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Love against all odds: celebrating the Season of Creation

Loving earth: Fairy lantern (Chalocortus albus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey CrawfordThe dying down of the zest for life is the greatest danger to the whole human venture and to the whole venture of the planet.
~Thomas Berry~

This is my fourth celebration of the September-long Season of Creation, and a year when keeping zest alive and well is profoundly challenging. Yet I agree with Thomas Berry: losing it is our greatest danger. When it’s hardest to muster, we need it the most. It will heal the world as it carries us through the decisions, tasks, and changes to come. Zest is loving the earth we emerged from, loving our fellow creatures, loving the green world, the rocks and soil underneath us, the mountains above us. Loving the rain, the clouds, the wind. Loving trees, grasses, flowers.

A love that recognizes the limits that time and urgency place on us. Recognizes how hard the changes will be for so many, likely including ourselves. A love fierce and gentle at the same time, to energize us through the challenges, to reach out to hearts that need it, to power us with strength and joy.

My first two celebrations paired photos with quotes from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, one of the most important and comprehensive environmental statements of our time. In it, he covers everything from treaties between nations to family dinners. He says the need to change from our current course is the moral challenge of our time. The whole rests on the belief that all livings beings and natural forms have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity.

The third celebration widened to religious leaders from many traditions. This time I am turning to poets, philosophers, scientists, activists, though starting with one of my favorite quotes from Laudato Si

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium)

If these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one that dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
~Pope Francis~
Laudate Si

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pinkinense) in Cunningham Marsh, Sebastopol, California by Betsey Crawford

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pitkinense)

Together these vanishing remnants of Earth’s biodiversity test the reach and quality of human morality. Species brought low by our hand now deserve our constant attention and care. Religious believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to sacralize God’s elegant command given in the Judeo-Christian account of Genesis: Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.
~Edward O. Wilson~
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

Celebrating the Season of Creation: hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina) along the Arroyo Hondo Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina)

We are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet. If we can revere how things are, and can find a way to express gratitude for our existence, then we should be able to figure out, with a great deal of hard work and goodwill, how to share the Earth with one another and with other creatures, how to restore and preserve its elegance and grace, and how to commit ourselves to love and joy and laughter and hope.”
~Ursula Goodenough~
The Sacred Depths of Nature

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa) in Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa)

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that
to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not
at all — nothing
before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.
~Marie Howe~
from the poem ‘The Singularity’

Celebrating the Season of Creation: California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica)

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
~Rachel Carson~
Speech accepting the John Burroughs medal

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata)

Our task is to take this earth so deeply and wholly into ourselves that it will resurrect within our being.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
Letter to Witold Hulewicz

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western blue flax (Linum lewisii) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Western blue flax (Linum lewisii)

I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.
~John Seed~
Rainforest Information Centre

Loving earth: yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus)

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
~Iris Murdoch~
A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Celebrating the Season of Creation: marsh grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris) in Saint Hilary's Preserve, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Marsh grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and a reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.
~Thomas Berry~
The Dream of the Earth

Loving earth: Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata) at Bull Point in the Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata)

Living away from the earth and the trees we fail them. We are absent from the wedding feast.
~Thomas Merton~
When Trees Say Nothing

Loving earth: scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata)

In this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world? 
~Barry Lopez~
Love in a Time of Terror

Celebrating the Season of Creation: jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus)

We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.
~Joanna Macy~
World as Lover, World as Self

Loving earth: fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans)

Appreciation and gratitude create beauty. Gratitude transcended is joy. Pure joy heals the world.
~Monica Gagliano~
Thus Spoke the Plant

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

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The survivors: the long consolation of ferns

Ferns along Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordSince the middle of March, when California’s shelter in place started, an acupuncturist friend has been offering weekly meditations via phone. At the beginning of each she asks us to imagine ourselves in a nurturing place in nature. Whenever I receive such an invitation, I invariably find myself sitting on a forest floor, trees reaching high above me, leafy branches arching overhead, sunlight glinting through the openings between the leaves. That is peaceful enough, but the most important element is that I’m surrounded by ferns, their graceful fronds gently touching my shoulders. I’m in a soft sea of wavy green. 

Why ferns? I could as easily imagine being in a meadow full of wildflowers. But there is something about ferns that speaks of peace and the deep quiet breathing of the green earth. I don’t remember a time I didn’t love them, yet I don’t remember them from my suburban childhood. But they were likely a part of the woods I lived in for several very young years. For they are happiest in the woods, growing enormous in the moisture-laden forests of the Pacific coast or in tropical rainforests, where they grow in the trees as well as at their feet. But some fern species also survive long dry seasons — a few are drought-tolerant enough to live in deserts — allowing them to have a foothold everywhere except the poles. For all their graceful delicacy, they are a very hardy bunch.

fern-and-hounds-tongue-along-Hoo-Koo-E-Koo-Trail-Larkspur-California-by-Betsey-CrawfordAs we would be, too, if we had survived for 360 million years, outlasting two major extinctions, feeding dinosaurs along the way. For 200 million years they were mostly enormous trees. Those are still with us, somewhat unfortunately. They are now the coal and oil that powers the industrial world. The ferns that we live among today — which include some tropical tree forms —  evolved around 160 million years ago, at the time the first flowers began to appear. Flower forms have proliferated over the eons. Petals, colors, leaf forms, stem length, fruits all continue to evolve because their habit of cross-pollination allows for a continuing creative mix of genes from different parents. This gives us the enormous variety of flowering plants covering the earth. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey CrawfordFerns, on the other hand, evolved a different method. They produce spores, usually along the undersides of their fronds, stored in sori. When the spores ripen, the sori open and the microscopic spores  puff off in the wind. Once on the ground, they form a tiny new plant, a prothallus, which produces both egg and sperm. Whatever water is available allows the sperm to swim to the egg and fertilize it. The new fern is launched, with genes from one only parent. This process has still produced a variety of ferns, but minimally compared to flowering plants. We’ve named 300,000 of the latter, to just 12,000 identified ferns. Only a handful of those — 380 species — live in North America.

Ferns also frequently reproduce by rhizomes, fibrous stems that also hold roots, traveling just under the ground. Fronds pop up along their length. That’s how the forest floors in my neighborhood have become covered by them. I am blessed to have a place filled with ferns — pictured below — that I can get to any time I want. It’s not quite my meditative dream, where I almost disappear into fern fronds, but it’s a good substitute. 

