Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gardens Are Not Beautiful

Whenever I see the word "beauty" used to describe a plant or garden, I cringe on the inside. Beauty is an abstract term based on highly personal and complicated emotions, which are filled with subjective human experiences. While one person may perceive something -- a landscape, a moment -- as beautiful, another may be witnessing ugliness or discomfort.

This is true for other species. Which species of bird, butterfly, spider, bee, or soil microbe find our gardens beautiful? How is that beauty measured and for what purposes? Beauty may be a condition of being useful. For humans, a garden is useful because it tickles our senses and stirs an emotional response, which helps us engage and bond with the world around us. The garden is a contrived space, though, like a painting or music, even as it carries usefulness beyond our own species. But the way in which we and other species find usefulness and beauty are often very different.

Leaving stems 1-2' tall in spring is useful for carpenter bees. Is it beautiful? To whom?

The plants we use and how we grow them are not for us alone. It's not just the why of the endeavor, it's the how and for whom, and when. A hosta is for us -- we find it beautiful, or, we've inscribed meaning on it in some way (my grandmother grew them and I remember her in this way, or, I like the texture of the large leaves). But for most wildlife, hosta is ugly and useless. Very few to no species lay eggs on the leaves, or evolved to recognize or thus be able to use the pollen or nectar form the blooms. By using a hosta, we privilege ourselves over the functioning landscape and erode beauty for the real world -- the 99% of other species we depend upon to have the luxury to discuss beauty or meaning in plant arrangements.

A garden can be beautiful and useful for all of us at once. It can practice reconciliation, community, understanding, and equality. The way is through native plants, because the way is through displacing our perception and conception of arranging nature solely or primarily for ourselves. Garden making, especially in the altered urban world, is a translation matrix between the wild we've forsaken and the wild we yearn for in our bones (even if we don't know what it is or how to name it).  Garden making is a sacrifice that elevates the world around us not purely through our artistic vision, but through elevating the needs of the real world. If we can't provide what's beautiful to other species, then our gardens are not, in fact, beautiful at all.

Friday, April 7, 2017

How We See Animals

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

-- Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rebuilding Prairie at Home and Beyond

There are times people think I'm too extreme or passionate about native plants, wildlife, and conservation. But if you read this article you'll see why, and it's totally based off of where I'm from. I live on the edge of the tallgrass, an ecosystem pretty much wiped out by our arrogance and misunderstanding. But just to the west is the most well-preserved prairie ecosystem, the Sandhills. As land managers work to restore fragments, they are rebuilding the connective tissue that wildlife need as ecological resilience returns to the Plains. We can have an important echo in our urban world, as well, especially in the former tallgrass region -- an echo that teaches and empowers us to garden smartly beyond the fence line. 

If we experience and know our native wildlife in the urban world -- if we see it every day on our way to work, through office and school windows, at church, when we shop, and as we eat lunch -- then we will understand wildness not as unruly or outside of us, but as an essential core to our existence. More urban prairie might mean more rural prairie, and that will create a healthier, more resilient world for all of us.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Oh So Many Sandhill Cranes!

Every year we drive 90 minutes west to view one of the coolest bird migrations on the planet. And every year before we go I wonder -- why bother? Why do people go year after year just to see the same thing?

And then you stand out there among wave after wave of tens of thousands of birds, each calling out to the other with loud, ancient voices that echo from horizon to horizon. You feel the cool south breeze against your face, knowing that if you, too, had wings it would take very little to lift off with the flocks and settle toward the Platte River for night. There, among birds that mate for life and have been coming through this small area for millions of years, you feel power rise up within. Power you never knew you had but suspected was there. The power is joy and it is also rage. The power is compassion and defiance. You want to go screaming into the nearest city, asking why we pollute, why we turn over the earth, why we have lawn, why we don't see the community as preservation and healing for the self.

So every year we will go see the cranes to be reminded. And we will hope to be reminded in other ways as hands hit soil, place plants for butterflies and bees, and travel to meet new people who have the same power resting inside. Each turn toward wildness is an act of defiance -- and the most profound love one can have.

GMO corn for all!
A massive flock agitates and rises toward sunset.
It is very rare to see cranes standing in the middle of a road.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Cheerios Might Be Bad for You and Bees

The recent Cheerios-sponsored wildflower giveaway to save the bees was fraught with problems. First, saving the bees does not mean honey bees, which are imports and globally stable. Honey bees also out compete are more valuable native bees for resources while spreading disease. Second, many of the seeds were exotics, some invasive. And of the native seeds included, they may or may not be native across the country, thus also potentially invasive. In addition, the seeds were provided by a Monsanto-owned company. Third, a recent study showed high levels of glyphosate in Cheerios, higher than is allowed and that could be toxic, especially to kids who eat the cereal often. Previous studies have shown arsenic in Cheerios. It's clear Cheerios uses ingredients sourced from unsustainable agricultural methods -- methods that surely harm lot of bees, pollinators, and other wildlife.

