A new series on connecting your life to nature by author and naturalist, Ken Lassman.
Part III: Reconnecting your backyard and neighborhood to the planet
Coming home to the earth is like breathing: it’s a process that always nourishes and never ends as long as you live.
Just as the earth revolving around the sun has no starting point, the tools for reconnecting described in this series represent an ongoing cycle that eternally renews itself every time you step outside and reconnect with the landscape that surrounds you. Each time you take your walk as the seasons progress, you soak up both the familiar and the new, renewing your existing understanding while adding new awareness like new cells in a growing child as you deepen your connections to the patterns of life that make your place what it has been for thousands if not millions of years.
As you move through the landscape, you see how the local mix of plants and animals interact with you and each other, how they move (yes, plants do move!) and pass through in their ranges and migrations or how they change through the seasons and through their lifespans.
Just as breathing revitalizes and maintains your body, taking those bioregional walks by yourself and with others revitalizes and maintains your understanding and connections to those ancient, ever-renewing local rhythms. And as you familiarize yourself with those seasonal rhythms, you’ll be surprised at how you can find a surprising number of those events unfolding even outside your area’s natural areas.
You’ll begin to notice which trees in your neighborhood are native, what flowers are native wildflowers, notice a native plant along the fencerow or amongst the brush that lines the neighborhood creek. And just as natural as taking your next breath, you begin wondering: how can I invite those plants into my yard? How can I “plug in” the place where I live to the local cycles of life that used to dominate the area?
Connecting the Dots…
The answers come mostly by listening to those remnant plants and patches that you find, enhanced perhaps by attending some workshops in your area about native plant landscaping, or buying/checking out from your library some books on the subject or attending some local wildflower/environmental groups with a focus on local habitats.
There are many, many resources all over our country and other countries as well to pursue this. And as you learn the lay of the watersheds around where you live, learn how to identify the local flowers, migrations, and cycles, it prepares you to re-plant the place where you live back into the earth–whether it is owned or rented, urban or rural, old or new.
If you own your place, instead of seeing the yard as an extension of the real estate value of your house investment, you begin to see the REAL value of your property:
- as being a part of a watershed that filters the waters that flow in the creeks,
- as a living entity that provides shelter, safe passage and food for the community of living beings who have been participating in the local dance of life for thousands and thousands of years in your area.
Seeing your place as rooted into the earth means that the value of your place is no longer based on how closely it resembles a closely clipped monoculture of green lawn with shaped shrubs and trees like in an estate in England.
Yards are not just a bunch of ornamental objects assembled into an aesthetic reproduction of somewhere else. Your yard is foremost a process of activities that connect it with the web of life, and its value is derived by how many connections can be made with those processes found in the land and life where it is located.
The aesthetic of your local ecosystem is likely quite different from the classic lawns and landscapes found in the estates of European nobility because the ecoregion where you live is quite likely very different from northern Europe.
The continental extreme weather patterns in my area of central North America make it very difficult to sustain green lawns in the heat of a summer heatwave, or without chemical fertilizers and pesticide/herbicidal intervention, all of which run off into area waterways with unintended consequences.
Why plant an ornamental flowering shrub, flower or tree that is guaranteed to require heroic interventions to keep it alive when the next extreme weather event occurs, or that provides no food value to area songbirds or animals? Instead, discover the native plant alternatives that provide lots of free food and shelter to local birds and animals, and are adapted to the local weather extremes and water cycles way better than those ornamentals. Native perennial landscapes are also typically less carbon, water, and resource-intensive at a time when carbon levels and ecological footprints are looming larger and larger as we try to do our part in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Weaving the Threads….
The next thing to think about is how your yard fits into the network of other yards, and how it can connect into a supportive web of sustainable habitat for native plants and animals.
As weather patterns change, there will be a need for more “elbow room” for the local members of the native landscapes to move and adapt.
Can you imagine how well our interstate highway system would have worked if we just built the road one piece of property at a time? What if once the road was completed on one property, the construction workers had to ask the owner of the next adjacent piece of property if they could acquire access for the road to go through their land and so on?
In a landscape characterized by fragmented native habitat, finding safe passage between patches of native habitat or to bodies of water becomes tricky at best, so unless you are a bird who can fly from one habitat-friendly yard to another, the wildlife you are encouraging will face a number of transportation bottlenecks.
To address this, try talking to your neighbors and educating them about the pleasures and value of creating native habitat and securing “green corridors” to the local creek or river or wildlife refuge. This is the next step in your efforts to return your piece of land back into the planet. It also creates an opportunity to talk more to your neighbors, finding folks who are receptive to doing this to their yards, to take bioregional walks with, to create a study group to discuss the ways to change neighborhood association rules so that they benefit, not hinder creating a resilient, sustainable neighborhood and so on.
Creating diverse, resilient, sustainable landscapes that are connected to the local ecosystems potentially runs counter to many of the trends we’ve seen in our neighborhoods, as there are definitely some who want to create walled-in, patrolled pockets of control with little regard of what lies outside those walls. And as we become increasingly oriented toward funneling all of our interactions through our screens, it seems more difficult to talk to each other in a civil fashion.
But these trends make it easier and easier to miss any degradation of our connections to the rest of the planet, and things are lost without even noticing. But just as ignoring the consequences of a carbon-intensive economy has led to changing weather patterns that affect everyone and everything on the planet, the trends that isolate and separate lead to exacerbating the problems we are attempting to escape from and are simply not sustainable.
Rejoining the Planet
The Resilient Activist website is based on the understanding that nature is a grounding, revitalizing force in our lives.
The choice is not whether or not to connect your yards, neighborhoods, and region back into the planet; rather it’s about how many people can we actively involve in this process to make a real difference and how fast can we do it?
The cool thing about reconnecting to nature in your home is that it nurtures you, mitigates the problems that have led to a changing climate, and makes your little corner of the earth a part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
It also helps others around you to make those needed adaptations for our future as well.
It’s time to breathe in what sustains us and take those steps that are guaranteed to connect us to the web of life that swirls around and through us.
Resources for further study
- Our own Envirotips columns on this very topic, especially:
- The Maryland Native Plant Society has a great book and resource list for identifying plants of all kinds, but also included is an extensive list of the best books about using native plants in your landscape wherever you live.
- Every state has a County Extension Services network that has a list of resources that includes information on using native plants in your landscapes. Most areas have a small army of Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists who you can query about these topics. And if they can’t help you, maybe you can consider joining their ranks to help those around you who are also interested in reconnecting their land to the planet! Here is a link for Online Extension Publications (including state specific information about using native plants for landscaping) from across the country. Here is a link to the Master Gardeners Programs for your state and Master Naturalist Programs.
- Look for local resources that work to promote native plants in your region. In the Kansas City area, connect with Deep Roots and Missouri Grow Native.