Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Morality of Extinction in Our Gardens

Folks, I got fired up this morning by a piece that strikes at the heart of my thinking over the last year. John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has the most brilliant, heart wrenching call to action I've read in some time (he's reflecting on the centennial of Martha's death, the last passenger pigeon of billions we hunted to extinction). And when he calls the loss of species a moral issue, well, you know I was hooked.

"The State of the Birds report identifies more than two dozen “common birds in steep decline” — species that are showing early warning signals of distress, having recently lost more than half of their global populations. Mostly, these species are barometers for greater environmental issues. The eastern meadowlark and northern bobwhite are fading from rural America right along with the family farm and its smaller-scale agricultural practices of pasturing cows and keeping grass buffers. Common nighthawks, those fantastic evening acrobats that flash through our ball-field lights to catch bugs on summer nights, are disappearing alongside native pollinators like bees. Many experts suspect that continent-scale declines in the prey of insect-eating birds have resulted from agricultural and homeowner insecticide use.

I suggest that the broader conservation argument transcends cost efficiencies and scientific analyses and should focus instead on the moral questions posed by Martha. Most of us wish we could see those storied passenger pigeon flocks for ourselves, so why aren’t we doing everything possible to keep some of our most common wild things from meeting the same fate? Don’t our great-grandchildren have the right, as part of their American heritage, to experience choruses of meadowlarks singing “spring is here!” from treetops and fence posts?"

Species conservation is a moral and ethical issue. When Fitzpatrick points out insect decline as related to bird decline, this should be a no brainer call to action for gardeners. We see the insect loss, and we see the interaction of birds in our local environment. Our gardens ARE places of protest. The landscapes we have direct control over are collective refuges. Yes, we need to do something about huge swaths of monocultures, poisoned by chemical overuse, that are eradicating the last "wild" places (if they even exist anymore).

It is not a stretch at all to call our gardens a place to exercise and discover our moral and ethical imperatives. If you slather your landscape in pesticides, maintain a huge amount of irrigated lawn with multiple applications of commercial fertilizer, run that mower and spew that exhaust, then this all says something about what you think about the world and those who share it with you (human and non human).

For those who say our gardens should not be burdened with such "heavy" thinking -- to be a place of ideology and belief -- I say gardens have always been a place of heavy ideology. A quick survey of examples from Victorian, Japanese, Persian, and European formal gardens will scream ideology -- as do naturalistic gardens today. If this kind of thinking doesn't belong in our gardens, where does it? How can we hope to learn or effect change if it doesn't start at home? The imperative is to think about how gardens are connected to larger ecosystems, how we are all interconnected, and this calls for a selfless attitude -- which is the antithesis of western culture, and certainly the American ideaology of "don't tread on me, I'm free to do what I want." We also have the happiness myth that expounds the pressure to always appear to be happy and content, and to do (buy) anything to make us happy. But looking at our negative and positive rolls in the environment can make us happy -- knowledge empowers and creates action; whereas denial keeps us trapped in a cycle of stagnation, something corporate spin doctors and government lobbyists love.

Go plant a milkweed and get liberated. Trade in the gas mower for a reel mower, or the lawn for a prairie garden. Live connected and fuller and richer. Let your landscape be an ideology that screams freedom for all species today and tomorrow, including this dude below.


Gaia Gardener: said...

You are so good at writing passionate "calls to arms"! Thank you. A post like this just reinspires me to keep doing what I'm doing! Cynthia

Benjamin Vogt said...

Imagine what I could do in a book! You don't need any more inspiration, do you? Just look out your window. :)

Anonymous said...

Great message. I made that decision last year to eliminate my lawn(I never treated the lawn with chemicals). Still a work in progress. I live downtown in the second largest city in Maryland. I moved back here 18 years ago and I can't believe the decline in the bird species, butterfly and bee population. Besides the milkweed, Hyssop is Very popular.

Nancy Lawson said...

Beautifully said. Thank you for this. Sometimes it's so hard to explain to people what an important endeavor we've undertaken; it's somehow seen as frivolous. This does it so well. If you are available, I would love to interview you for a project I'm working on related to gardening humanely.

Mary Gray said...

Good post, Benjamin. I don't always agree with you but you really do make me think. I like that you post photos of of my favorite things about Doug Tallamy's book was that it was loaded with cool pictures of insects and it really got me appreciating bug life more than I did before. My son and I are going to start a project where we try to identify and record every animal species that we find in our yard, including insects. I am going to need a good field guide. Anyway, I enjoy your writing and seeing what native looks like in our great heartland.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Nancy -- email me and I'll see if I can accommodate you.
Mary Gray -- As long as I make you think, I'm happy with that! :) You know about Bug Guide, right?