Cheerios gave away 10x the seeds they were going to, and in very quick order -- only a few days. Folks jumped at the chance to do good, and while I'm all for corporations (even those that greenwash) to help lead the way, tacitly sponsoring a for-profit business with a dubious environmental background does raise some ethical concerns. Of course, we do live in a consumer-based, capitalist society where our leaders are brand names. 

We desperately want to do good by the bees and the environment. And companies like General Mills will play on that goodwill as a marketing tactic -- which is just how the system works. But, because we want to do good, and because we're eager to support any movement that offers a simple solution and confirms our beliefs or desires, we hand over critical thinking to someone else. This is dangerous, especially in a time of climate change and mass extinction. 

This all makes me think about butterfly bush, how so many believe planting it helps pollinators, when for many ecosystems it's a thug and / or supports only a limited number of adult pollinators. Or when we justifuy exotic plants like hosta, daffodil, or forsythia because we see a bee on them, then say well, these are helpful, too, without knowing what species are using the plant for forage or how the plant contributes to the ecosystem beyond its blooms. And don't get me started on using exotics to "extend the bloom time." What did pollinators do before we brought in exotics?

We must think more deeply. Doing so is not being a downer or poo-pooing a wildflower seed giveaway -- instead, it will lead to greater empowerment and action because we are not blindly following what makes us feel good in an impulse, but what makes us do good through research and critical thinking over time.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Troubling Phrase "Native Plant Nazi"

You've probably heard the term "native plant Nazi" used in one context or another. Over the last few years I've heard it used less and less, thankfully, but someone recently used it in a social media comment and, well, it really set off some triggers for me. Almost always the term is used in a passive aggressive / defensive context, particularly in a highly emotional thought. There's nothing wrong with being emotional, but I want to think critically about the terms and others like it that signal defensiveness or self protection.

A native plant proponent can often elicit doubt, confusion, and even a little bit of guilt and rage in gardeners and landscapers. Native plants imply that we're gardening not just for ourselves -- or even primarily for ourselves -- but that we are gardening for other humans and especially for other species. In a nation founded on personal freedom, liberty, and individual property rights, the idea of a garden as part of community -- or even as part of a larger shared ecosystem -- can be unnerving and complicating. Sometimes, a native plant proponent can come off as being passionately hardline, especially so if their language is earnest, decisive, and puncturing the status quo of both western civilization and the green / hort industry. That latter group thrives on developing new plants, as well as producing the exact same plants (through cuttings), in order to maintain consistency for salable goods. Native plants, especially the benefits of open-pollinated, local ecotype plants, doesn't just seem to subvert an industry, but may appear to attack it and the gardeners it serves.

But the perceived attack or threat is actually just critical thinking. How can we improve cultivating plants, growing plants, designing with plants so that we are helping wildlife and ecosystems revive and thrive? Such questions should be at the very heart and soul of why we garden, not an undermining impulse. Certainly, gardens our emotional places -- they are personal artworks, places of solace, places to deal with grief or find joy or recall loved ones or carefully step into a wild world we've alienated ourselves from. Gardens are psychologically complex. When new ideas of what a garden is or how it is are presented, it can feel very uncomfortable because it asks us to think in new ways, often deeper ways. Add in the realities of climate change and mass extinction, that our hand in the environment has severe repercussions for both good and ill, and suddenly gardens become less about simple joy and pleasure and more about social activism -- or more about an awareness of our complicity in something uncomfortable and terrible.

But for me, being conscious of the social (human and other species) nature of gardens is liberating and empowering. For as much as we destroy nature and erode living systems, we can work to reconnect and bind them together again. Our power is real. If we can recognize that our first, strongly emotional responses to deeper awareness are both natural and problematic -- if we can recognize emotion as not the end step but the beginning step -- maybe we'll stop labeling / dismissing ideas that challenge us. Maybe we'll realize the naturally defensive posture we take in order to protect our world view and sense of self is something we need to overcome in order to evolve as a compassionate species -- one stewarding the earth and learning about its rich complexities.

