March 15, 2020
If we had the opportunity to go back in time for a glimpse of the landscape and people who occupied this area a few hundred years ago, we wouldn’t recognize the place or the way of living. There are still areas relatively untouched, but even these pristine areas show modern human influence.
Over the past couple of hundred years, much of the landscape has been altered by humans with equipment and machinery. The old ethic of hard work being a virtue has really gotten us into a lot of trouble. We started by hewing down forests to put in homes, crops, roads, villages, etc., all in attempts to tame the wilderness. Then, we brought in desirable species that would eventually displace indigenous counterparts. We drained swamps and marshes or filled them with our garbage. We’ve altered watercourses, managed woodlots for only desirable species and cleared massive areas including fence rows to make it possible to bring in huge equipment to make farming more efficient. Our “working hard” has created ecological deserts where wildlife is hard-pressed to find refuge.
We are the one species that has an insatiable drive to change and re-organize, usually without any consideration for fellow creatures or future generations.
As we wake up to this reality, we can use this need to change our environment in a more positive way. It requires us to look at the big picture and see our role within the grand scheme of things in that we are a part of, rather than apart from, Nature.
Something unheard of in North America prior to European settlement was ownership of land. This strange concept involves building fences and competition. Neither is good for the environment, fellow humans or our own well-being. It is impossible to reverse land ownership, but we can at least use the term steward rather than owner. That would imply that we are solely responsible for the well-being of the land we occupy. Rather than build fences and keep out our fellow creatures, we would create sanctuaries for wildlife and indigenous plants. We would see ourselves as guardians of the land rather than bosses who decree what the land should look like, what creatures can live there, and what happens to the resources. We would see our physical presence on this earth as temporary and put the well-being of future generations ahead of our own personal interests. We would help to set the course for healing to happen, both our own and that of the environment.
A little can go a long way. As we head into a new growing season, we might consider some small ways to encourage pollinators, birds and other creatures to share our space.
Our lawns can be allowed to grow a little longer to allow for wildflowers growing among the grasses to put out blossoms for nectar feeders. Over-seeding with the low-growing white clover diversifies the lawn, adds nitrogen and provides food for pollinators.
We can reserve a small area in full sun for a mix of North American wildflowers and grasses that provide bloom from early spring well into fall. The small meadow area is not only beautiful in itself but becomes a haven providing food and shelter for fellow creatures.
Rather than mow an area under mature deciduous trees, imagine woodland wildflowers, wood sedges and ferns that provide shelter to overwintering insects, tree frogs and toads. A log or two in the shaded area becomes a shelter for salamanders and invertebrates as well as provides a place where moss can thrive.
A small thicket of shrubs creates vital habitat for birds, tree frogs and pollinators. Native fruit shrubs like raspberries, nannyberry, dogwoods and serviceberry provide both food and shelter to birds. Their flowers provide nectar and pollen to pollinators and their foliage provides food for butterfly larvae. Other shrubs like meadowsweet, shrubby cinquefoil and shrubby St John’s wort are not only showy but great pollinator plants.
Trees are important residents in any space. They provide height and multiple resting and nesting sites. A diverse planting of deciduous and coniferous trees ensures diversity in the wildlife hosted by our yards for many years to come.
As we are one of the main consumers living in the space we occupy, it only makes sense to have a small fruit and vegetable garden to provide fresh food for the family. A vegetable garden does not need to take up much space. Much of the produce can be encouraged to grow upward on trellises or fences.
Ideally, the lawn area stays small and the yard becomes bio-diverse, productive and hospitable. Imagine every yard filled with bird songs, nectar-feeding butterflies, hummingbirds and a multitude of other creatures. Wildlife will find essential corridors to enable them to move easily through towns and cities and turn sterile places into vibrant coexistence of humans and wildlife.
A yard full of life is also a yard that is child-friendly. It is a place for children to explore and connect with Nature. Here, a child can feel empowered to make a difference by helping plant and create habitat, put up nesting boxes or install bird feeders. It is a place where they can start their own little food garden.
Looking back to what was is never productive. It is impossible to restore the natural communities that filled the landscapes of the area a few hundred years ago. It is also pointless to be consumed with how destructive modern human influence has been.
We can move forward by assuming a humble approach and making peace with Nature. By doing so, we will effectively work with her to create a new World where living in harmony replaces the old arrogance that brought on the ecological and social chaos we are confronted with today.
Being overcome by a negative image of humanity only fuels environmental destruction and hopelessness. We create our own reality. If we build on positive interactions between humans and other lifeforms, we foster hope, something in short supply these days.