Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Environmental Stewardship and Native Landscapes

The following is an article I just finished that will appear in the summer issue of the Shalom publication of the Brethren in Christ church. Since it won't be out for a while and not everyone will see that publication I'm also posting it here.

“I’m going out to see my Father’s world”, Maltbie Babcock would say as he walked out his front door on a hike or jaunt around his northern New York home in the late 1800’s. It is said that one of his favorite destinations inspired his hymn, This is My Father’s World and there is a line from an obscure verse we do not often sing that sums up not only Maltbie’s understanding of God’s perspective of our world, but mine as well: For dear to God is the earth Christ trod, no place is but holy ground.

Dear to GodHoly ground…These lyrics have been echoing in my mind since reading them a few days ago. They resonate as old friends, as restated convictions that have guided my relationship with the land, with my land, for more than 30 years. Those convictions were forged and formed when I was a child during annual visits to my grandparents in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. I had an uncle who took me on rambles up the hollows and down the riverbanks and it was on those outings that the wonders of the natural world seeped deeply into my soul without my consciously realizing it.

As an adult, finally with my own land to cultivate, I naturally gravitated towards planting for the life I had come to appreciate on those long-ago Kentucky walks.

When I moved to my present home 20 years ago the house stood as an island in a sea of grass, as did many of the other houses on our road. Land that once hosted a thriving forest community had been all but stripped of beneficial vegetation and a modern suburban landscape had been planted in its stead…a landscape almost entirely lacking the ability to feed and house the creatures that would have previously lived on this half-acre. What most homeowners did not realize then and do not recognize even now is that in order to sustain the populations of pollinators and songbirds we appreciate, the land must be planted to plants indigenous, or native, to the locale in which we live. For reasons too lengthy to address in this article, we now know that only our native plants, plants that were found on our continent before the Europeans arrived, can sustain the native insect populations that are the foundation of any given ecosystem The exotic plants that fill our garden centers and nurseries, and most often our home landscapes, cannot.

The journey of remaking my yard into native habitat supporting an untold number of insects and a “bird list” of more than a hundred species has been a rich and rewarding endeavor, one appreciated not just by wildlife but by human visitors who are taken with its beauty. We recently hosted my son’s wedding in the back yard and the gardens were a patchwork of color: deep red cardinal flower, pink and white garden phlox, red and purple bee balm, white daisy fleabane, orange butterfly weed, rose-pink swamp milkweed, and bright yellow black and brown-eyed Susans. During the wedding ruby-throated hummingbirds zipped about, grey catbirds murmured in the shrubs behind the pastor, mourning doves cooed in the background and robins, Carolina wrens, northern cardinals and cedar waxwings sang their evening song, to the enjoyment of everyone who paid attention. For many of the guests, this was the first time they had ever been surrounded by songbirds and pollinators and they were delighted to be a part of something even larger than they knew. They had come for a wedding but, in addition, witnessed an abundance of life that can only be had in a native landscape.

In contrast, sometimes I am almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the damage we have done to our collective land, to God’s land. We have paved over a vast amount of acreage. We have erected shopping malls on valuable marshes that should have never been built upon. We have fragmented our forests for the sake of cell phone towers and summer homes. We have introduced invasive plant and animal species that are now destroying the last wild places we have left. At times I wonder how any of us can make a significant contribution to altering the course of destruction our society seems bent upon carrying out. And then, when I walk out into the backyard, I remember.

The answer lies in something each of us can contribute to the wellbeing of the earth and the creatures God has placed here. Whether our yards are large or small, whether we live in the country or the city, whether we appreciate informal or formal gardens, we can plant to provide nurture for the insects, birds and other wildlife around us. Gardening with native plants gives us the opportunity to make a real difference in the life of the region in which we live. It isn’t necessary to give up all the exotic plants that we enjoy, only to invite into our gardens many of the wonderful plants that are indigenous to our own area. I have learned that when the earth is protected and cared for, it responds with bountiful provision, once again filled with the promise of life for all who depend upon it. Meandering through my own yard reminds me anew of the land's abundant potential and of the opportunity we still have to take care of that which has been entrusted to us since time began. With God's help and by his mercy and grace, we still have time to relearn how to "tend the garden" and to partner with God the Creator in sustaining what He began.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Determining to Trust

This morning while my children, husband and friends were in their various places of worship I was out walking on the well traveled road I take when I need to talk to God privately and need to hear the assurance of His presence. This is a summer of uncertainty, of loss and joy, and of abundant opportunity to determine to trust God in the moment and for the future. And it is times like this morning, when I am torn between trust and fear that I need to be alone with God in the quiet, winding along streams, woodlands and meadows that have comforted me for the past 20 years.

