Native language

Native plants speak their own language: bald cypress adapts to growing in water in this wetland ecosystem in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois by Betsey Crawford

When I started my landscape design business in the 1980s, the staff at plant nurseries nicknamed me ‘the weed lady’. I kept asking for plants that most people were removing. As much as I could, I wanted to plant the grasses and wildflowers, trees and shrubs native to the glacial moraine known as Long Island, in southern New York. It wasn’t always possible, especially in the early years when the supply of native nursery stock was limited. But a handful of us persisted. Over time, the idea of planting natives and restoring habitat took hold. 

My love for the plant world traces back to my earliest years. My brother and I roamed freely in the green paradise of a small forest. But I knew nothing about the concept of native plants, either then or later in suburbs and cities.

Our post-paradise neighborhood was old as suburbs go. The trees were big and the sidewalks had heaved enough that violets grew profusely in their cracks. I loved one neighboring hedge of fragrant lilac and another that was briefly filled with enchanting white and pink cups of mountain laurel flowers. It never occurred to me that laurel is a native of New York forests and lilac an import from the Balkan Peninsula. That changed in my thirties at, of all places, a cocktail party.

Native language: The grassland ecosystem can be found all over the world. This is the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado
Grassland ecosystems, major carbon sequesters, can be found all over the world. This is the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado

I was asked recently what launched my crusade for native plants. I realized I could track it to a single moment. After moving into a house, I was talking to an architect at a neighborhood gathering. We were discussing landscaping, which my new place badly needed. He responded to some preference I expressed with, ‘I like working with native plants.’

I’d never heard those words before. Yet I knew instantly what he meant, immediately grasped their broader ramifications. It was as if the native spirits of plants were clustered around, knowing they would make me an ardent advocate. They just needed someone to give me one simple line from my language into theirs.

Which was being spoken all around me. I’d been visiting the eastern end of Long Island since childhood and loved the dunes and moors that my family camped among. Loved the woods nearby, loved the way the landscape shimmered in the soft, bright seaside light. I understood the question I was to ask audiences at native plant talks in the years ahead. Why live in an area so beautiful and make it look like everywhere else?

Tundra habitat develops the closer you get to the arctic. It's a response to short growing seasons and the permafrost not far underground. This is in Tombstone National Park in Yukon Territory by Betsey Crawford.
Tundra habitat develops the closer you get to the Arctic. Its low-growing plants are a response to short growing seasons and the permafrost not far underground. This is in Tombstone National Park in Yukon Territory

Just as my neighbor gifted me with those words, local environmental groups on Long Island were launching educational campaigns to inspire the use of native plants. Their goal was to restore ecosystems rapidly losing ground to lawns and ornamental gardens. Thus, I could go to conferences, meet people, learn, join a fledgling movement. By the time I started my business, I was committed to as much native landscaping as possible.

Most people alive today grew up with the landscaping language inspired by the rapid suburbanization launched after World War II. To sell homes, developers chose fast-growing trees, foundation shrubs, and ubiquitous lawns to make houses in bare tracts look more welcoming. It didn’t matter where they came from; it was only important that they looked green right away. This language, an accident of commercial interests, became de facto — and in some communities actual — landscaping law. People are taken to court when they flout it.

The language of native plants: ferns carpet a typical redwood forest ecosystem in Northern California by Betsey Crawford
Ferns carpet a typical redwood forest ecosystem in Northern California

Lost in this strange, manufactured language are the unique personalities and habitats of different places, shown in the photos included here. The fierce peace of deserts, the hush of forests, windswept prairies. Alpine lakes nestled high in the mountains. Spare, rocky coasts, mysterious wetlands.

Plants speak a distinct language in each: Douglas fir in coastal Washington, spruce hanging with lichen in the Hoh Rainforest. Stunted pines, growing slowly in the cold, thin air at high altitudes. Spicy-scented creosote in the desert. The windblown flowers and grasses of Midwest prairies. The versatile bald cypress, able to grow in the water of wetlands.

But we don’t have to travel far to see the variety of ecosystems. They’re in our backyards. If I walk up the hill behind my apartment, I come to a forest trail among mountains. Redwoods, bay laurels, toyon abound. If I drive 50 minutes to a trail I love in Point Reyes National Seashore, I’m surrounded by elderberry, willow, and alder. Lichen, tidy and close to branches in my neighborhood, hangs in drifts in the fog of the shore. Even that trail changes from woods to wetlands to pure sand at the edge of the sea. Languages morphing as I walk.

A riparian habitat in the Tongass National Forest, where the languages of native plants blend with spawning salmon and the bears, wolves, and bald eagles who feed on them by Betsey Crawford
Riparian habitat in the Tongass National Forest, home to spawning salmon and the bears, wolves, and bald eagles who feed on them

The indigenous peoples of California once spoke over 100 separate languages. So, too, the vast indigenous California landscape, which has almost 200 eco-regions, hosted each area’s native plant language. The loss of both — a cascading reality the world over — is a similar loss.

When a human language dies, says linguist David Crystal, “what is primarily lost is the expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human.”  We lose thousands of years of slowly built wisdom, of long-preserved ways of looking at the world, of deep understanding gained over millennia.

