flora and fauna cannot adapt. The interdependencies that evolved over millennia are being destroyed in 20 years. And the pace of destruction, the demise of species, is accelerating every hour of every day.
Your Child’s Future
Do you have children? Grandchildren? By the time they are adults, the natural world you have likely taken for granted all your life will be gone. Its transformation is already underway.
So what? say the plant blind. We still have trees. We still have animals. We can still grow food, drink the water, live comfortably. Maybe you can, in some parts of the world – for now. But this study notes that as ecosystems fail, the critical functions they provide disappear. The amount of nutrients and carbon sequestered by ecosystems will change, likely resulting in imbalances we’ve never before experienced. Water quality and availability are adversely impacted as the species and the habitats they evolved in to filter and sequester that critical resource disappear. The demise of forests results in air quality degradation and temperature increases, which lead to higher energy costs for cooling and unexpected adverse effects on native species such as this.
Can’t we just add in some other plants and animals from elsewhere to do the job?
Substituting other non-native species won’t solve the problem. Those species evolved in different ecosystems. Plant and animal species are not interchangeable components that you can plug in when gaps appear.
Irrefutable evidence of the adverse effects of ecosystem fragmentation can be found easily via your favorite search engine. Here are a couple of links for you to ponder:
Adapting to the New Reality
On this Earth Day, 2015, we must all face this new reality. We must all act together to ameliorate the effects of our actions for the sake of our children, and for the sake of the planet. Every individual can participate in planetary repairs, ecosystem by ecosystem.
What You Can Do Today
Here in the southeastern United States, most of us live on land that was once forested. Plants and animals native to our area mostly evolved to live within forests. If you want to ensure the continuation of the southeastern forest and its native inhabitants (and therefore your water and air quality), consider taking these steps.
- If you are a homeowner with a yard, remove as many non-native invasive plant species from your property as you can. Don’t know a privet from a holly? That’s no excuse. Online resources with photos and advice abound. Search this blog for posts on our invasive species to get you pointed in the right direction.
As you eliminate the non-native invasive species, replace them with native species adapted for your specific growing conditions. Resources are everywhere to help you with this, but you must decide to make this a priority. The goal here is to provide food and shelter for native animals and plants.
- Minimize the size of your lawn. Yes, I know this is suburban heresy, but as I wrote here, it is essential that everyone stop wasting space and resources on this non-native monocrop that occupies space needed by our native ecosystems and contributes significantly to the pollution of our streams. Forget what the real estate “experts” have told you. If you want your children to live in a world with clean air and water, lose the lawns. Now.
- Work to ensure that neighborhoods are interconnected with greenways, so that native plants and animals have a safe migration path. These greenways can connect forest fragments together to provide more room for more natives to survive. Simply allocating green space and putting in a walking trail is not enough. Most greenways are riddled with invasive exotic species. In my area, even so-called progressive towns like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC are overrun by invasive non-native species along their greenways, especially areas that follow creeks and ponds.
If all neighborhoods would adopt an adjacent greenway and make it their mission to eradicate invaders and re-plant natives, healthy ecosystems could be restored to these areas. Get your local youth groups involved – Boy and Girl Scouts, church and school groups, etc. Imagine the beauty and vigor of such restored areas! I’ve seen it done at the NC Botanical Garden, where staff and volunteers have been chipping away for decades at contaminated forests they manage. Wildflowers return, waterways clear. You and your neighbors can do this for your adjacent woodlands.
- Learn the names of the native plants and animals on your property and on adjacent properties. Teach those names to your children and grandchildren. This is the only way to combat plant blindness. This is the only way to teach people how to distinguish a healthy ecosystem from a green desert devoid of natives and overrun by invaders.
- Do you live in an apartment, maybe in an urban area? You can still help. Are your local parks full of non-native plants? Can you volunteer to help park staff eradicate invasive species? Research and implement urban green-scaping. This process is well underway in Europe. Green walls and roofs provide havens for wildlife while cooling and cleaning the air and reducing rainwater runoff.
- Support the nonprofit organizations working to preserve and protect the ecosystems we still have. You can’t go wrong by supporting your local branch of The Nature Conservancy, but odds are high smaller, local conservation organizations are also working to preserve ecosystems in your area. Don’t forget groups like the National Audubon Society or other wildlife preservation non-profits. If you don’t have dollars to donate, volunteer your time. These groups always need help. Bring your children with you when you volunteer if they are old enough to help. Pitching in to save what is left must become a habit across generations if it is going to work.
