When I started my landscape design business in the 1980s the staff at plant nurseries nicknamed me ‘the weed lady’ because 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, and over the years things changed as the idea of planting natives and restoring habitat began to take hold.
If I think about why I am so in love with the plant world, I immediately go back to my earliest years, spent in the green paradise of a small forest where my brother and I could roam freely. But I knew nothing about the concept of native plants, either then or in subsequent years spent in suburbs and city. Our post-paradise neighborhood was old as suburbs go, so 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 briefly filled with the enchanting white and pink cups of mountain laurel flowers. But the fact that the latter was a native of New York forests and the former an import from the Balkan Peninsula would never have occurred to me. That changed in my thirties at, of all places, a cocktail party.
I was asked recently what launched my crusade for native plants and realized I could track it to a single moment. Shortly after moving into a house, I was at a neighborhood gathering, talking to an architect who lived down the street. 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, and 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 create an ardent advocate out of me once I got that message. 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?
At the same time that my neighbor gifted me with those words, local environmental groups on Long Island were beginning educational campaigns to inspire the use of native plants 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 the ubiquitous lawn 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 immediately. This language, an accident of commercial interests, went on to become de facto — and in some communities actual — landscaping law. People are taken to court when they flout it.
What is 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 directly 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, 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 the pure sand at the edge of the sea. Languages morphing as I walk.
Just as 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 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 literally implanted 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 echos 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. The loss of soil no longer enriched by decomposition.
The green earth is held together by these continuing conversations, this blending of living languages. And 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, roads are the most obvious. But, 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 whole 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.
As we face several apocalyptic losses — of 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 the fulfillment of needs and desires, for the amassing of wealth and power. Many people the world over are seeing the disastrous course this has put us on. But we are still largely thinking of how to save the earth in order to meet human needs. We think in terms of ecosystem services, the benefits they render to foster human life.
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, completely 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 the truth is that 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” rapidly.
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 creatures — trees, rocks, beetles, ants, bees, flowers — that I ran among. I still feel that way as I roam the natural world. But 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 to 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.
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 and listen to the world around us. In order to live compatibly with a thriving planet, the way we define our needs and desires has to blend with the age-old wisdom embedded in the intertwined languages of the plants and other beings that make up our living earth.
Top photo: Bald cypress adapts to growing in water in this wetland ecosystem in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois
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