Even in the concrete jungle, animal teachers are everywhere. We, as individuals and as a species are never alone. The plants, insects and animals that make up our natural environment are crucial to survival of the planet. Zooburbia (Parallax Press, 2014) by Tai Moses reveals the relationship between nature and modern-day life. This excerpt, from chapter 5 “How to Make a Forest,” explains the importance of biodiversity and supporting native plant species.
Years ago, I met a butterfly farmer in Maui. She and her husband owned some land on the flanks of Mount Haleakala where they raised swallowtail, monarch, and Gulf fritillary butterflies. They had so many butterflies that they released the extras to flutter around the property pollinating all the flowering tropical plants. There were butterflies indoors too, perched on the bathroom towel rack, getting a sip of water at the kitchen faucet, clinging to the bedroom curtains. The butterfly farmer told me she’d gotten so used to seeing butterflies that if she opened her eyes in the morning and didn’t see a butterfly, she worried that something was wrong.
I’ve thought about that remark many times over the years, because I too have come to believe that when I don’t see a butterfly—or a bee, a beetle, or a bird—something is deeply wrong. Like frogs, native bees, and songbirds, monarchs and other species of butterflies are disappearing from our environment as their habitat is developed and the host plants they depend upon for survival are replaced by exotic plants that do not sustain butterflies, or any other insect, for that matter. All the gardeners I know say they see fewer butterflies, and fewer insects of all kinds, every year. People who have their hands in the soil on a regular basis notice these kinds of things.
For decades, we have been systematically eliminating the food sources insects need to survive—namely, the native vegetation that occurs naturally in whatever place you live. Species of native plants have coevolved with the insects over thousands of years. The native plants feed the bugs and the birds, and in turn the bugs and birds pollinate the plants or help distribute their seeds, thereby participating in one of the earth’s most fundamental rituals of cooperation. Virtually all birds, except sea birds, depend on insects for food. Birds cannot survive on seeds and berries alone. Baby songbirds eat nothing but insects. Dwindling insects means dwindling birds.
The most crucial thing I learned in all of my reading and studying and conversations with far wiser and more experienced wildlife gardeners was this: native plants are the irreplaceable foundations of life. When we remove native plants from our landscapes and replace them with roads and parking lots and lawns and exotic shrubs, we create havoc in the natural world. Without native plants, there will be no native butterflies or insects and without insects there will be no frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, birds, bats, raccoons, bobcats, deer… and on up the food chain to humans. Declining populations of butterflies and wild bees are a sign of that slow-motion disaster-in-progress. City and suburban gardens that are carpeted with lawns and colorful ornamental shrubs and flowers may look lush and inviting, but they are practically devoid of nutrition for insects and birds.
Learning all of this made everything much simpler for me. One of the most important things I could do to help my wild neighbors was to restore native habitat—to support the right kinds of growing things, remove some of the harmful things, and then stand back and allow nature to flourish. The entomologist and ecologist Douglas Tallamy writes that, “gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference.”
There were already many native shrubs growing on the hillside behind my home, so I planted several more in my backyard. I put a birdbath where the tomato cages once stood. The level space where the two raised beds used to be became a small meadow of native bunch grasses commingled with wildflowers like poppies and asters. There had always been jays and towhees on the hillside, but I began to see far more species. I counted goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, and bushtits. Downy woodpeckers were regular visitors. I saw my first ruby-crowned kinglet. Cabbage white, skippers, and swallowtail butterflies fluttered over the meadow grasses. On summer afternoons, when the sun slipped behind the hillside and shade crept over the meadow, I would go outside and marvel at all the buzzing, flying, flitting, cheeping, singing life.
Sharing my environment with wildlife meant relinquishing some control, which I found liberating. Instead of trying to outwit nature and sneak a harvest of exotic vegetables under its nose, I now felt that we were allies. Gardening for wildlife gave me permission to be untidy and imperfect. It was a relief to abandon the perfectionist tendencies that had caused me so much torment. The less I compulsively raked, groomed, and tidied up my garden, the more likely it was that birds and wildlife would find nourishment and shelter there. Instead of deadheading flowers, I left them on the stalks as food for finches and sparrows. A volunteer bush of oregano was growing in a corner of the garden. I ignored it, letting it grow tall and spindly, and when it flowered, its white blossoms were covered in ecstatic bees from morning to night.
I used to be annoyed when I saw bites taken out of the leaves in my garden. But leaf damage could also be a sign of the presence of caterpillar larvae, which would soon became the butterfly or moth whose beauty I so enjoyed. Ladybugs, butterflies, and bees made their winter homes in wilted flower stalks, and drifts of fallen leaves were mulch for trees. A pile of dead vegetation in the corner of the yard made a cozy shelter for lizards and other small creatures. As the vegetation decomposed, it provided food and nutrients for the soil and for the next generation of growing things.
As our planet’s prairies, forests, and wetlands shrink, our city and suburban gardens, no matter what size they are, can do a lot to help rescue many species from the brink. Collectively, the patchwork mosaic of our backyards, front yards, decks, terraces, rooftops, balconies, community gardens, sidewalk planters, vacant lots, and median strips adds up to a tremendous amount of habitat—a lot of places for weary, migrating songbirds and butterflies to find a bite to eat and a place to rest.
In the face of climate change and widespread habitat loss, the gardener-poet Benjamin Vogt says that gardening has become an ethical act. “Choosing native plants may be a moral choice,” he writes. “Asking for them in nurseries is asking for change, for restoration, for healing.”
If you plant a tub of milkweed on your little apartment terrace and a monarch butterfly finds it and lays her eggs, you have just lodged a protest against the forces that would cover our world with concrete; that would fill our rivers and streams with chemicals; that would lay waste to our forests and cut the tops off our mountains. Tearing out your lawn and planting a native oak and a little meadow of native grasses and wildflowers is an inspired way to condemn the giant pesticide and lawn-care industries that still spray with abandon many of the life-destroying chemicals Rachel Carson warned us about in her manifesto Silent Spring.
The same measures that safeguard our wild neighbors also enrich our human communities. When neighbors agree not to use rat poisons to protect nesting hawks and owls, or to forgo the use of pesticides and herbicides to protect bees, butterflies, and songbirds, these decisions benefit not just wildlife, but children, pets, and every other living thing. By preserving or restoring native habitat around our homes, not only do we get to enjoy the beauty of the natural landscape, we support the web of biodiversity that enables all species, including our own, to survive. We experience the joy of giving something back to this earth that has given us so much.
Used with permission from Zooburbia: Meditations on the Wild Animals Among Us (2014) by Tai Moses, with illustrations by Dave Buchen. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.