Bench among ferns on King Mountain in Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordIt’s along a popular trail, so I’m unlikely to be there for long without my closest genetic kin passing me by. But when they have passed, I’m still among my cousins. We are in the midst of a worldwide call for recognizing our kinship with people who share everything but the most superficial differences. Less than 1% of human DNA accounts for the marvelous variety of people we see on a busy street any day of the week. Given our millennias-long struggle to recognize that we are infinite varieties of the same creative force, that every human is family, it can be a reach too far for some to realize that we are also intimately related to the green world around us.

And yet that is one of the consoling things about sitting among the ferns. They, too, are family. We share DNA, about 25% of it. Our respiration depends on the same cytochrome-c. Our circadian rhythms depend on the same PRMT5 gene. These reach back to our earliest forebears, the one-celled organisms that came to life in the thermal vents of the ancient ocean 3.8 billion years ago. Though our genetic ways split 1.5 billion years ago, their chloroplasts and my mitochondria continued to travel the same journey, powering us both with energy. The minerals in the rocks and dirt I sit on among the ferns are the same minerals structuring both our stems and bones and flowing in and out of our cells. All gifts of the earliest stars.

Ferns and fairy bells in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Ferns and friends (and lots of pine pollen) in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

And here is the most magical thing: they see me. They know I’m there. Indigenous peoples have always known this. Now plant scientists like Stefano Mancuso are exploring features common to ocelli, the simple eyes of insects and other invertebrates. They are also found in epidermal cells of both leaves and roots. Mancuso is building on insights from the early twentieth century, when Austrian botanist Gottlieb Haberlandt proposed that plants can register images. Another botanist, Harold Wager, took recognizable pictures of the English countryside using a variety of these epidermal cells as lenses. His achievement earned him a front-page headline in the New York Times on September 8. 1908.

Harold Wager's NYTimes headline about his finding that plants have visual abilitiesWhy was this insight forgotten for more than 100 years? Mancuso suggests the idea of visual ability in plants was simply too eccentric for anyone to follow up on it. This fascinates me. Those were the years when Einstein was revolutionizing physics, opening the entire universe. The nineteenth century saw an endless parade of fossil hunters, set off by the insights of Scottish geologist James Hutton, who wrenched earth’s history out of the bible. As did The Origin of the Species, published just a few decades before Haberlandt. Darwin’s son, Francis, was a champion of his work. It wasn’t that people weren’t used to new and challenging world views. What made the idea that plants have visual capability a bridge too far?

Botanist Harold Wager's photos taken using plant cells as lenses

Botanist Harold Wager’s photographs, taken using plant cells as lenses. Note the recognizable human head in the upper left.

Institutionally, things haven’t changed much. But there are now revolutionary plant scientists like Mancuso, Monica Gagliano, and Suzanne Simard who are paving the way with studies of plant communication, memory, choice, and decision making. Their work tells me that as I sit on the ground among the ferns they not only see me but feel me. Roots, which could be considered the brains of plants, are exquisitely sensitive. They would sense changes in the weight, the air, the light above them. Even sitting on the bench in my fern alcove above I would change the light and air, give greater weight to the ground, subtly alter the temperature. Plants respond to light and chemical signals in the world around them. What do they detect from the chemicals I give off? Do they read my mood? Do they know I’ve come for comfort and peace? Do they embrace me?

That’s how it feels to be among them. Their aliveness and our infinite interconnectedness is something I feel so deeply. I know their resilience, their strength, their persistence. I am among beings that have lived through long, long eons, some quiet, others ferocious. They have survived what most others couldn’t. They have grown everywhere. Nothing surprises them. They blow in the wind and upright themselves. They burn and start growing again. Floods wash over them, recede, they adapt. Forty-four million years of global cooling? They cope. The air grows dry and they figure out how to work with it. The air grows moist and warm and they’re even happier. Great ice sheets come and they wait 50,000 years for the ice to melt and then start growing again.

Unfolding fern frond in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThe visual softness of their graceful arches is deceptive. The fern spines are strong, hard to the touch, hairy. The fiddleheads are firm, almost fiercely held as they start to open. The leafy pinnae growing from the stalks are pointed, papery, even leathery as the fronds age. And yet they are — as a whole, a community — soft. Artemis, the goddess of the woods, passes easily among them, rustling them slightly. They move aside, bending and recovering, ever retaking their space in the cosmos.

Their existence gives mine more room to be, more depth to depend on. What sustains you? I was asked recently, and I immediately thought of the green world that means so much to me, and the earth it springs from. All my relations, as the Lakota say. A constant showering of nourishment and abundance. And when I know that I am part of it, that the same energy that flows through all flows through me, that’s where my energy comes from, my sustenance. When I lose that connection I’m scattered, anxious, feeling engulfed by life’s details. But I take heart from the desert fern that dries up and reconstitutes itself once the rain comes. It reminds me that the peace ferns provide is something I can carry everywhere, revivifying it as it wilts again and again in the jangling flux of human life.

Fern fiddlehead along Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

 

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What we can do: gardening to save half the earth

Creative habitat with native plant gardening

I once designed a landscape for clients who wanted their property to blend in with the oak and hickory forest surrounding them. They’d read an article in the local paper about my advocacy for native plant gardening and liked the idea. This was at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, which is blessed with glorious native shrubs. We had a great time working with beautiful viburnums, vivid oakleaf hydrangeas, spicy bayberry, sweet-smelling clethra, native azaleas, and a lovely native rose.
 
A couple of years later, after listening to me give a talk on native plants, a woman who lived in the same neighborhood came up. She told me that her neighbors felt sorry for my clients, who had “spent all that money and ended up with something so wild looking.” A landscaper told me the same thing. He would drive prospective clients around to see what they preferred. He liked what I had done and kept hoping to find someone who agreed. They never did. Too wild, they would say, about the landscape pictured above.
 
So a new housing development carved out of a forest that began at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation 11,000 years ago ended up with house after house with the same design: lawn to the street with a kidney-shaped area of varying size containing one or two non-native trees. These were underplanted with a frill of non-native — and sometimes invasive — shrubs. Some would then box themselves in with a wall of unspeakably dull privet hedge. Though not invasive in the acidic soil of eastern Long Island, privet is taking over forests in many other states across the country.
 
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

I am not easily discouraged and, by and large, found the experience fascinating. I began to appreciate the theory that our landscape choices reflect our evolution on the savannas of East Africa. Deep in our consciousness, do we associate open grassland punctuated by small areas of trees and shrubs with safety? We can see our predators. So we are forever mowing down and hacking back the wilderness that we find threatening.
 
