Sunday, June 28, 2015

And Justice For All Species

Now that we're starting to see more social justice and equality, let's keep the ball rolling. Our next big task is environmental justice, not just the fact that climate change will adversely impact the poor, but that it will decimate (and is decimating) entire ecosystems and species. When we can hold bees and birds in our hands and be transformed by the miracle of compassion that touch brings, when we can be transformed by the same between two men or two women, then it is not a far step to extend our compassion to all creatures on this rare and glorious planet. We are all equal, all key components in a rich web of hope, compassion, and freedom. Stand up for each other. Fight for equality and the right for all to live out their lives as they're designed to do.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Some Prairie

I was at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies field day on Friday; it was almost picture perfect with good temps and passing clouds with blue sky (after some light rain in the morning). Lot's of trips out into the prairie to see birds, insects, fish, amphibians, learn about restoration efforts, and to hear moi discussing prairie loss and how thoughtfully-designed gardens can help pollinators and bring some of the prairie home. So, just a few images I took with the phone (I'm getting in the nasty habit of not bringing real cameras with me):

Verbena stricta

A native annual barley

Common milkweed with sun hitting the prairie sand dunes

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Busy Bees in Tall Stems

This is the first year I left "unsightly" stems very high in my garden during the late April cut down. Common advice says to cut things down to about 6", but that erases possible homes for our many native bees. With 2' stems all over the place, and all covered by dense garden foliage, I can hear the garden as bees pulse and buzz in stems all over the place.

Do you see any stems in this image? I guarantee that you can hear them, though (if the lawnmowers ever stop).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Pollinators & Garden Beauty

Earlier this month the Lincoln Journal Star published an editorial on pollinators -- the issues surrounding their decline, especially here in Nebraska. The focus was on honey bees, so I had to send in a reply which won't be published, but I leave here for you to read. Look for a longer piece in a future issue of Prairie Fire.

I applaud the Journal Star editorial board for continuing to bring attention to the plight of our pollinating insects, and especially the loss of prairie which has only been exacerbated with the decrease in CRP funding associated with the most recent farm bill. We also need to stop mowing our highway edges more than 1-2 times a year, and plant native pollinator gardens at home, at businesses, and even on capitol grounds. 

However, European honey bees are responsible for so much commercial pollination because we’ve made that the case. It takes 60% of all U.S. hives to pollinate just the almond crop in California, and the stress of shipping them across the country surely exacerbates their troubles, as well as the lack of diverse flower forage. This agricultural practice is a dangerous monoculture that supports other dangerous monocultures, systems which diminish diversity and a landscape’s health and resiliency. Yes, helping honey bees will help so much more, especially if this means fewer lawns and more prairies, but we have 4,000 native bee species, too.

These native bees are, collectively, over 90% efficient at flower pollination whereas honey bees are only 70% efficient. Many native bees have evolved very specific relationships with native plants – in some cases, the absence of one leads to the absence of the other. The more bees of all species we have pollinating, the higher the fruit yield, the better the quality, and the longer the shelf life at grocery stores (I’m especially thinking about produce like strawberries that require a diversity of pollinators to set fruit). 

The Xerces Society has recently begun a pilot program on about 100 acres of almond groves in California, planting the edges with native hedgerows and underplanting the trees in a meadow of wildlfowers – the goal is to end the dependence on honey bees, reduce water consumption, and mitigate the need to spray for pests. We should also look to the Prairie STRIPs program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. 

Here in Nebraska, and Lincoln specifically, I’d love to see us become the prairie capitol of the nation: prairie along road edges following the lead of New Mexico and Iowa, native plants in our garden beds and in the new pedestrian mall downtown, and one side of the state building in designed prairie gardens vs. a desert of lawn. Our lives, and the lives of other species, may depend upon a new landscape aesthetic that incorporates both human concepts of beauty and unseen ecological function that supports native bees, monarch butterflies, and far more; what we need is a beauty that extends to species beyond our own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Art of Selfless Garden Design

After reading this article on the moral imperative of renewable energy, and being fueled by the Pope's call to ethical rethinking of nature -- I feel lots of momentum regarding how we interact with nature on personal, emotional, cultural, scientific, and ethical levels; it's as if everything is coming together! Here are my thoughts.

I think there’s a myth out there that good garden design for humans can not also be good garden design for other species (and other humans, in the case of filtering groundwater, cleaning the air, etc). It’s not an either or proposition.

