Friday, April 4, 2014

Pasque Flower on a Deeper Level

The first prairie flower that blooms in my Nebraska garden is always one that surprises me. I’m not even looking for blooms in early to mid April – instead, I’m counting the plants putting up new bits of green, wondering what’s made it through winter. Pasque flower always makes it, rising in a bulb of fuzz, some sort of thick cleaning pipe pushing it up through leaf litter and last year’s decay. In the afternoon sun the soft, fuzzy hairs around its emerging bud and few thin leaves reflect light like a halo. It is in every possible sense one of my favorite native wildflowers.

Pasque flower’s common name is derived from an Old French word for Easter, as it blooms around that time. Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens – which goes by other common names like prairie crocus, twin flower, and sandflower – is native from Alaska south through Canada and down into Texas, blooming in high Plains elevations and open prairie, most often in dry or rocky soil. It gets about 1’ tall with a 2’ spread and is slow to expand or self sow. From bloom to seed head it easily puts on a full month show that, if you let it, opens your eyes to the garden’s season.

The Native American Dakota people believe that each species of plant and animal has its own song that expresses its life and soul. One translation of the twin flower or pasque flower song is this:

I wish to encourage the children / of other flowering nations now appearing all over the face of the earth; / So while they awaken from sleeping / And come up from the heart of the earth I am standing here old and gray-headed.

Since pasque flower can often begin blooming even before the snow has melted, it is fitting to think of it as old by the time the other spring flowers bloom, especially with its white seed head among the colorful prairie. The hairs along the stems and petals help to create a heat shield around it, much like what happens with the hairs on our arms when we are cold.

The Dakota name of twin flower is evident in this image, where up to 150 yellow stamens surround a tuft of purple pistils. This duality leads to the story of an old Dakota man who sits by the first spring bloom and recounts his life’s joys, sorrows, hopes, and accomplishments. The bloom reminds him of his youth and old age all at once, the perfect circle of life, the duality of existence, and he is encouraged by that guiding principle of completeness and wholeness of beginnings and endings feeding each other. He picks the flower and takes it to his grandchildren to teach them the song he learned as a child.

While I do not have practical experience and make no suggestion that you try anything without consulting a professional, it is said that crushing the fresh leaves and applying on arthritic hands helps ease the pain, but if left on the skin too long will create a blister. Some other medicinal uses include a tincture to calm symptoms of menopause and insomnia, as well as to treat panic attacks.

I find beauty and metaphor in every stage of pasque flower, even as the petals desiccate and fall off to reveal the puffy seeds, which are reminiscent of prairie smoke (Geum triflorum). Native bees, ants, and other early spring pollinators visit with gusto. I wish I had more of these in my garden, entire swaths even – they’ll display far longer than non native crocus, iris reticulata, or tulip, and are very tough, long-lived plants. Knowing their history here in my prairie region makes me love them even more, and I appreciate what they mean in my garden – a small reflection of something much larger.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Loss of Monarchs is a Loss of Far More

It’s good that we are having a national conversation about monarch butterflies whose overwintering numbers in Mexico have, once again, plummeted. The causes are many, with lack of milkweed habitat in the United States a leading player. But in our emotional responses to the loss of a quintessential summer insect, we’re skimming over a much larger conversation we need to be having – what else is vanishing along with the monarch, and why aren’t we doing anything more profound to preserve and create habitat for native ecosystems like prairie, where milkweed once thrived?

Globally, grasslands are the least protected and most endangered ecosystem. By 2100 the American Great Plains may lose 77% of its once formidable expanse, a region whose rates of loss equal deforestation of rainforests in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Within the Plains environment are countless species of insect, amphibian, mammal, and plant that are severely threatened, from lesser prairie chickens to salt creek tiger beetles to Texas horned lizards to black footed ferrets. The loss of biodiversity is stunning, and as folks like E.O. Wilson and Elizabeth Kolbert state, we may be losing thousands of species each year across the planet – some studies suggest dozens every hour. In fact, Timothy Walker in his book Plant Conservation: Why It Matters and How it Works, suggests that we may lose nearly 30% of our plant species alone by mid century.