More immediate history has played a powerful role. After (and since) World War II there was a huge push to build houses and suburbanize farm fields and woods throughout the country. To soften the stark, boxy neighborhoods developers chose trees and shrubs for speedy growth, regardless of where they came from. Many of us grew up with a landscaping language that saw native plants as weeds. Native plant gardening was a laughable concept.
 
The archetypal post World War 2 suburb: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

The archetypal post-World War 2 suburban development: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

 
No more native hedgerows, filled with flowers and berries, birds and bees. Now hedges were all the same, uninteresting plants, shaved into a box. Rhododendrons, pulled out of the woods and marched along the fronts of houses, were then pruned so hard they never bloomed. Flat slabs of lawn became sacrosanct, lined with fast-growing birches and aggressive maples. When we wanted something unusual, or more colorful, we imported delicate red maples from the forests of Japan. Or dragged blue spruces out of the mountains of Colorado. When they didn’t prosper in the heat of our summers, we sprayed them with poisonous compounds. We got those from chemical companies that had flourished during the war and now needed new markets.
 
It didn’t take long for a landscape that grew out of a hodgepodge of interests to become the norm. So much so that a woman who tried growing vegetables in her front yard in Detroit was taken to court last year. There is no reason on earth to essentially pave our yards with mown grasses that can’t survive without excess water and chemicals. And yet we have so accustomed ourselves to it that it’s the law in certain places. It is, as the Zen masters say, a story we tell ourselves. And we can tell ourselves a different one.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri, by Betsey Crawford

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri

And must. If we are going to save half the earth to protect the biodiversity that every creature on the planet depends on, we need to change our landscaping story. We need another language. Satellite images tell us that lawns cover over 40 million acres in the lower 48 states. Half of homeowners also garden, which means we have upwards of 65 million gardeners. Allow them each an average eighth of an acre and homeowners in the US alone control up to 50 million acres of land.
 
Activists and organizations, with good reason, tend to focus on projects like saving the vast Amazon basin. But it’s also vitally important that we preserve, create, and connect local habitat everywhere we can. Mercifully, as gardeners, we don’t need to deal with the competing interests of eight separate countries. Or 400 indigenous nations. Or corporations itching for access to petroleum, minerals, beef, or palm oil. We can grab a shovel, put some plants in the ground, and make an immediate difference.
 
But it depends on the plants we choose, and the reasons we choose them. If we are growing for biodiversity, we have a rich and rewarding path ahead. Butterflies, birds, bees, moths, and other beings will discover our gardens. But it’s not what we’re used to. It may not be tidy. It goes through seasonal transitions. It’s more unpredictable. You leave your leaf litter on the ground to foster nutrition and manage moisture. There are bugs, and they are so crucial we need to aim for more of them, happily living in the leaf litter. In other words, it’s wild, or should be. We can organize and tame it, shape the landscape, choose and place plants to create beauty. But our fellow creatures need us to embrace wildness, no matter how urban our environment.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri

Birds and bugs have evolved over eons to adapt to the native plants they eat and nest in. And that’s what they need to survive. The monarch butterfly larva eats milkweed. That’s it. If there are no milkweeds, there will be no monarch butterflies or any of the other 11 species that specialize in milkweeds. Beautiful and fascinating plants, milkweeds’ lovely flowers turn into extraordinary seed pods. Once opened, thousands of silky threads float their attached seeds through the air. But milkweeds are not conventionally pretty. They’re a little wild looking. Those silky seed threads could land in the lawn! You would be hard pressed to find milkweeds in a nursery selling plants to the general public.

Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: common-milkweed-seedhead-asclepias-syriaca-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) seed pod and seeds

If there are enough open meadows and wetlands, there will be enough milkweeds. But as we destroy more and more of those, it’s left to gardeners to keep milkweed available for monarch butterflies. After we build and pave our neighborhoods, it’s up to us to use native trees as street trees to support the hundreds of life forms they shelter. Instead, we use pear trees imported from Asia. They grow upright for many years, so don’t need a lot of pruning. They provide a profusion of white flowers when everyone is desperate for a sign of spring. They aren’t susceptible to being eaten by our insects, so harbor no life at all. From a highway department’s point of view, they’re perfect. From a biodiversity standpoint, they’re a disaster.
 
Plants produce toxins to protect themselves from too much predation. Over millions of years, local bugs have evolved enzymes to neutralize those toxins. When you introduce a plant that insects didn’t evolve with, they can’t eat those toxic leaves. This may seem like a win for gardeners and planners. But not feeding your insects means you’re not feeding birds, lizards, frogs, small mammals, fish. You’re not allowing butterfly larvae to mature. Insects that we depend on to break down plant and animal detritus — thereby returning nutrients to the soil all life depends on — die out. First flowers and then whole plants disappear because there are no pollinators. Naturalist E.O. Wilson calls insects “the little things that run the natural world.”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

The idea of gardening for insects may seem alien in a world full of products to exterminate them. But nature has been at this way longer than we have. If insects consistently defoliated plants, there would be no photosynthesis, no plants, no animals, no us. The caterpillars munching your oak leaves are themselves likely to be eaten by birds or parasitized by wasps. If they make it past such hurdles, not much will get eaten before it’s time to spin their cocoons. Introduced aliens, like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles, can do a lot of damage because they have no natural predators. That’s the problem with all non-native species, animal and plant.
 
Over 5000 non-native plant species have taken over vast swathes of our natural world. It’s such a mess that in many places the only way to preserve the natural ecosystem is to first reclaim it. Eastern deciduous forests are being smothered by bittersweet and mile-a-minute vines. Autumn olive is choking Utah’s great river canyons. Wetlands are disappearing under the seductively pretty haze of lythrum’s magenta flowers. Some plants, like the melaleuca that is destroying Florida’s Everglades, were brought here to do what they did. Developers wanted to drain the swamp to contain mosquitos and allow building. A few invaders arrived by accident. Others, like the oats and annual grasses that have taken over the hills of California, were grown for fodder. The eucalyptus and pampas grass spreading along the west coast were among many, many plants brought here as novel ornamentals.

 

Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey.

The same sad trajectory is true for plant diseases and insects. In British Columbia, I drove past mile upon mile of boreal forest destroyed to the horizon by an Asian beetle. We are losing our native ash trees to the accidental importation of emerald ash borer. An early casualty of imported plants was the complete destruction of the eastern chestnut in the nineteenth century. When the European chestnut came here it carried a fungus to which it was resistant. The native one was not.
 