When a plant language dies, the same happens. Gone are relationships lasting hundreds of millions of years among soil, air, water, rock, insects, birds, animals. The wisdom planted in roots and their mycelium networks. Lost habitats can be as small as a single oak tree hosting hundreds of different caterpillars and other insects whose existence echoes all the way up the food chain.

A lost language can be a forest or wetland ecosystem, the severing of vast numbers of intertwining relationships. Or the loss of species snowballing to others. The voices of insects dying out, cascading into the loss of the birds and mammals that depend on them. The dying out of plants no longer pollinated. Soil no longer enriched by decomposition.

Native language: conifers on the rocks of coastal Washington by Betsey Crawford
Conifer forest growing on rocks on the coast of Washington

Life on Earth is held together by these continuing conversations, this blending of living languages. The more species speaking their indispensable native tongues, the stronger and more life-supporting the ecosystem is. This is all disrupted when strangers come. Buildings, parking lots, and roads are the most obvious.

Crucially, it’s also plants from other places that don’t know the native language. That have evolved to thrive with other insects, other ways of communicating. They have moved away from their natural limits and can metastasize to destroy entire ecosystems. They don’t provide the right berries for the local birds and have evolved toxins that kill the local insects that the whole web depends on.

We face several apocalyptic losses: insects, birds, native plants. Entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy asks a thought-provoking moral question: what right do we have to cause a species or ecosystem to disappear? Cultures have assumed that right because our dominant traditions tell us that the earth is a resource bank for fulfilling needs and desires, for the amassing of wealth and power.

People worldwide see the disastrous course this has put us on. But we are still thinking of how to save the earth in order to meet human needs. We think in terms of ecosystem services and the benefits they render to foster human life.

An alpine lake near the Salmon Glacier in the Tongass National Forest supports a habitat of stunted trees and small plants in that cold, windy environment by Betsey Crawford
An alpine lake near the Salmon Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. The cold, windy environment keeps trees and plants small.

I’m for any reason that motivates us to take action on ecosystem loss and extinction. Preserving wetlands because they are the earth’s primary buffer against flooding is an excellent reason to save them from becoming a shopping mall. But it’s still an anthropocentric view of the world.

What if we saved a wetland because it has an intrinsic right to “exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its evolutionary processes…” as the Ecuadoran constitution says.

An intrinsic right to speak its language, separate from any beneficial effect it has on humans. We are so used to seeing ourselves as the most advanced, the most important beings on earth. But without us, everything on the planet would thrive. Without insects, as biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, the living world “would collapse into chaos”.

It’s very complicated. We are all creatures of our culture. Those native plant spirits must have known that I loved a place profoundly at an age when I didn’t know I was separate from it. I was one of the beings — trees, rocks, beetles, ants, bees, flowers — that I ran among. I still feel that way as I roam the natural world.

Then I drive home in a gasoline-fueled car because our infrastructure doesn’t offer enough support for electric vehicles. Once there, I turn on lights and rely on my refrigerator and stove. I prepare food I bought at a store that was once a flower-filled meadow. My apartment complex replaced part of the forest that I can still walk into.

Sand dunes in Death Valley, one of the most extreme of desert ecosystems in the U.S. by Betsey Crawford
Sand dunes in Death Valley, one of the most extreme desert ecosystems in the U.S.

Weighing our basic needs and the things that make life easier and more pleasurable with the needs of the earth community is an enormous undertaking. To use revolutionary economist Kate Raworth’s insight, balancing this conflict is “set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas.”

As with many dramas, the ending will depend on our ability to stop rushing headlong in the wrong direction. To stop and listen to the wisdom of the world around us. To blend our needs and desires with the intertwined languages of the other beings that make up our living Earth.

The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in northwest Washington shows the lush growth that 140 inches of rain a year provide by Betsey Crawford
The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in northwest Washington. The lush growth comes from 140 inches of rain a year 

Top photo: Bald cypress adapts to growing in water in this wetland ecosystem in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois

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6 thoughts on “Native language”

    1. Thank you so much, Jon. I used to talk to groups about native plants frequently but now I live in a new state and am slowly getting to know its many native plants.

  1. Betsy, you are a profound thinker and your writing is very moving. I love to follow your journey of thought and heart through the ecosystems that you love. You love all of them, right? The tragedy of deep loss of Nature’s communities of plants and animals, rock and river, is rapidly becoming the major story of our time. As we are discovering, the Living Earth, whom we have so taken for granted, seeing her as mostly a ‘backdrop’ to our human desires and dramas, has finally had enough of our shenanigans! Devaluing of all aspects of the feminine is deeply ingrained into civilization, and must be overturned if humans expect to continue on this planet.

    Your heartfelt and wise essays, Betsey, are poignant reminders of the necessity of turning around our thinking. Thank you sincerely,
    Caitlin

  2. What a profound topic—the right to exist—honoring the beauty and contribution of uniqueness. We all want that—to be seen and welcomed and honored as we are. Thank you for speaking for the earth, who offers itself in all its magnificence, who knows it’s home and thrives when it is there.

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