The issue is not about monarch butterflies, it’s about who we are as a species that has created a world in which we must garden every corner of earth to ensure each species’ existence. As climate change begins to hold sway across our landscapes, one wonders where our ethics rest. Is it ok that the monarchs vanish? What about other species? How much can be lost before the built-in ecological redundancies that have spawned our evolution start to slow our own civilization? Without modern agriculture the planet could only support 30 million humans. We face rising demand in food to the tune of 14% in coming decades, yet we still farm massive monocultures that rely on other monocultures, namely honeybees, to sustain them – 60% of honeybee colonies in the U.S. are needed to pollinate just the almond crop in California. One third of our food comes from pollinating insects, and these insects, commonly native bees that are more efficient pollinators than honeybees, lose their home ground to modern agriculture and suburban sprawl. 

Yet if we planted just a small percentage of fields with native wildflowers and hedgerows, yields would increase, pests would be mitigated as beneficial insect predators move in, and we’d be hitting two birds with one stone – increasing habitat for wildlife and securing our food supply. Studies from Michigan State University regarding blueberry production and the prairie STRIPs program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture  show a better way to farm that almost eliminates runoff, topsoil loss, and drastically cuts a farmer’s chemical and fuel costs. By supporting native pollinating insects, like any of the 4,000 native bee species, we can also increase seed production and quality.

In Homero Aridjis’ call for a milkweed corridor stretching from Mexico to Canada is a larger call for native plantings to stretch alongside the milkweed – plants that support 35 times the caterpillars as exotic species. Suburban gardens, city parks, and roadways should all stop trying to emulate the manicured environment of 19th century English pastoral design that influenced our largest cultivated crop, lawn, and instead emulate what gave us our nation’s fertile soil in the heartland. We need to stop religiously mowing our parks and highway edges, wasting taxpayer money, emitting greenhouse gases from machines more polluting than most cars, and find ourselves part of the places we say matter to us – our home, our country, our human and animal diversity. 

At the 11th hour the most recent farm bill had struck from its provisions a mandate for the federal government to keep an annual tab on insect pollinator numbers, which would have forced multiple agencies to address the decline in a group of organisms that provide hundreds of billions of dollars worth of free agricultural services. Combine this with a cut in Conservation Reserve Program funding and increased crop subsidies that encourage plowing up marginal prairie lands, and you have a bona fide recipe for disaster. It stands to reason that if we so easily allow monarchs to vanish we have an ethical crisis on hand. So the question is this: are we willing to plant milkweed and other native insect host and nectar plants for creatures on which most life is based, and are we willing to accept that these organisms are valuable beyond beauty, beyond function, and exist with a purpose as profound, unique, and multifaceted as our own? There’s as much at stake out there in nature, what’s left of it, as there is inside of us. The loss of monarchs is an ethical and even moral hurdle that we must face with a humble determination like that of this iconic butterfly – an insect whose life has spawned art and culture and now a call to live better on this incredible planet.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Garden Divorce with Sunflower

Gardens do so much for us. They console us, welcome us, connect us. They bring us moments of peace and reflection. They humble. They teach. Unfortunately, we also idealize our gardens (see previous sentences), place them on a pedestal so magnificent they almost seem untouchable and impervious to critique or change. This is a sort of marginalization, the same thing we do when we call nature "mother" and give it inherent or subconscious second class status -- something passive, subservient, or something that's there for us only when we want it.

We need more mindfulness in gardens. We need a sort of Buddhist mentality of practiced displacement so we know our world and place from as many angles as possible -- this tests then confirms or shatters our belief structures and makes us better creatures. I wish gardeners could spend a week sitting by a sunflower observing every insect, every interaction, every rain drop and breeze that effects the plant. If we could see the garden through the eyes of a sunflower, would we become better gardeners? How would our practice change? How would our interaction with flora and fauna, with humans, morph in the coming months and years?

If we could experience the garden through the life in it, I think our gardens might look very different. We'd practice a sort of selfless art, informed by science, literature, art, philosophy, and even religion -- and in turn the garden would reshape those larger areas of knowledge and belief. We'd exercise both sides of our brain and maybe involve a little bit more heart.

