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.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

Great job on this article...

My only thought for an edit if there is still time, is that people should know your yard is only half an acre! I am amazed when I think about all of the life growing in that little tiny patch.