A "native plant nazi" is a term that conjures up a terribly evil period in our species's history. Using the "N" word is not only unfair but highly divisive and destructive -- it does the opposite of what it probably intends. No Gestapo will show up at your house and forcibly remove your hosta, butterfly bush, or daffodils from their beds. There will be no death camps for your daylily. There will be no laws enacted that demand genetic purity of local origin in your backyard. There will be no blitzkrieg, as long as the exotic plants don't escape cultivation and erode ecosystems beyond the garden fence. Native plants foster diversity and community while reviving the wildness of our ecoregions. In effect, native plants celebrate life, foster empathy and compassion, and ask us to think more deeply about how we influence the world around us as a species capable of being more than we've shown.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Spring Action

Lots going on this spring, and I hope we'll be meeting up or working together soon. So, let me share with you a lovely start to 2017:

I'll be appearing at a few places.

3/6 -- Michigan Wildflower Conference -- Lansing, MI -- A New Garden Ethic

4/4 -- Spring Creek Prairie -- Denton, NE -- Gardening for Backyard Birds

4/29 -- Garden and Landscape Expo -- Gillette, WY -- Urban Prairie Gardens; Natives for Pollinators

5/21 -- Westminster Presbyterian Church -- Lincoln, NE -- Garden Club talk on pollinator gardens

7/8 -- Hitchcock Nature Center -- Honey Creek, IA -- A New Garden Ethic

If you know of 2018 events please hook me up, especially as I'll be in book tour mode. 

Garden Design
This year I'll be donating 5% of all garden design fees to local nonprofits that conserve, restore, and educate about the tallgrass prairie in eastern Nebraska. In a time of climate change, extinction, and regulatory rollbacks, it's incumbent upon us to act and think local -- and support the community of all flora and fuana.

I'm also working with the Nebraska Wildlife Federation to design and install pollinator gardens at an elementary school, middle school, and a retirement center. It's very cool!

And of course I'm always looking for more residential projects, both local and across the Midwest. One I've started will feature the extension of a bird flyway, hedgerow habitat for native bees, a bioswale, and vegetable beds.

As far as I know the book is still on schedule for a fall release, date TBD. Cover is still being drafted and copy editing is in the early stages. Title confirmed -- A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. Again, the subject is the psychology and ethics of using native plants in a time of climate change and mass extinction, and lots of science of flora / faunal relationships with a dash of landscape design history and principles for a healthy urban future. It is very much a deep, reflective, activist style book.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Daffodils and a Hollow Nature

Daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, and tulips do not signify spring to me. Here in the central and northern Great Plains, that role usually falls to pasque flower, which blooms sometime in late March to mid April. While flower bulbs from half a world away may be an aesthetic delight to us, for wildlife and ecosystems they are often as devoid of function as plastic bottles. In garden design circles the belief is that aesthetics is enough because it (beauty) engages us with nature. But that nature has often felt hollow to me -- it's how I feel walking a rose garden or hosta collection, places for us alone, so insular, so absent in a time of climate change and mass extinction. Every garden and every plant should welcome as many species as possible, help us learn one another's language and culture, connect us to our homeplaces, and open the door to compassion that puts other's needs before our own. If a garden is primarily for me, the garden ceases to be a place of hope.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Privilege in the Ethical Garden

Our species has long had privilege over other species. Slowly, our privilege has begun to feel like a right -- something preordained. We can see this with white middle and upper class privilege. When anyone starts talking about the rights of others -- the poor, the immigrant, the transgender -- suddenly equality feels like discrimination for those with privilege. Perhaps the same thing happens when we discuss equality for other species and their landscapes. When we're asked to think critically about our privilege as a species -- where it comes from, what effect it has on others -- we feel marginalized, just like we've made others feel marginalized. And when we're asked to garden with native plants, and for the goal of helping others -- of creating equality -- humans feel attacked and minimized. And yet, there are those who feel empowered by empowering others, ensuring the rights of the poor, the immigrants, the transgender, the bees, the birds. They see equality not as a threat but a grand opportunity to practice our deepest-held beliefs as a compassionate culture and species. 