A garden is not at any stage an Eden (neither is nature). It is not a place of exclusion or seclusion. A garden is not an idealization of perfection or a perfected idealization. A garden is not for me, but is a nexus of everything I did not understand or realize before I had a garden -- of species, interactions, and methods.

A garden, once created, is a selfless expression of faith. Think of it as a big bang and the ensuing free-forming evolution of life. A garden is created not with self as the centering, ordering property, but as everything else as centering and ordering, like drawing a still life by filling in the shadows first in order to give objects definition (my art teacher in high school taught me this concept).

A garden will never be nature, and it will always be limited by our conception and perception of what nature is in our eye at one moment in time. Just as we evolve, the garden should evolve. A garden is an interpretation, and is as a result as fallible as we are in our knowledge and beliefs, which change through discovery and practice. When I look out my window to the garden I don't see myself as instigator or even creator, in the end I hope to not even see myself -- it is the sunflower turning to face the daylight, pollen in the bloom and nectar along the stem, ants and butterflies and bees and beetles. The sunflower is the instigator and creator. The sunflower is the moment a garden ceases to be a garden and becomes a conduit to freedom from the tyranny of our man-made reality, a reality too often divorced from nature.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Joy Williams On the Morality of Environmental Issues

I teach a book called Ill Nature by Joy Williams to my writing classes. It's unique in that it includes both ranty, in-your-face essays, as well as narrative and ruminative essays; that contrast helps students see two ways of approaching any topic important to them, while making the writing more likely to win folks over. I always suggest that a combination of the two styles might be best.

Regardless, David Gessner once did an interview with Joy, and one of her responses has been a guiding light to me this winter as I work on a new book:

Gessner: Can you discuss the way we marginalize anyone who actually tries to fight for change? And this evolution of the perception of environmentalists as “extremists”? “It is a moral issue,” you write near the end [of her essay "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp"]. As a culture we seem to shy away from the word moral—it seems preacherly. How can we address moral issues when the culture looks down on the word?
Williams: I never show my work to anyone. When I’m finished, I just send it off. Whereas my friends could have lovingly mauled it and had complaints and suggestions, I choose to put it immediately in the hands of strangers, possibly fiends. This piece denies rhetorical niceties in that it hectors a you—that is you—for wrecking the Earth with habits and wants. But the you is me, and the they is us. We’re all pretty much responsible for the mess we’re in, some deliberately so, some just in the process of conducting normal somnambulist routines.

Pope John II said that “the environmental crisis is a moral issue.” I’m not sure what the new Pope has said on the subject. He’s recently closed limbo, which is where most environmental statutes end up.

I think destroying the Earth and its creatures—our mute fellow travelers—is sinful. If the word retains any meaning at all, it should be applied to the wanton acts we accept and tolerate daily.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Plethora of My Articles and Posts

I've been working on my gardening resume, some spring cleaning, and came up with a group of selected links to pieces I've written at both Houzz and Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens. Personally, I find this all much more interesting than seeing which high-priced actor won what award while wearing what dress that exposes what percentage of skin. If I want glitz and glamor I'll garden in moonlight under a mirror ball.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Derrick Jensen on Ethics and Morals

“Any solution that does not take into account – or, rather, count as primary – polar bears, walruses, whippoorwills, bobwhites, chickadees, salmon, and the land and air and water that support them all – is no solution, because it doesn’t count the real world as primary and social constructs as secondary. Any such solution is in the most real sense neither realistic nor practical. Any solution that does not place the well-being of nonhumans – and indeed the natural world, which is the real world – at the center of its moral, practical, and ‘realistic’ considerations is neither moral, practical, nor realistic. Nor will it solve global warming or any other ecological problem.”  – Derrick Jensen, “You Choose” from the anthology MORAL GROUND: ETHICAL ACTION FOR A PLANET IN PERIL

And just for kicks, yesterday I had about 100 birds in the garden at one time for about an hour. Starlings, flickers, woodpeckers, sparrows, finches, nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, juncos, crows and:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Making Memes, Saving Monarchs and Prairie

I've been making memes and sharing them on social media, especially Facebook. These are some of the most successful ones so far. The first one had over 127,000 views (blew me away). Get crazy people, say what you mean, make a difference. If the ship is going down it's better to scream and shout then simply rearrange the lounge chairs (I stole that image from James Lovelock).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Getting Busy, Playing Catch Up, Loving Prairie

Tomorrow, 2/15 at 3pm, I'm speaking at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture's Healthy Farms conference in Kearney, NE. Talking about how and why to attract pollinators to farms and backyard gardens.