It’s a very complex problem, made even more so by unpredictability. Lythrum became a garden stalwart in the mid-1800s. It bloomed in back yards for 100 years before it became invasive. We don’t know why some plants reach invader status after such a long time. It may be genetic. Plants and insects evolve over time. One genetic switch may bring a dramatic change.
 
Early on, no one foresaw the damage alien plants would do when they were free of the constraints that kept them in bounds in their native homes. But we know now, and know that we can’t predict which seemingly desirable aliens will turn into invaders. So we are faced with not only an ecological problem but also a moral one. In his excellent and heartfelt book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Doug Tallamy asks a thought-provoking question. We go to great lengths to quarantine and prohibit diseases that affect humans and farm animals. “Why are the native plants that sustain us and our native animals less worthy of protection?”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri

Possible answers bring us back to the stories we tell ourselves. The dream of the west, and now most of the world, has been dominion. The earth is ours to subdue. Humans, or at least a select subset of them, are the undisputed lords of creation. Other humans, animals, plants, minerals all exist for the benefit of those with money and power. This is the driving force behind the destruction of the Amazon rainforest today. A milder but still deadly version drives the landscaping trade. New and more exotic plants, more lethal insecticides, billions spent on millions of acres of grass two inches high.

 The alternate dream isn’t new. It’s the dream our human consciousness emerged from: the deep knowledge that we are intimately related to everything on earth. Literally related: we share 45% of our DNA with plants and 60% with fruit flies. We share with insects the same enzymes, muscle fibers, neurons. Our hearts and brains do pretty much the same things. Our digestive and reproductive pathways are similar. Insects communicate, form communities, and work together, as we do. With infinite care, evolution has woven a web of interdependent beings to create the lush and beautiful planet we live on. Yet we are severing those miraculous bonds with increasing rapidity. All because of stories we tell ourselves about what progress or prosperity or happiness or aesthetics should look like. When we grab our shovels and replant a place for the abundance of life we are re-tying our links to the diverse world around us. And we are changing those stories.
 
White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

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The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide. 

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

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[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

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Songlines 2017: widening circles

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world

These words, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s exquisite Book of Hours, are slightly paradoxical because this year we traveled less than any of the other years since we set off on our journey in 2011.  My partner George’s health isn’t up to life on the road at this point, so my songlines this year became widening circles around Greenbrae, California, just north of San Francisco, where there is a whole world to explore. California hosts one of the most diverse native plant populations in the country and is home to snow-capped mountains, oceans, deserts, grasslands, coastal forests. Earlier this year I celebrated this extraordinary mix within easy reach in Wild Abandon: the Mystery and Glory of Plant Diversity. 

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Californians also care deeply about saving wild places. Half of the state is preserved land, an extraordinary accomplishment. I marvel at the knowledge of native plants and birds I find when meeting lawyers, nurses, teachers, business people on walks and hikes. In May, I joined a bioblitz for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever heard the word. I wrote about the fun we had cataloging every living thing within a small area of Mount Tamalpais in Blessed Unrest: the Bioblitz. It’s a celebration not only of our day but of the millions of people around the world who are taking actions, large and small, to save and repair the world.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hylea lineata) 

Rilke’s quote comes from one of the highlights of the year: spending three days with the ecological and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. Her Work that Reconnects helps people to confront their grief at what is happening to the earth, and to renew their commitment to the work they feel called to do. Rilke’s genius has supported her ever since she discovered him when she lived in Germany in her twenties, and her translation of his poetry punctuated our time with her. In The Work that Reconnects: a Weekend with Joanna Macy, I wrote about the extraordinary, moving circle of twenty-eight people, young and old, who gathered to move through Joanna’s spiral of gratitude, grief, and renewal. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) 

Out of the time with Joanna came other circles. There were several landscape designers there, and one of them, Susan Friedman, had a number of native plant gardens on a tour in early May. So, off I went. I described what I found in Retaining Paradise: Gardening with Native Plants, and wrote about a longtime passion: using our gardens to recreate the bird and animal habitat that built-up neighborhoods inevitably destroy. 

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) and bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey CrawfordJoanna’s workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in the heart of Oakland. While we were there, the bees from the beehive swarmed, as they got ready to leave for a new home. This inspired Susan, who’d been thinking about having a hive, to find a class on beekeeping. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing, but when she asked if I was interested, I instantly wrote back, ‘of course.’ I loved our day with the bees, and chronicled it in Treasuring Bees, Saving the World

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordOur life on earth is tied to the health and life of the bees, which can also be said of many things, including dirt. In The Intimate Bond: Humans and Dirt, I treasure its multi-faceted community and innate intelligence, which made it possible for us to evolve and keeps every living thing on earth going. Dirt is not cheap! Much of the urgent need to take care of the thin layer of soil on our planet lies in the endless time frame it takes to form it. Focusing on Utah, where you can literally drive through the planet’s ancient past, I explored its mysteries and consolations in The Solace of Deep TimeBlack crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordIn Greenbrae, I live near a lagoon that attracts a wonderful, shifting community of shorebirds all year. Around Easter an avalanche of ducklings started, family after family of adorableness so acute I was addicted to that walk for three months. This handsome night heron is part of  A Season of Birds, where I describe my happy visits to the vibrant life there — which included an unusual extended family — and honor the necessity and hard work of preserving and reclaiming such lands. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) 

And, of course, I spent the year celebrating flowers. For a few weeks each spring, California is an iris addict’s paradise. I wrote about my feelings for these bewitching flowers in Elegant, Wild, Mysterious: Loving Iris, and suggested that flowers’ ability to inspire love may help save the planet. I discussed the complications of our gorgeous roses in Passion and Poison: the Thorn in the Rose. In early August I explored one of the most joyful flower families on earth in One Big Happy Family: the Asteraceae, and created a gallery to show their beauty and wide diversity
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford
Then, later in August, on a trip to New York, I was able to do something I can’t do in California: stand in a sea of goldenrod. Naturally, that called for celebrating the way this extraordinary explosion of luminous yellow connects us to the heart of nature in The Gold Rush: the Joyful Power of Goldenrod. I also visited an early childhood home, set in a magical green world. I wove my memories and my realization about how deeply that time affected the life I’ve lived into A Girl in the Garden of Eden.