I Know We Can Do This!
Everything I’ve written in this blog over the years applies to the issues I’ve described today. That’s why I garden mostly with well-adapted native plants (and a few choice non-natives with proven non-invasive tendencies). That’s why I garden organically, so that native insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, etc. can live and flourish in my artfully constructed home ecosystem. That’s why I rejoice every time a new native animal or plant species shows up in my yard – right where it should be, validating that my efforts to rebuild healthy habitats are working. My yard is not Biltmore Gardens, nor would I want it to be. My five acres are beautiful, mildly chaotic, and perpetually changing. They vibrate with life and health, and I work most every day to keep them that way.
Gardeners Can Lead the Way
We gardeners must lead the way to this new reality. We must teach the plant-blind to see beyond green to the beauty and power of a Water Oak, the painterly colors of deciduous azaleas, the pollinator allure and purple pizzazz of Coneflowers. By choosing to nurture these natives in our gardens, we demonstrate daily why we love and value our healthy home ecosystems, and why we must preserve them for the sake of those who come after us.
I know we can do this in our yards, greenways, woodlots, urban parks, and even the edges of soccer fields. Join me in preserving what is left of our native ecosystems for yourselves, your children, and our planet.
Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.
Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.
People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.
Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.
Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.
Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.
Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.
Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)
The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.
Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.
Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.
The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.
This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.
Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.
Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.
Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.
The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.
Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.
Do it for the Earth.
Do it today.
I’m reasonably certain that’s a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This early-blooming spring ephemeral wildflower usually starts blooming just a day or two before the American trout-lilies in a moist woodland at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. I’ve always thought them to be exquisitely delicate and lovely, and they were on my “Add Someday” list for our five acres of Piedmont chaos. No longer.
Yesterday, Wonder Spouse and I stumbled across two tiny blooming specimens in the middle of our currently moist floodplain. We haven’t mowed there yet, because we’re still picking up fallen limbs from winter storms, which is probably why it managed to push out flowers in time for us to notice. The Spring Beauties at the NC Botanical Garden grow in what becomes deep shade as the floodplain canopy trees above them leaf out. Our volunteers are in a sunnier locale, near a large pine, perhaps enough to give them afternoon summer shade. From this difference, I conclude that Spring Beauties require moisture more than shade.
Our volunteers likely found their way via floodwaters from our little creek, which is only about ten feet from their growing site, in an area that overflows whenever the creek waters escape their banks. We could not be happier to have this native join us: another native to love.
Wonder Spouse and I spent several hours wandering the floodplain/wetland habitats of our yard yesterday, because this is the time of year when their health is demonstrated by the ecological diversity of the beautiful native plants that thrive in the muck. Indeed, there is much to love in a healthy native wetland. There’s also much to worry about: invaders. Non-native, alien species remain the number two threat to healthy native environments world-wide (after outright destruction), and in my yard, we battle invaders constantly.
From Beauties to Bullies
Some battles are nearly hopeless. Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass are so aggressively pervasive in our North Carolina woodlands and backyards that the best most of us can do is to try to keep them out of selected areas — a favorite flowerbed perhaps, or a beloved tree, in the case of Japanese Honeysuckle.
Battles Still Worth Fighting
In my wetland/floodplain areas, the invader we are still fighting — so far, successfully <knock wood> is Chinese privet. This evergreen, common hedge shrub of older homes produces blue-purple berries that birds adore. They distribute seeds everywhere, but the privets are most dangerous to floodplain/wetland environments. In some areas in eastern North Carolina, the understory composition of vast acres of wetlands has been completely overtaken by invading privet. Because these non-natives are evergreen, they outcompete wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings for light and other resources. Eastern North Carolina wetlands are becoming biological deserts, consisting of nothing but privet beneath canopy trees. When those trees die, no seedling trees will replace them, because they can’t compete successfully with privet. Eventually, our eastern wetland landscape will consist of miles and miles of nothing but privet.
Plant invaders are overlooked by most folks, because their progress is slower than, say, invading Emerald Ash Borers or Sudden Oak Death. To the untrained eye, green is green. But native animals and plants know how critical the differences are. If you love your southeastern Piedmont landscape, you should know too.