On 2/20 I get to work with some local 8th graders in a writing workshop -- trying to come up with some fun, memoiry and lyrical essay exercises for us to do.

Then on March 4 I'm speaking to a local garden club here in Lincoln.

In April I'm speaking about attracting birds with native plants at the Bluebirds Across Nebraska annual conference in Beatrice. Also reading some of my poetry at the Nebraska Book Festival in Omaha. Also also taking a prescribed burn workshop so I can learn how to manage my dream prairie! I'd say I'm a fairly eclectic person.

Some of my recent articles at Houzz include gardening for monarchs, a list of native plant websites that'll help you learn about and find natives for your locale, and I should soon have two pieces up about succession gardening with species coneflowers and why I'm not looking forward to spring. Seriously -- not looking forward to spring.

I'm working on two books and, quietly behind the scenes, trying to pull together the big plans for our future. On Valentine's Day all of these things in my life are love, because they get me closer to the prairie I adore.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Gardens Must Have Ecological Merit in the 21st Century

I had to respond to this insightful piece by Michael King, especially when he says at the very end the following:

"Gardening is not landscape architecture nor nature conservation. It is a form of aesthetic self expression and any attempts to afford it greater worthiness by applying unnecessary credentials of ecological merit are dishonest. Of course gardens benefit the environment and native wildlife, but first and foremost they are for human enjoyment and that is as true today as it ever was."

My reply, edited and extended a bit here from I left on his blog:

If gardens are just an aesthetic, human navel gazing, doesn’t that perpetuate all the ecological, social, and cultural problems we have? We are disconnected from other life thanks in part to industrialization, and in a post industrial world we will need to know our place more in order to sustain ourselves. What knowledge of life on this earth have we lost, past and future? Gardens should be 50/50 -- aesthetic design and serving an ecological purpose. Gardens should be exposing us to the larger issues in larger ecosystems outside the garden wall — for me, living in Nebraska, the grasslands of the Plains are the least protected ecosystem on the planet. If we encourage using native grassland species, we create awareness for the loss of biodiversity going on right now in the 6th planetary extinction.

If vegetable gardens are acts of protest and awareness and healing of our broken systems that erode life, why not ornamental gardens? Art has often been an act of provoking awareness of larger social / cultural issues and enacting change, why not gardens? Why must gardens be limited to simple aesthetics beholden to old ways of thinking? (And here I mean the pastoral that subdues everything in its path for a bucolic and momentary high.) Are we afraid of facing all the facets of ourselves, of making art larger? Are we afraid of knowing our world, and knowing that we have direct influence, both good and bad, and taking responsibility for that influence?

Ecological awareness is not dishonest — not when forbs provide for pollinating insects that are responsible for 70% of our food, not when native plants sustain 35x the insect larvae, not when native bees are native plant specialists (and when one specialist bee vanishes, the lack of bee competition means less fruit and seed set), and surely not when we plow up the remaining grasslands for a monoculture of row crops at a pace faster than global rainforest deforestation. Gardens are an aesthetic and ethical choice -- meaningful art, not momentary artifice. Ecological merit is not an unnecessary credential -- it is the most necessary credential in a time of climate change when species have to move north or up slope 30 miles a day to keep pace with warming (Elizabeth Kolbert) and when up to 30% of plant species will be gone by mid century (Timothy Walker).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

76 Photos of the 2013 Garden

This is just a tease, since the rest are up at TDM's Facebook page. I can't tell you how hard it is to cull thousands of photos! Could 2013 have been the last year here? If so, it's been a good nearly 7 year run.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Teaching Gardens: Aesthetics, Ecology, & Climate Change

My whole like I've felt like an outsider. In college, and even grad school, I was an English major taking writing classes. I wrote poems then essays then memoirs, but I never was part of the crowd -- I never felt like I really gelled. I wasn't into the same lifestyle as my writer cohorts, my beliefs were different, plus I was / am a massive introvert and needed writing to make sense of my emotions and daily interactions. I am my best self in words.