Speaking in generalizations, garden designers, to me, feel beholden to a function and a style that comes from another time and another country; maybe it’s 1700s England or 1600s France. An outdoor space isn’t just a room to relax in, to escape to, to express our status -- it is a bridge between the world we hold at bay in almost every moment and our incomplete selves that hunger for contact with nature. This is where the theory of biophilia comes in – that we have an innate need to connect with the living world around us. Do gardens that inhibit other lives and biological functions fill that need? 

We gain completeness through experience and knowledge. When I began learning about native plants I felt more in control of my garden-making process – I wasn’t picking up any old thing at a nursery, letting current trends or tired choices (hello, hosta) be my guiding light; no, I was beginning to understand how plants interact with the world, how they are part of a larger system, not just a cog in the wheel but integral fibers of muscle and tissue. When I realized I could be a part of that fiber by how I gardened and what I learned through more informed plant choices, I was generally happier, more confident, and more passionate about life than in any other point of my short existence. I fully realized my garden mattered as much to me as it did to bees – that collectively all of our gardens mattered so very much.  

Gardening is therapy? Yes, but not just in the sense of walking through a flowering meadow or dipping toes into a babbling creek to calm our nerves ; gardening is therapy in the sense that it circumvents the cultural systems we’ve made up that say there’s a hierarchy, a certain way to do things, universal beliefs that are tried and true. Gardening shatters the wall between rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, human and monarch butterfly. Maybe gardening is for radicals in the sense that when we become empowered advocates who study, observe, and nurture open curiosity, we challenge the exploitative systems that hurt our world and ourselves.

Designed landscapes can be for us – utilitarian in their sidewalks and fruiting trees, gorgeous in their flowers and foliage – but there’s no reason in the world that at the same time they can’t be places for birds to raise their young, butterflies to lay eggs, bees to forage for nests, and soil life to flourish. To think that gardens are just for us is self-defeating and selfish, and is simply a lack of imagination; I even believe it’s an inability to extend our ethical circles in some really cool ways that would enlighten and heal many of our cultural and social problems. If nature calms us, if nature helps us recover from illness faster, if nature eases ADHD, why can’t gardens also help us see through another’s eyes, champion equal rights and equal pay, become the people we dream ourselves to be in our best moments (like those stories that end every news broadcast).

A designed landscape that does not see beyond the human is a landscape that is devoid of the human – it’s devoid of forgiveness, mercy, hope, equality, and community. 

Human art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, a way to bridge how we interpret the world emotionally, how we internalize and experience life, what we value in our most authentic moments of reflection and connection. Plants themselves are not art. What we do with them -- how we honor their life processes in a garden -- that's art.

Prairie smoke doing its thing.
“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Quote of the Century

I will never apologize. You shouldn't either. Feel.

"We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don't ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don't apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time." — Joanna Macy

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Very Wet Spring

I think we're up to about 14" of rain in the last 5 weeks. The front prairie garden -- composed off 100% drought tolerant natives -- is languishing. Out back things are thick, lush, and breeding mosquitoes by the truck load. Chiggers will be next. Still, there are reasons to celebrate.

Arrowwood viburnum and indian grass

Shell leaf penstemon

Baptisia autralis minor

The front beds. A soggy mess with mulch floating away.

Pasque flower seed heads. Better than blooms.

Leave those cut plant stems high! Many native bees buzzing in and out.

My wife's PhD graduation gift. Can't believe it's been a year.

And I leave you with this thought:

“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Creating Art as a Way to Grieve, Heal, & Connect With Nature

I was reading this interview and kept thinking about gardens and garden making -- especially with wildlife and ecological function in mind. What do you think?

"Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life—that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways—creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves. What is larger than ourselves that we really care about? It’s Life, as far as I can see. We are on the verge of knowing how to express comprehensive gratitude, acknowledging that we are dwelling within a living system. This gives rise to a sense of resonance with lifeforms that certainly earlier peoples understood, and native peoples still do. This is a new moment for our awakening to the beauty of life that is now in our hands. And because we are life-giving humans and care about our children and their children and future generations of all species, I think the universe story can sustain us and inspire us in so many ways yet to be fully discovered [....]"

"My greatest hope would be that these life systems are so powerful, are themselves so resilient, that we can take inspiration from the natural world and its fantastic, intriguing mystery and complexity. In this way, our own generativity can become woven into the vibrant communities that constitute the vast symphony of the universe. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the planet who are aware and ready and already participating in this epic story. They want to help write the story into its future, participate in its unfolding, so that we get through this hourglass of loss and extinction, of sorrow and mourning. We need to articulate this sorrow and ritualize our grieving; the humanities can help us do that. But we need to create, in this hugely difficult birth passage, new ways of being vibrant and mutually enhancing creatures on this planet."

-- Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewed in Orion May / June 2015