What happens when we privilege others? How do our ethical codes expand? What happens when we step back from our tunnel vision and expand the viewpoint to the perspective of others? What do you need to thrive? What do you need to be healthy? What do you need to be happy? Your thriving, your health, your happiness is mine in spades. And this is why when we garden for others our gardens will transcend their origins, and in some small way, instruct and be instructed by a larger social ethics and social justice.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Garden Refugee

I see my garden as an act of compassion and justice. Instead of the tyranny and supremacism of lawn or mulch, there are diverse beds of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Wide varieties of wildlife throughout the year call the garden home, and I am enriched by their presence and their cultures, not diminished. Together the world and I meet in the garden, we embrace, we commune, we share our hungers, our losses, and our joys. Without the garden I would not know that equality and freedom are milkweed, bluestem, aster, and oak. Without the garden I would know less of the common language that binds us all together.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Quoting A New Garden Ethic

From chapter 5 of my forthcoming garden / nature / philosophy book:

"Native plants are the tip of a much larger iceberg. The conversation goes well beyond what is native and why or how gardens work. The very fact that we keep having this conversation in writing and seminars and podcasts, and that it makes some in horticulture uncomfortable, is evidence that we need to be having even larger conversations about why we garden and who we garden for, and what it means in a time of climate change and mass extinction. Our culture needs to be confronted in as many ways as possible for the sake of future human and non human species."

And how about a picture from our ice storm this month -- because it won't snow this winter. More are at Instagram

Friday, January 13, 2017

Native Plant Activism & Social Justice

In most cases, people will tend to believe what they already believe, unfortunately. A core part of my forthcoming book explores the psychology of climate change and environmental issues, which I link up to what often becomes a very heated, very polarized conversation around native plants. I postulate that one reason the native plant conversation becomes either / or relates to how our minds have evolved to process new information as animals, and especially how new information tends to increase risks on our perception of self and our belief about cosmic order. Any time we face conflicting information our brains immediately put up defenses to protect us; any new perspective threatens our carefully balanced sense of right and wrong, our social and cultural beliefs, and our very ethics (and ethics that can't evolve fast enough with technology or climate change). I think the real mystery is how some people can quickly embrace new ideas, analyze, process, be open, and then if necessary reorder their beliefs and cultural viewpoints.

Where am I going? Several times over the past year I've heard folks profess that Doug Tallamy -- native plant and pollinator researcher guru extraordinaire -- has toned back his viewpoint at speaking engagements. In particular, he's become more open to mixing exotic plants and natives in built landscapes, like urban gardens. I don't know if this is true, as it's been years since I heard Doug speak, and I don't know how much of this new change is filtered through folks who previously decried everything Doug said about native plants because, perhaps, it was threatening to their worldview, profession, culture, et cetera. What I do know is that it seems, from my small data set of individuals, that the more Doug apparently opens up his hard-line stance toward using native plants only, previous critics are now pointing to him as a reputable source. I find this shift psychologically fascinating, and would like to learn how to exploit it.

The power of Doug's message has always been one rooted in an activism based on a shift in our ethics, and I think his audience has always been the more progressive regular Joes among us (I'm not one of those Joes, or Janes). Even while his research has asked the horticulture industry to evolve, and they've listened in some ways, I believe his audience has always been homeowners -- and I think this is still where the greatest power resides. It's homeowners who are going to put pressure on the green and landscape design industry to build sustainable wildlife gardens in urban areas, and this sort of grassroots mobilization has always been what's worked -- from other environmental issues to classism to racism to sexism. No doubt we need large design firms to step up and give us moving, functional examples to emulate at home, and that we need tons of them right now, but I'm not yet sure how large their role will be from a cultural shift perspective (this isn't a knock, I just don't know because the majority of new urban areas are still designed in old school methods).

It's my hope, and my goal in the way I've organized my book, to re-energize and go a step further in cultivating a bluestem roots progressivism in garden design, and one that sees itself using the tools of other social and environmental justice movements. It's through such action that we learn to think more critically and begin to challenge and remold our animalistic brains that struggle with the long view, as well as the compassionate view for others -- and other species. I may fail horribly, though, and I can accept that if it happens. I will certainly turn on some folks and turn off others as I seek to complicate, invigorate, and push the garden conversation onward. But I hope that together we can all finally leap into a garden ethic that radically reunites us with the world again, because the real world is quickly drowning in our disconnection with it. It will take all of us together to bring wildness back into our everyday lives as well as in wilder places beyond our everyday lives. It will take homeowners, architects, nurseries, municipalities, federal or state government, and activists / artists whose job it is to make us feel uncomfortable and to speak up for the voiceless in our culture.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What a Year It Will Be

Many new garden design opportunities are coming up, which excites me as I marry that burgeoning practice with the activism I profess in my forthcoming book. I'd still like to get a summer speaking gig on the books, and even one in the fall, as I have three in spring (Iowa, Wyoming, Michigan).

In the meantime, I'm celebrating my favorite social media platform -- Instagram. Here are the top 9 photos of 2016. Have a  favorite?