Just as I felt while in school, my second career, if one can call it that -- perhaps a midlife crisis -- is landscapes, gardens, etc. The garden is my way of making sense of emotions and daily interactions outwardly, an echo of the words I write. But my background is from literature and philosophy, not generally recognized as practical tools to landscape design or thought except maybe by some of the diehard landscape theorists. I am a horticultural outsider.

When I researched and wrote my first memoir, Morning Glory, I read everything about the history of garden and landscape design, and much philosophy on nature (hundreds of books and articles). I got into the philosophies and cultural critiques of deep ecology and eco feminism, which inform the activist role I see needing to be in 21st century landscape design. As much as urban vegetable gardens and food forests are an act of defiance and a call to level the cultural / social playing field, I see gardens focused on native plants a leveling of the cultural / social playing field among all species. Or, an act of empowerment.

See, we're disconnected from the world. You'll argue we aren't -- why, you just took your dog for a walk in the park this morning. But nature is absent from our lives. We don't depend on it actively, only passively, and maybe this is why some in the field lament the lack of interest in the horticultural field. Nature is background. It has been diminished to an aesthetic. Oh, isn't that pretty? What a beautiful view. Such lovely colors. Want to know how to make a festive container for your front porch?

But my larger point is we think of gardens with words that can't begin to hold the deeper power inherent in nature: words like "beautiful" and "pretty" and "gorgeous" and, well, other adjectives that border on the abstract. Do we not have the language necessary to convey our true feelings, or do we lack true feelings in nature? Is it both? Is it a tributary from our ancestral fear of the world, and abstractions help keep us safe from imagined predators?

I think people -- especially younger people -- want landscapes that make them think, and when they think, they get connected. If gardens become not just something pretty, but also something that stands for a larger meaning directly applicable to everyday life and other social movements, then we have something.

Lincoln's Union Plaza can show & teach a lot more
If we create gardens combining aesthetic -- careful design -- with ecological functions, we can teach. When I write memoir and essays I'm always conscious of combing lyric passages with researched knowledge; when a reader is both enveloped by the beauty of language and its rush of emotion while learning something practical and real, a writer can activate both sides of a reader's brain. It's fully immersive.

Why can't gardens do that? Why can't we create gorgeous gardens full of ecological processes that mimic even larger processes going on outside the garden's edges? This is place-conscious gardening on a much larger scale. This is, here in Nebraska, designing with native prairie plants. The plants will educate about local ecosystems and, ideally, connect people to their homeground in more meaningful ways. Often, these plants are completely unfamiliar, just as the call of a common blue jay is to my students, or the fact that we are tearing up the last prairies at a rate faster than before the dust bowl, or that with the loss of these prairies comes more social ills than you can shake a stick at. 

Gardens, public and corporate, should be doing far more. They should be asking us to think while involving us in local culture and texture. They should be teaching us that nature is not a static pastoral painting that needs constant maintenance to keep it pristine, but that it shifts and evolves just like we do -- this will connect us to nature in profound ways. I'd also like to see public gardens that aren't destroyed at the "end of the season." If we're not gardening for all four seasons, we aren't connecting to place -- we're missing a solid 1/4 of our lives. We're also eroding some natural ecological process, a double teaching moment.

In talks I give and articles I write, I see a constant and growing desire to learn about both garden design and ecological processes, about the larger role designed landscapes play in a world we have now forced ourselves to tend as gardeners because we have our hand in everything -- climate change, industrial agriculture, logging, dams, the Pacific Ocean garbage patch full of plastic, et cetera. Since we are gardeners it behooves us to learn not just about aesthetics and good design, but the way in which garden spaces function to repair or create awareness of the need to repair larger ecosystems around us. When both sides of our brain become involved we are transformed -- the garden becomes an act of defiance as we reconnect and learn about the planet in ways many large corporations would prefer we didn't. When we garden with place in mind, we won't feel like outsiders, but will instead feel empowered. This is why we need to garden with native plants.