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.