For Halloween I thought choosing ghostly white flowers for Happy Halloween: Ghosts in the Landscape would be fun, and it was. To my surprise, the fun turned out to be exploring why we have white flowers at all, and how their chemistry is related to ours. That post, too, inspired a gallery: Luminous Whites.

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica)

The only essay I didn’t write was written by Pope Francis. Laudate Si Repictured is an interweaving of words from his eloquent encyclical on the care of the earth with pictures of our beautiful planet. One of the quotes encapsulates the message I kept finding on my circling songlines this year:

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, AlaskaLoving the place we find ourselves will give us the strength and vitality to preserve it. Damage to the world and its people will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings of which we are a part.  A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world– the idea that we are the planet, not on the planet — is a gift we give both the earth and ourselves. 

I wish you all a new year of love, commitment, and beauty.

Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

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The gold rush: the joyful power of goldenrod

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joy Pye weed (Euchotrichum maculate) Westport, New York by Betsey CrawfordOne of the blessings of a visit to New York late last summer was seeing something I miss in California: a world awash in goldenrod. A member of the vast and happy Asteraceae family, Solidago canadensis, one of a hundred species of native goldenrods in the US, overflowed fields and banked roadsides near my sister’s house in the Adirondacks. Filled with tiny yellow daisy-like flowers up close, looking like an explosion of yellow fireworks from a near distance, and like a sea of sparkling yellow foam from a greater distance, goldenrod is the late August and September wildflower in most of the country, along with its aster companions.

In her passionately wise and luminous book, Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her first interview with her advisor at the State University of New York’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. Why, he asked, did she want to study botany. She had her answer ready: she wanted to know why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together. His answer was crushing. That, he said, was not a valid reason to study botany. Such considerations belonged to art, not science. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

Luckily for us, she was, though daunted, not discouraged, and later found other, more sympathetic teachers and mentors. But for a while, she left the indigenous knowing of her heritage behind while studying science as it was presented in her courses. It wasn’t until she was studying for her Ph.D. in Wisconsin that she found herself at a gathering of native elders who could speak of the depths of plants in ways her botany classes had not: their relationships to other plants, to the places where they grew, to the animals, birds and humans in their midst. The stories of their origins and names. The wisdom they have to share. 

And their beauty. As an artist, I would have happily explained (as artist friends did) that yellow and purple look so beautiful together because they are complementary colors. Each primary color, in this case yellow, has a complement composed of the other two primaries, here red and blue, creating purple. Complementary colors have a powerful synergy, both making the other zing, creating a combination more electric than, for example, pink and purple. However lovely the latter combination, it will always be less exciting to our brains than pairing purple and yellow, or orange and blue, or red and green. These are not the combinations you’d think of for a meditation garden. But if you want to look at a field of scintillating color, or add excitement to your garden, your painting or your wardrobe, interweaving complements is a surefire way to do it.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Other than red flowers against green leaves, nature hasn’t gone out of her way to combine complementary colors. And red flowers are relatively rare, orange even rarer, and true blue almost nonexistent. Purple is fairly common, and yellow abundant. All are dwarfed by the numbers of white flowers, which offer no opportunity for complementary drama. So it’s especially striking when nature has not only combined complements but thrown them about with as much abandon as she has goldenrod and asters. Robin Wall Kimmerer was talking specifically about New England asters, with their deep purple petals and deeper-than-goldenrod yellow centers. The stronger the purple, the more scintillating the combination, though with the many lighter asters, and with the pink-purple thistle shown here, the combination is still electric. 

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

But I agree with her about goldenrod and New England asters: their combined gorgeousness is a perfectly good reason to want to study botany. And while it may be true that aesthetics are not the province of science, there’s fascinating science connected to beauty, starting with the exquisitely sensitive cones nestled in our retinas. Millions of neurons, waiting to encode for our brains the light waves bouncing off the world around us. Two-thirds of our cones are dedicated to the longer wavelengths of the warmer colors — like the yellows of goldenrod. Another third is devoted to the seeing their green leaves. Only 2% of our cones are reading the purple aster petals, which reflect back the shortest wavelengths of light. 

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York by Betsey Crawford

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York

Why yellow and purple? Carotenoids in the goldenrod and aster centers, and anthocyanins in the aster petals. Chemicals that reflect those colors back to us, and, among other things, protect the flowers from too much of the ultraviolet light we can’t see, and that burns both our skin and the petals’. To bees, who can see in the ultraviolet spectrum,  goldenrod’s yellow is even more incandescent than it is to us. But they hardly need the pizazz. There are so many solidagos, with so many individual flowers per plant, in so many places that they can’t be missed. Bees abound in those fields, picking up the sticky, heavy pollen and bringing it back to the hive to make bee bread for the winter.

I think it’s the sheer exuberance of the solidago phenomenon that I love so much. This is nature at her most joyful, maybe even her whackiest. Why not throw millions of luminous yellow flowers out there as most other flowers fade? Throw in some purple for dazzle! Turn the neighboring leaves vivid red and orange! Provide winter food for thousands of tiny creatures who return the favor by pollinating the flowers. Create larger creatures to stand in the fields, with carefully crafted eyes connected to brains capable of awe. Fill them with wonder at what has been wrought. Those wildly yellow early autumn fields are a sign of a creation that can’t be stopped. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

I take a lot of comfort in this vast energy. Although such fields are plowed and bulldozed daily for grazing or agriculture, houses or parking lots, this sheer vibrancy tells me nature is far from fragile in the face of her heedless humans. Another essay in Braiding Sweetgrass details the destruction of Lake Onondaga, sacred to the Onondaga people of upstate New York. After more than a century of pumping industrial waste up to sixty feet deep into and around the lake, along with the sewage of the growing city of Syracuse, it’s now a Superfund site. In fact, nine Superfund sites. Long gone are the wetlands, the trees, the oxygen-generating plants, the moss, the birds, the frogs, the once crystal clear water.

The same story can be told of countless places. The details vary, the heartbreak is painfully similar. There is a lot of restoration going on, even if grudgingly on the part of the corporations and governments that caused the destruction. People the world over are pulling beloved, damaged places back from the brink. The same is happening with Lake Onondaga. There are attempts, some good, some bad, to restore a semblance of natural life to this dead landscape. Of the ones described in the essay, my favorite is the work being done by nature herself, who sent the ‘oldest and most effective of land healers…the plants themselves.’