Whenever Wonder Spouse and I walk around our yard, we keep a sharp eye out for Chinese privets (Ligustrum sinense). Seedlings appear constantly, typically beneath trees, where birds deposit the seeds after feasting on privet fruits elsewhere. Yesterday, we spotted several larger shrubs that we had somehow overlooked previously. Greens blend together, and in crowded thicket areas (left for animal nesting habitat), a privet sometimes escapes our notice — for a while. I am especially vigilant in my hunt for this species in my wetland and along the edges of my creek. These areas are most vulnerable to this devastating invader.
While hunting privet yesterday, I was disturbed to discover that some of the Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) invading the top of our hill have made it to the floodplain and wetlands. This pernicious invader has taken over many acres of upland environments, such as ridge tops, in my part of the southeastern Piedmont. This species and its close cousins (E. angustifolia and E. pungens) are all non-native shrub species. All are very bad news for the local environment, despite the berries that birds eat with gusto.
Wonder Spouse grabbed his trusty Weed Wrench and went to work on the invading Elaeagnus shrubs, pulling out long-rooted invaders from mucky ground, accompanied by a rather satisfying sucking sound.
Note the flowers just opening on this one:
This was a larger one that put up considerable resistance before Wonder Spouse prevailed:
A New Enemy
And, there’s more bad news for my little patch of Piedmont: Asiatic Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). This relatively recent annual invader was introduced by the nursery trade. It was probably inevitable, given the number of plants from nurseries that I’ve added over the decades, that this horrifyingly aggressive invader would appear on our property.
To the casual eye, the basal rosette of jagged leaves of Youngia looks quite like that of a Dandelion. But if you look a little more closely, the dangerous differences become evident. It sends up clusters of small yellow flowers on bloom stalks. Dandelions only produce one, much larger yellow flower per stalk. Seeds of Asiatic Hawksbeard look somewhat like those of a Dandelion; they are both attached to white tufts that allow them to float far on breezes. But Hawskbeard seed tufts, like its flowers, are much smaller — and uglier — than those of Dandelions.
I know you’re thinking this is just one more lawn weed, right? Not really. Unlike our common non-native weeds — Dandelion, Henbit, Chickweed, Lambs Quarters — Asiatic Hawksbeard spreads much, much more aggressively. Its basal rosettes are dangerously easy to overlook, and now the experts tell me that they are moving into our dwindling natural areas. In these diminishing patches of native forest, Asiastic Hawksbeard is joining Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle, and larger invaders in displacing native wildflowers and other small native plants. Every new invading plant means more competition for food, light, and water for our natives. With no natural predators to slow them down here, their eventual takeover seems a near certainty.
Asiatic Hawksbeard has a taproot similar to that of a Dandelion, and if you don’t get it all when you pull it, the plant will regenerate. Also, you can’t just toss pulled Hawksbeards onto your compost pile. Flowers and even nearly-open flower buds finish their cycle and release seeds into the environment even after they’re pulled. Knowing this, I spent many, many hours last year carefully digging out this new invader from my yard wherever I found it. Every plant went immediately into a trash bag, which I tied and left in the hot sun to fry before adding it to my trash can. Despite my efforts, the Youngia is much more pervasive now that it was last year. And I’m seeing it in all parts of my yard now, whereas, last year, it was confined to only certain areas. The basal rosettes have a distinctive yellow cast, and the leaves are slightly fuzzy. I’ve become quite adept at spotting them. Next winter, whenever we spot one, Wonder Spouse and I are planning to resort to treating them with Round-up. Wonder Spouse and I are ridiculously outnumbered, and this is a war we don’t want to lose.
Reasons to Keep Fighting
And there is so very much to lose. On this Earth Day, let me leave you with a few positive images from our still-healthy wetland, where the wildflowers and other plants are wakening to warming weather with enthusiasm for another growing season.
On this Earth Day — and every day — I will continue to love the diverse and beautiful native species that bless my property. And I will battle non-native invaders as long as I can breathe. Clean water and air can’t exist without the help of healthy native environments — especially wetlands. Do your part today and every day by eradicating invaders in your yard. To learn more about invaders in Southeastern North America, start here.
