I had the pleasure last week of hearing one of the clearest and most compelling voices on the intertwined topic of ecology, landscaping, native plants, and survival of wildlife (including humans). Then, this week, I heard a second voice… one of someone who just doesn’t get it.
The first voice was that of Doug Tallamy. He spoke at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge. His talk was given in the building’s largest auditorium, which seated 500, and every seat was filled with an additional 75 attendees standing or seated on the floor. The talk was sponsored by Grow Native Massachusetts, a group with goals closely aligned with those of the guest speaker. The audience gave him a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.
Tallamy writes and speaks lucidly on the environment and how ‘citizen biologists’ can effect change for the better. He’s a professor of etymology at the University of Delaware, though I suspect he spends more time on the road than in the classroom. A few years back, he wrote what I thought was the defining book on the importance of native plants to support the native food chain. Bringing Nature Home was and is a highly readable and thoroughly researched treatise on why we can’t just plant what’s ‘pretty’.
|Soft-skinned worms and |
caterpillars are the most
nutritious foods for baby birds
For example. oak trees abound with hundreds of species of native caterpillars which, in turn, are the preferred food for birds, and just about the only food for their nestlings. Conversely, the Bradford pear – a Chinese import despite its anglicized name – supports no native species of any kind. Yet, homeowners (and municipalities) continue to plant Bradford pears because they provide a well-proportioned, uniform tree for streetscapes.
Bringing Nature Home ought to have brought about a revolution in America’s thinking about what is planted and where. It made an impact, but climate change and species extinction require more than just ‘an impact’.
So, Tallamy had written another book, Nature’s Best Hope, with the telling subtitle, ‘A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard’. Like its predecessor, it is a page-turner and rife with practical suggestions along with supporting statistics. Tallamy is no prophet of gloom; rather, he is a self-described optimist. He offers concrete solutions; not just horror stories.
In his new book, Tallamy takes aim at the absence of biological ‘corridors’ in 21st Century America. Wildlife is increasingly relegated to isolated pockets, and those pockets are not sustainable. Species extinction is as much a product of lack of habitat as of climate change (though the two are linked).
|Collectively, America's lawns|
are the size of New England
The solution, he writes, is at our feet: the lawn. The U.S. has 40 million acres of lawn (an area the size of New England), and it is growing at 5,000 acres a year. Lawns are sterile, they use 30% of the available water in the East and 60% in the West. Moreover, in our efforts to maintain perfectly green and manicured lawns, we pour carcinogens on them, and 40% to 60% of those chemicals make their way into the surrounding surface or groundwater. Lawns are the ultimate lose-lose proposition.
|The perfect lawn is an ecology desert|
But, he said, our love affair with turf is not necessarily unbreakable. Once upon a time, everyone smoked. Today, cigarettes are considered filthy and smoking is banished to parking lots. Coats of sealskin and other rare furs were status symbols. Today, they’re shunned. All it takes is for public opinion to determine a practice is ‘bad’. Vast lawns are a bad habit that needs to be broken. Once broken, those biological corridors will thrive.
What should replace most of those lawns is native plantings that will feed native moths and other insects that will lay eggs that will produce juicy caterpillars that will feed native birds… the ultimate virtuous cycle.
Which brings me to the second part of the story; the voice that just didn't get it.
My wife, Betty, is a Doug Tallamy acolyte. She has absorbed his writings. She has put his tenets into practice at our home. And, she packages what she had learned into talks for garden clubs and libraries. One in particular, ‘Healthy Lawns and Alternatives’ is a 45-minute distillation of Tallamy’s observations, aided and abetted by Betty’s own study and practice.
She gave the talk this morning to a garden club, and I had the opportunity to observe part of it. The conclusion of her talk is a graphic of an average suburban property; a house, a driveway, some trees and foundation plantings, and lots and lots of grass. She points out the problems: why maintain a narrow strip of grass alongside a driveway, or where a side of the house is near a property line. Why not replace those areas with native trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials? No one plays on front lawns, so why not reduce the space and add to the plantings? In the back of the house, how about a permeable patio on which to entertain, and a vegetable garden? In three slides, a property that was 80% grass became 20%.
|The graphic that incensed an attendee|
double-click for a full-screen view
As soon as her talk was finished, a hand shot up. A woman said such a scheme might be workable for some people, but would be impossible in her own case. Her husband believes a vast expanse of lawn is the natural scheme of things. I happen to know this woman and I have seen her property. Her lawn is measured in acres, interspersed by an occasional perennial bed.
The woman said they entertain on the lawn and her husband practices golfing on the lawn. He would never change his views, she said, and to achieve marital harmony, the lawn had to stay.
Betty handled the question (there was no question; just a justification for the woman’s own gardening practices) admirably. Betty carefully said everyone had to make their own choices. But they should do so with all the facts in hand; including the ones that point to acres of lawn as creating an ecological desert. Perhaps, Betty suggested, she could work from the margins; gradually shrinking the lawn.
Based on the balance of the questions, I have a suspicion Betty made headway with most of the audience. She presented not just a rationale for change, but a specimen list of native plants that have all the glory of the sterile ones she wants to replace. She came home to an inbox filled with additional questions.