Seeds of trees took root in the white, gluey sludge and slowly grew. Birds landed in their branches and dropped the seeds of berrying shrubs. Clovers and other legumes, among the most important of our plant allies, arrived and began pulling nitrogen into the muck. The endlessly adaptable grass family moved in. Their roots add humus, and the first glimmering of soil making can be seen. 

It’s a slow process of enormous strength, and one we can trust. That’s where I take comfort. Of course, we should be doing everything in our power to stop the destruction and repair the damage. Nature should be able to rely on us, too. But as she asks, she also inspires.  When we need courage, and ardor, and zeal for this work, she invites us to stoke those fires by standing in the midst of a sea of goldenrod as it pulses with energy, radiating her vibrant, enduring, indomitable heart. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

When I first thought of the title for this Halloween post, I had fun in mind — white flowers that have ghostly or skeletal effects — and there are those, like the cotton grass above and the trillium and others below. But the more I thought about white flowers, the more questions I had. How did they become white? Is it a loss of pigment or a color of its own? Why are there so many of them? Depending on the region, they can far outnumber flowers in the blue to red to orange range, and outstrip the numerous species of yellow flowers. Studies show that pollinators, given a choice, will gravitate to colors. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of white? Is there one? It turns out that white flowers are full of mystery. Which is, indeed, fun.

White flowers: Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California by Betsey Crawford

The very ghostly newborn petals of Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California

The earliest angiosperms, more than 100 million years ago, are thought to have been white, cream or pale green. Since Darwin, people — including me — have been happily saying that the more vivid colors slowly evolved to attract pollinators, whose vision long predated the flowers. And that appears to be true. Or, at least, there’s no strong body of evidence saying it’s not true. But, as it turns out, there’s no strong body of empirical evidence saying it is true. Empirical evidence implies that we can see something happen in real time, and it’s hard to see an evolutionary process in our brief lifespan. 

White flowers: Ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

This one is actually called ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There are studies that show, for example, flowers becoming redder in as little as a single generation as more hummingbirds pollinate them. Further studies show that when given choices, pollinators will choose colors over white flowers, though that may be because the colorful ones stand out more vividly against green foliage. Finding flowers efficiently is crucial to the success of both flower and pollinator, so the easier the flower is to see, the better. Very important, the stronger the relationship a pollinator has with a specific color, the more likely it is to bring matching pollen from one flower to fertilize another in the same species.

White flowers: Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

So, we know that pollinators have an intimate relationship with flower color. Or, more accurately, with the color’s wavelength, since the purple we see is not what the pollinator sees. But, with the explosion of genetic information in recent years, there’s also a growing appreciation for other factors that are at play, especially in how white flowers have evolved. Flowers in the blue to purple to red range use anthocyanins to create their color, the chemicals that make foods like grapes and raspberries so good for us. If the dominant anthocyanin is delphinidin, the flower is purple, if pelargonidin, red, if cyanidin, magenta to lavender. Other flavonoids, such as anthoxanthins, along with a variety of carotenoids, create yellows and oranges. 

White flowers: Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

In the course of mutations that alter the expression of specific enzyme and protein pathways, the amounts of these color-inducing chemicals can vary, changing the color of the flower. Mutations may also cause the pathways to stop working altogether. The resulting loss of function can return the flower to its primordial white, a state that’s likely to be irreversible since it would take a series of very specific mutations for those particular pathways to work again. 

White flowers: Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

There is a widely accepted division of flower/pollinator relationships: bees prefer flowers in the blue range, while hummingbirds gravitate to red, butterflies to pink, moths and beetles to white. And studies do back up these general preferences. But there’s a lot of variation. If bees weren’t interested in pollinating white flowers, we wouldn’t have almonds, apples, plums or any number of other fruits in the Rosaceae family. Thus, other factors are apparently important, among them scent, availability, abundance, learned behavior, competition, as well as the match of plant shapes to pollinator characteristics. It also may be that the subtle pinks that make white apple blossoms so poignantly beautiful to us are neon signs to bees. More mysteries. As every study says, ‘more research is needed.’

White flowers: Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

As fascinating as I find all this, I’m somewhat resistant to the idea that the gorgeous hues of reds, purples and lavenders I love so much are a result of ‘the number of hydroxyl groups attached to the B-ring of the molecule,’ or that tender, luminous whites are due to the functional failure of these groups. Reducing something as magical as color to the action or loss of enzyme and protein pathways seems like a comedown. On the other hand, my seeing and treasuring these colors is possible only because my body relies on similar pathways. Which brings another mysterious dimension forward: the fact that flowers and I share biological functions and genes, and, in sharing them, share each other.

White flowers: white thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

Not only that, but without a strong connection to a variety of pollinating animals and insects, and the biology and genetics we have in common with them, neither flowers nor I would be here to begin with. All those pathways need constant nourishment. Like me, the pollinators depend on flowers for nutrition and survival. Flowers depend on these friendly forces, which can include me, for reproduction. We all depend on a huge array of microbes and fungi to create the nutrients we thrive on from the soil at our feet. We depend on the movements of air currents, the hydrology of water, the minerals released from rocks. 

Sitting among flowers on a forest path, or the desert floor, or out in a meadow, we’re held in a vast array of interlinking pathways, beating our hearts, feeding our cells; moving water, air, nutrients; creating color, vision, scent. All mysteriously designed to keep every one of us — flower, leaf, dirt, human, bee, bird, beetle — alive and blossoming. 

White flowers: White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

More beautiful white flowers can be found in the gallery Luminous Whites.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

As a landscape designer, I specialized in native plants. When I first started my business in the 1980s, the workers at a local wholesale nursery called me ‘the weed lady.’ I was always asking for plants that everyone else was pulling out. Even clients attracted by my natural landscaping approach would propose that first ‘we get rid of all these weeds.’ I would gently point out that those were the plants that made the landscape natural. I gave lots of lectures about native plants, back in slide-show days, with pictures of the glories all around us. Why, I would ask, live in a house in an area of distinct beauty, and then make it look like everywhere else? By the time I retired, attitudes had shifted enough that local nurseries were competing with each other for the largest stock of indigenous plants, and several were growing them from local seed. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) orange native plants, El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

With a few exceptions, I didn’t use natives exclusively. In southern New York, at the far eastern end of Long Island, there were too few native perennials to create lush, all-summer-bloom gardens. And the browsing hordes of deer meant that unfenced gardens needed deer-resistant plants, which were not necessarily native. My own property bordered on a preserve, so I had my fill of the beauties of native Long Island: switchgrass, little bluestem, bayberry, blueberry, shad, cedar, wild roses. Before the deer decided to include them on their menu, the early summer meadow was dotted with butterfly weed, and the fall meadow would be filled with goldenrod and asters.