I admit I become a tad cranky when someone trying to score political points uses pejorative terms like tree-hugger, eco-nut, and granola-lover to describe those of us who care about the natural world. Some even try to redefine the term environmentalist to connote someone who is irrational about preserving the quality of our environment. This is, of course, untrue.
In fact, many environmentalists are like me. We are trained in the sciences – in my case, both more concrete sciences like biology and chemistry, as well as social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology. We usually have deeper knowledge of certain fields – in my case, ecology, botany, and animal behavior.
Most of us either grew up immersed in the natural environment of our homeland, or we fell in love with the natural world as adults when we traveled to places where native beauty still sings more loudly than bulldozers and car horns.
We are quite sane, those of us who love and worry about the blue-green planet we call home. But I understand why we are portrayed otherwise.
We humans – like other animals of this planet – possess an ancient, innate reflex that I call Them-or-Us. We tend to instantly categorize ideas and people into those two camps. Either something is like us, or it is not. If it is not, it is an enemy that should be eliminated so that more will remain for us.
Those who make a living by selling a particular point of view often use this reflex to manipulate folks into doing what they want. For example, those whose business it is to promote tapping oil, gas, and coal buried deep below do so with a well-used, successful two-pronged approach.
First, they assign an economic value to the asset they want to exploit, say, natural gas, thereby isolating it from its natural context. In other words, they assign a high dollar value to the gas, and strongly imply that everything else there – the hills, waters, forests, animals, etc., do not have value, or their value is so much less as to be inconsequential.
After they succeed in making it a “fact” that the natural gas is the only resource of value in a particular area, they then hit the Them-or-Us reflex by asserting that anyone who opposes them is against a strong national/state/county economy. Here in the United States, they usually strongly imply the Us contingent is unAmerican.
In my region of the southeastern United States, a commonly held “fact” is that so-called undeveloped land has no value compared to developed land. Such thinkers assign higher values to shopping malls and suburbs than to large tracts of contiguous forest.
In both examples, the comparison is rigged. Both are based on the assumption that monetary value is the only measuring stick that matters. When environmentalists try to play this game by assigning monetary value to clean air and water, and species diversity preserved within large interconnected forest tracts, they are at an immediate disadvantage. Although I agree that such calculations can be eye-opening, the other side will always argue that such numbers are “soft,” compared to the known real estate value they can assign to an office complex or the price of a barrel of oil.
When I was in graduate school, one of the students studying resource economics argued that the Grand Canyon National Park should be privatized, thereby relieving taxpayers of the burden of preserving this resource. I argued against this, pointing out that a private corporation would have no obligation to maintain the Grand Canyon in its current state. If such a company decided, for example, that more money could be made by damming the canyon to produce hydroelectric power, it could do so.
Natural resources are public resources; they belong to all of us. The only way to protect them is by preserving and managing them as public trusts in perpetuity. That goes for uniquely spectacular places like the Grand Canyon and for equally important, but perhaps less visually dramatic places that harbor, for example, increasingly rare species of animals and plants.
For the last several hundred years, folks living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina have been cutting down forests to use the land for farms, then factories, and now mostly urban development. Because our climate is lush and our native plants and animals were – until recently – quite resilient, the forest fellers could count on new forests springing up on abandoned farmland, even abandoned urban areas.
But what grows back now is not what was growing here even 50 years ago. A healthy Piedmont forest needs 200 years to achieve maturity. That’s how long it takes for our climax forest trees – oaks, hickories, beeches, and maples – to achieve their full size. That’s how long it takes for all the understory layers – smaller trees, shrubs, flowers, and ferns — to settle into their niches and establish stable populations, making homes for the myriad animal species adapted to live in those niches.
The Piedmont region of the southeastern United States – like the Mountain and Coastal Plain regions on either side – is dominated by trees. We are forest country. We are all about the trees.
So when someone spits out the term Tree-Hugger at me, as if the word tastes like poison, I find myself torn between anger and despair. The anger rises from the uneven battlefield built by these word bullies. My despair is fed by fear that the fight for my beloved forests is nearly lost already. But I will not let despair still my voice.
And the next time someone accuses me of being a Tree-Hugger, I shall reply:
Yes, I do love the native forests of our region. Why don’t you?
Happy Earth Day to all.