As I expected, I was renewed and refreshed, surrounded by the sounds and sights of God's provision all around me. This being Sunday, the sunny meadow was populated with the Amish farmer's cows lazing about and his mules enjoying their day off. Barn and tree swallows zipped above me, red-winged blackbirds chased each other along the fence rows, cardinals and kingbirds scolded me for being too close to their hidden nests and a mother mallard with babies in tow made her way upstream. It struck me again that all of these creatures can go about the business of their lives because what they need to live is close at hand. In one way or another, all are provided for. As am I, I reminded myself.

I walked back home humming the lines from my previous post "This is My Father's World", thankful for the power of music and hymnwriters who wrote the convictions of their hearts into melodies that sustain my soul and spirit in times of need. Today's worship was rich indeed, full of confession, supplication and praise. And this morning different words from the same hymn are ringing in my ears, "The Lord is King, let the heavens ring. God reigns, let the earth be glad."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July Banquet

This is the time of year that the sunny-area gardens begin to come into full bloom and the yard is filled with birdsong and buzzing of bees from before dawn till after dusk. Even I am surprised by the number of successful nestings this year, though I don't know if we really have had more than usual. Confirmed nesting species include: house wrens, cardinals, robins, grey catbirds, chipping sparrows, house finches, mourning doves and common grackles with several nestings each. The number of species in the yard has been far higher however and I am both delighted and puzzled. Apparently mothers have been bringing their young to the yard from other nesting sites, probably in the nearby woodlands, and they are coming because of the abundant food supply found here. While I have a homemade suet mixture hanging from one tree, that isn't the primary source of nourishment. All young birds eat a diet primarily of insects and I am puzzled that the yard is actually supplying so much of what they need.

Though I have long planted with insects in mind, planting plants indigenous to this area, I am still surprised both by the numbers that must be here and by the fact that I don't see many of them in my daily work in the yard. The myriad pollinators feeding at the flowers are obvious, of course, but those aren't usually what the mothers are feeding their babies. Be that as it may, I daily see a steady stream of bird after bird carrying tasty morsels to their nestlings and recently fledged young. At this point the list of babies, aside from those previously mentioned includes: at least two broods of downy woodpeckers , a family of white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

As I report each year at this time, the yard will now host hummingbirds every day until late September as they take wing on their southward migration. They come because they have found food here in previous years and they know that this is a place to stop and eat on their toilsome journey. The males have already begun their travels and the females and young will follow in early August. I have had both for the last couple of weeks. The females and young I see now at the flowers and feeders have recently nested somewhere close by and are coming in for daily nourishment.

The garden will be glorious panorama of changing colors and textures in the weeks to come. I wish I had some way of knowing just how many pollinator and other insect species are fed here each year.

Perhaps you will enjoy pictures of the gardens as they are today.

What I can't capture in pictures is the amazing sight of lightening bugs by the hundreds rising up out of the vegetation each evening. They began appearing weeks ago, long before they appeared in my neighbors yards, and the backyard seems to be filled with dancing stars as dusk settles in. It is such a beautiful and peaceful scene, one to take the breath away.

Lines from the old hymn come to mind:

This is my Father's world and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world, I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light the lily white declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world. He shines in all that's fair. In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.

Exactly. May He do the same for you.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I May Bring

I have recently been encouraged to begin writing again and it isn't so much a friend's personal affirmation that has sparked my resolve, as his words concerning how his faith life is strengthened by what he finds here. I am copying some of our written discussion because his thoughts have reminded me of what I may bring to others who look at and live life differently than I do. We were recently discussing the sometimes controversial (for those in the Church, that is) subject of caring for the earth and I wrote:

"I see absolutely no reason that the topic of caring for the earth we were put on should be controversial. Do we get so bent out of shape when someone suggests that we care for our home and protect it from degradation? Of course not. I know the topic is touchy and that some folks find it a political and social cause, which inflames other people's sentiments. But isn't it true that this is the only place we have to live and the less we care for it the more our own lives are compromised? Aside from all the other creatures that share the world with us..."

And my friend wrote back:

"You have such a very centered understanding of this topic (I was going to say “balanced” but that’s not exactly what I meant) because it is grounded in simply caring for the good gifts God has given us as well seeing and even hearing God in His Creation. Quite frankly, I give thanks to God for you and people like you who help people like me to think about these things in that divinely centered way."

So... if my writing helps anyone else to recognize and know God in the natural world He has given us and if If God can use the insights He has granted me to edify and strengthen others it will be reward enough for my literary labors. Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk through your days. God's presence is all around us, not only in the people we meet, but in the sights and sounds of His creatures and the works of His hands.