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) yellow flowered native plants in San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

But near the house, where I wanted a summer full of scent and color, I stayed with the aromatic Mediterranean plants that deer don’t like: sages, lavender, catmint. I mixed these with grasses and deer resistant shrubs. This was an approach that worked with any open, sunny, deer-prone property. But even without deer, people understandably want to be able to enjoy the beauty of a blooming summer. On Long Island that meant non-natives in garden beds. So I looked for plants that behaved like natives: didn’t need lots of water during the heat waves, could cope with wet feet in the winter, and didn’t need to be sprayed for bugs. Most importantly, for the sake of the nitrate-susceptible waters surrounding us and the aquifer below, plants that weren’t dependent on fertilizer. 

California wild rose (Rosa California) pink flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

It’s in the larger plants that Long Island natives excel, and I planted a lot of native shrubs. Loathing the ubiquitous walls of privet hedge that close off the landscape, I loved to create thickets of native trees and shrubs that would bloom in spring, produce bird-enticing berries all summer, and beautiful leaf color in the fall. Planted thickly enough, this approach produces plenty of privacy. Even better, whether on the property or passing by it, you were looking at Long Island, and not any prosperous suburb anywhere in the country.

During my wonderful weekend with Joanna Macy in early April, I was one of several people in the landscaping business. Susan Friedman, a landscape architect, told me that four of her native plant gardens were on a garden tour on May 7. So, off I went to see the California approach, on that tour and another the following week.

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), purple flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

California has far more native perennials and grasses than New York, so it’s easier to create entirely native gardens. The biggest issue, once the winter rains are finished, is water. Natives are ideally suited for the dry months, since that’s exactly what they evolved to cope with. None of Susan’s clients wanted thirsty lawns, so stonework became an important part of the design: paths, a patio area around a pool, striking boulders set among the plants. Dry stream beds thread through the gardens. They are not only natural design elements — the California coastal hills are very rocky — but act as catch basins, absorbing runoff from winter downpours. This keeps water in the ground longer, protects the soil, and prevents downhill streams from erosive flooding. Among the rocks were the glorious, thriving plants, echoing the hills beyond.

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus 'Butter Yellow') yellow-flowering native plants, in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus “Butter Yellow’) in Novato, California

Why plant natives? In a neighborhood stripped of its natural vegetation and already filled with the artificial environment of buildings and roads, does it really matter what we put in our gardens? As long as we forgo plants that require poisons or scarce water to survive, and choose among the vast array that can be grown organically, what harm are we doing by enjoying plants that are native to Japan, or the Mediterranean, or Eurasia? In many cases, there is no harm, if that’s our criteria. I loved my blue-flowered, fragrant Mediterranean plants, which made bees very happy and were perfectly content to prosper with little water and a yearly dose of compost. I welcome daffodils and tulips in the spring. I’m delighted to catch the scent of luscious peonies in flowery cottage gardens, behind fences covered with hardy roses.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea), pink-flowering native plants in El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

But there is a serious danger, and it’s often too late once the harm is discovered. Purple loosestrife was a popular garden plant, a Eurasian import introduced in the 1800s. It took generations before it was obvious that it was a rampant pest, choking lakes and river banks, and destroying marshes in so many places that it’s banned in over thirty states. Tall, handsome pampas grass from South America seemed an ideal addition to dry California landscapes; now it’s spreading onto coastal hillsides and taking over wetlands. Privet, from China, seemed to be such an ideal hedge you can find it boxing off properties from coast to coast, but it’s filling forest understories in every southeastern state. Autumn olive, an Asian import planted widely for erosion control, was prized for its quick growth and soft, silvery foliage. Now, among many other places, it’s infesting the great river canyons in Utah. 

There’s a long list of noxious garden escapees that are crowding out indigenous species. Nearly half of our at-risk natives and 20% of the endangered ones are threatened by non-native invaders. So, if we prize our natural landscapes, exotics of any kind are a potential threat. In a world full of flower lovers, served by a nursery trade dependent on offering new, tempting varieties each year, this is a complicated problem. We are bucking evolution when we move plants from one part of the world to another, whether for gardening or agriculture. The factors that control invasive behavior in one place — birds, bugs, soil chemistry, climate — may not be there in another. Interactions are unpredictable, even when all seems well for many years.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) purple flowered native plants, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

Using native plants in gardens is one solution to this multi-layered problem, but it isn’t the only reason to plant for the place we’re in. Reducing our use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water is another compelling reason. As gardeners and homeowners, our vast numbers put us in the forefront of efforts to keep our groundwater, air, and soil healthy. Offering birds, butterflies, and bees the plants they have evolved with protects their habitat and numbers. One gardener on the tour hosts 46 species of birds, 12 species of butterflies, and more than 200 species of insects. If all the homes in a neighborhood created native plant landscapes, it would form a greenbelt of food and nesting sources. Add on more neighborhoods taking the same approach, and you’re knitting together significant territory for wildlife, who leave areas that get too chopped up.  

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata 'Mt. Garland'), magenta-flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata ‘Mt. Garland’) Novato, California.

These are wonderful reasons for planting natives. And there’s more. For me, preserving the natural landscape is as much a spiritual question as a practical one. Native plants are the soul of their place. The hills surrounding me right now, with their coast oaks, manzanitas, sages, buckwheats, mariposa lilies, sweeps of goldfields, purple needle grass, and hosts of other drought-tolerant, hardy, beautiful plants, speak to me of the spirit of the northern coast of California. Their language is very distinct from the oak/hickory forests, full of mountain laurel, sweet pepperbush and swamp azaleas, or the rolling dunes white with blooming beach plum that I knew on coastal Long Island. And both are utterly unlike the blowing grasses, coneflowers, rudbeckias, and sand lilies of the open prairies. Those plants, in turn, speak a different dialect than those in the deserts of the southwest, or the canyons of Utah, or the mountains of Alberta.

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) white flowered native plants, El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

When we replace these varied and specific languages with another, often generic one, we detach ourselves from the spirit of the land we are part of. I was blessed to live for many years in a place of great and wild beauty. Traveling for the past few years has brought me through one paradise after another. The way we have arranged our towns and cities has created far too many dead landscapes, cutting us off from feeling an intimate bond with the unbounded beauty and energy of the earth that created us. This is a great loss because loving the place we find ourselves gives us the courage and vitality to preserve it. Connecting to the plants that are the life of native landscapes literally roots us in the ground of our being.

Orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with purple blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium vellum) native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) Novato, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I did something recently that I’ve been putting off for a long time: I joined Joanna Macy and twenty-eight other people for a weekend of the Work that Reconnects, workshops she has been developing and offering since the 1970s. I knew of Joanna as a philosopher of both ecology and Buddhism, full of wisdom and deep practice on both fronts. Over the years I would see opportunities to join her. I’d carefully read the description, which always included confronting our deep pain about what is happening with the earth. It sounded profound; it sounded like something I should do; it sounded very painful. I would decide to do it another time. 

There were several threads that went into joining Joanna this spring. I am in Marin for now, just across the San Francisco Bay from her home in Berkeley. She is in her mid-eighties, and I wanted to be able to work with her before she completely passes the baton to others. I listened to an interview with her which made me realize how delightful she is, so I could assume delight would be part of the workshop. And I was in such pain at the drastic backward lurch we took with last fall’s election, that I figured I couldn’t feel any worse. I might even see my way to some clarity and faith, since the weekend was called, after her book of the same title, “Active Hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy.” 

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) taken in Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

As with many things we dread, it wasn’t what I feared. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend. The work was even familiar, similar to practices I’d done some years ago at my beloved Genesis Farm, a spiritual and ecological center in New Jersey. There, as here, I sat in circles large and small, paired up, went off alone, all to explore not only what I felt, but where such feelings could lead me, how to operate with them and beyond them. Once again, with Joanna’s group, I learned how much I share with others, and how much comfort their presence on the journey gives me.

There is, sadly, an unending amount of pain and anger to be felt when we are alive to what’s happening on our planet: the loss of habitat, the rate of extinction, the pollution of oceans and rivers, the unraveling of polar integrity as the climate warms, the struggles of species, including our own. The list is literally endless. Though I spend a lot of my time in continual concern about and celebration of plants, when I answered prompts that asked for my worst fears or deepest hopes, my first response was often about the suffering of people:  hungry children, trapped women, exploited workers, refugees with nowhere to go, indigenous people losing their homes and sacred places. The thinking behind the devastation of the natural world is the same thinking that exploits and degrades humans.

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

This heightened awareness led to one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. I’ve always assumed that the earth could survive us better than we can survive each other. That, if necessary, she would eventually shrug us off her beautiful shoulders and get on with her very long life. Animals and plants are resilient. Cities would eventually crumble, plants would take root in the rubble, creatures would spread out into their ancient habitats. Other life forms would eventually evolve. There was a certain grief-filled comfort in this. 

Then Joanna led an exercise called ‘milling,’ where we walked around our space aimlessly until she had us stop. We took the hands of the person nearest us and looked into his or her eyes while Joanna spoke of the profound beauty of seeing this unique and precious being, the only one that will ever be. Then we moved on. After about five encounters, we stopped.

Later that day, in another context, a young, radiant rabbi, pregnant with her first child, said that she, too, had always thought the earth would be fine without us. “But,” she said, “when we were milling, I realized that the earth loves us.” 

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) taken in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I was very moved by her, and by everyone there, especially the young people, finding their way. There were heart-rending moments. A man in his mid-twenties wept at the speed of the earth’s losses, and the despair that he can do anything to stop them. Several of his contemporaries wondered if they should bring children into this world. A young woman whose baby had just turned one talked about how much she feels mothers are shamed in our society. Our rabbi spoke of having to be strong for her congregation, who are terrified of the anti-semitism unleashed in the last year.  One woman is afraid the ocean will be dead by the time her 12-year-old daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist, is ready. Another young man talked about trying to resist the lure of violent protest.

Anguish and rage can rise easily when we let them. But we are often afraid to give them space because we have no idea what to do with their force. By closing difficult emotions off, we risk numbing our ability to respond to the urgencies of this time. Or we can be all too willing to feel them, but not to release them, and then be immobilized by a tangle of despair and fury. The constant barrage of things to feel bad about is overwhelming and deeply dispiriting. No matter how much we want to help, we feel like hummingbirds taking a drop of water to a wildfire. 

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Joanna has been a Buddhist since the 1960s, when she went to India for the Peace Corps, with her husband and children. Her work took her among newly arrived refugees from Tibet: the young Dalai Lama and the monks that had fled Chinese occupation. Inspired by the peaceful good humor radiating from them, despite all they had been through, she began to study Buddhism, and eventually became a teacher.

So it would be natural that her solution to the problem of pain is simple, ancient and very challenging: be present. Allow it. Breathe it into our hearts and give it room, give it time. Let ourselves mourn and rage. No matter how large or overwhelming, grant whatever comes the space it asks for. And then, breathing out, release it. In all, a process that might require a lot of steady breathing.

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I loved being with Joanna. She is an embodiment of the work she offered us — by turns joyful, angry, full of grief, impish, wise, questioning, organizing, open to the flow. She’s a living version of The Guest House, Rumi’s poem about embracing everything. 

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

That was the steadily opening heart of the weekend: embrace it all, accord whatever comes its place, release it back into the flow, carry on with your thread in the fabric. These difficult emotions arise from our greatest gift as humans: compassion. Joanna moved us through an ever-renewing spiral, from gratitude, to honoring our pain, to renewing our vision, to going forth with the part of the work that we have chosen, or that has chosen us. “Our approach,’ she says in her book, Active Hope, ‘is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness.”

The pictures chosen for this essay come from a time when my only choice was to live with pain. My partner, George, was dangerously ill with kidney failure, from a reaction to blood pressure medication. There was no possibility of fending off the dread and heartache. I could only do exactly as Joanna said: allow it. I would walk into the Santa Monica Mountains and feel one emotion after another: sadness, fear, anger, love, pity. And, with all of that, transcendence. It was spring, wildflowers were blooming, and they were my solace. Grief, which rose from loving, could also be comforted by loving. 

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Damage to the world and its people, which comes from greed and obliviousness, will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings that we are a part of. This is no simple, ‘love, sweet love’ invocation. The kind of love we need is complex, educated, dedicated to human and more-than-human community.

To rethink the way we do things, we need to rethink what we treasure. We need to re-embed our wisp of human history into the long, deep time of earth history. A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world is the most nourishing gift we can give both the earth and ourselves. If it’s clear that we are the planet, instead of on the planet, our choices — and our courage to make them — will change dramatically. 

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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