Updated: Feb 5, 2022
The late great humanist, biologist, environmental theorist, author and philosopher E.O. Wilson wrote, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Why we don’t embrace and act on that truism is a question for the ages, one that I have been considering lately, to the point of preoccupation.
Every food and habitat gardening, cooking and preserving thought that comes into my head these days makes a troubling and hugely inconvenient trip back to the bug baseline of the web of life that exists (or doesn’t) in our urban landscapes, and in mine in particular.
As I contemplate which seeds to start indoors this month, which seeds to sow outdoors, which beds to amend and trellises to re-locate, I am preoccupied by the management, threat and well-being of bugs. Creating ecosystem equilibrium is key to bug happiness, and to organic gardening. I have not, as yet, achieved equilibrium.
The deeper I dig into all things permaculture, bio-mimicry and self-regulating natural systems, the more truth I learn about the interconnected, interdependent nature of things, and the fragility of our future as a species.
Inside permaculture and environmental circles, generally — in conversation, in habits, in decision-making, and in planning for the future — systems fragility colours dreams and waking hours, but outside of the communities, generally, there exists a naive optimism that all will be well in the end.
Certainly, dinner party conversations include talk of climate change, but then life returns to a comforting normal more or less, soon after. We have come to know and accept that, historically, nations have recovered from war, economies have recovered from recessions, and farmers have recovered from droughts.
Perhaps then, the scale of the pending crisis is unfathomable to most. Clearly, we don't understand that we are pushing nature into a corner, and that she is far more formidable a foe than she is a friend.
Nature will win, she always does. She is shaking her mighty fist furiously in demonstration, and still we ignore her at our peril. We hesitate to make the smallest of sacrifices or consolations to our creature comfort. By "we" I mean those of us (mea culpa) who contributed knowingly and unknowingly, but consciously, to the world on fire.
That thing that differentiates us from all other species in all other kingdoms — that thing that makes us "superior" supposedly, is the very thing that not only drove us to the brink, but also prevents us from racing back without hesitation.
Call it ego perhaps, or greed, or perpetual dissatisfaction with any and all things. I’d call it selfish but that wouldn’t be an accurate judgement of the well-meaning legions who are merely misinformed and misled — who lack the information and opportunity to course-correct.
I find myself in a situation of disquiet and discomfort currently, after taking a decision to get my bug baseline in order, or start to, at least.
After reading “Nature’s Best Hope” by visionary American entomologist, ecologist, conservationist and author Douglas W. Tallamy, I was reminded painfully and repeatedly that, over the course of an evolutionary blink of an eye, non Indigenous cultures have all but decimated natural ecosystems the world over, and that mankind is but another blink away from extinction.
While is it tempting to let other people far more knowledgeable, capable and influential than me, encourage top down environmental policy to save us all, I know that election cycles, human nature, and capitalist constructs will conspire to perpetuate the magical thinking that got us here in the first place.
On that note, I am joining Tallamy’s “Homegrown National Park” network of citizen gardeners committed to protecting and creating native insect and bird habitat at home.
By converting more lawn to low-growing evergreen native plants, redesigning our irrigation and rainwater management plan, planting small food forest and hedgerow corridors of native species specifically to provide sustenance, shelter, and reproductive security for insects, I can contribute demonstrably to planetary healing while supporting a population of beneficial native insects for our food gardens and food trees.
What could be easier and less toxic to people, plants and animals than creating natural habitat for predator insects and birds, right next to the very fruits and vegetables that attract the bugs that they love to eat and feed their young? And what could be more beautiful, educational and inspiring for families than to observe nature in action all around us?
In an ideal world, builders, landscapers, home gardeners and community planners would defer to non-exotic but ultimately gorgeous native species always, and avoid great swaths of non-native traditional lawn in spaces not designated for recreation.
We are where we are however, many of us — living in homes with established and manicured lawns, with non-native hedges and feature trees, inefficient irrigation, and neighbours with legitimate concerns about maintaining property values.
I know this because, admittedly, I am this. Also however, I am committed to intentional, beautiful change. Making change is a choice, and definitely it is inconvenient.
Standing in the muddy, muddy cold this week, alongside a sodden crew of lads struggling valiantly with a sod cutter, sinking into our grassy boulevard like a WWI tank, was most definitely inconvenient, and also stressful.
When my husband and I agreed that we should turn or 'return' the boulevards and sideyard to a biological corridor (albeit a designer version), we knew that it would involve some degree of inconvenience, discomfort and stress.
There is an ordered timeline to landscaping, dictated by nature and growing seasons — a timeline that prescribes optimal times for excavating, installing irrigation, planting and re-locating dormant plants and trees, and for seeding. Adherence to the timeline can be uncomfortable ... and cold and wet.
Redirecting this year’s food garden enhancement funds to underwrite infrastructure maintenance isn’t convenient or picturesque, but it is fundamental to my commitment; to my classically-inspired re-wilding.
Meeting the sideways and worried glances of neighbours each time a make a non-traditional and temporarily unsightly change, can wear me down. Understandably, there is concern that I will upset the coveted greenbelt of boulevard with a lunar landscape of low-maintenance river rock, or plant a vacant lot-like jumble of non-native drought-tolerant desert grasses. I get it. I wouldn't want either scenario next door to me either.
It takes energy and enthusiasm to explain over and over why I stand outside in the rain for hours on end, rather than pursue some more glamorous pursuit, or in fact just maintain the status quo. Not so many years ago, I would have been asking the questions and wondering why.
I have been called crazy for fighting for the retention of natural habitat in my neighborhood, for opposing over-building, over-lighting, over-hardscaping, and over synthetic fertilizing. On some days, I am emotionally wounded by the opposition, but on most days I am not.
For my children's sake, and for their children's sake, I cannot give in. I am grateful to my family for standing with me when it hurts, for tolerating my wild enthusiasm, and for not suggesting that it might be easier to stand down. I will keep smiling and planting and talking and reassuring my way to acceptance of an alternate way of living in cooperation with and service of nature. Yesterday, admittedly I was crying, and then laughing. In hindsight, such a gift.
If I wasn't committed to keeping things "up front and beautiful" to the extent that I am able, I would have simply covered the boulevard with tarps, or layers of compost covered cardboard to block out sunlight and smother the grass over time. I did something similar last summer, just behind the boulevard hedge — out of sight of passers by.
Therein lies the key, I believe — intention wrapped in consideration; incrementally swapping beautiful “non-native” and ornamental shrubs, perennials, trees and ground covers that are not sources of food and habitat for the native insects and birds that are key to our survival, for equally or more beautiful “native” ornamental shrubs, perennials, trees and ground covers that are.
By demonstrating that it can be done beautifully, I hope to challenge conventional thinking about how much lawn one requires for recreation, how native plants can be incorporated into traditional design, and how important it is to share our landscapes with the millions and millions of species that came before us, and were generous enough to let us in.
More important perhaps, I hope to demonstrate that intentional native landscaping can elevate property value in direct proportion to habitat.
Learn more about the "Homegrown National Park" story at www.homegrownnationalpark.org. HNP is an American initiative, but its ethos and invitation are universal. A simple online search for plants native to your area, can get you started.
To learn more about the ease and importance of food gardening in urban environments in the United States and in Canada visit www.milliongardensmovement.org.
Joining both organizations can change both your life and the world, for the better.
Until next time, happy gardening.