OXFORD, Pa. — I GREW up thinking little of plants. I was interested in snakes and turtles, then insects and, eventually, birds. Now I like plants. But I still like the life they create even more.
Plants are as close to biological miracles as a scientist could dare admit. After all, they allow us, and nearly every other species, to eat sunlight, by creating the nourishment that drives food webs on this planet. As if that weren’t enough, plants also produce oxygen, build topsoil and hold it in place, prevent floods, sequester carbon dioxide, buffer extreme weather and clean our water. Considering all this, you might think we gardeners would value plants for what they do. Instead, we value them for what they look like.
When we design our home landscapes, too many of us choose beautiful plants from all over the world, without considering their ability to support life within our local ecosystems.
Last summer I did a simple experiment at home to measure just how different the plants we use for landscaping can be in supporting local animals. I compared a young white oak in my yard with one of the Bradford pears in my neighbor’s yard. Both trees are the same size, but Bradford pears are ornamentals from Asia, while white oaks are native to eastern North America. I walked around each tree and counted the caterpillars on their leaves at head height. I found 410 caterpillars on the white oak (comprising 19 different species), and only one caterpillar (an inchworm) on the Bradford pear.
Was this a fluke? Hardly. The next day I repeated my survey on a different white oak and Bradford pear. This time I found 233 caterpillars on the white oak (comprising 15 species) and, again, only one on the Bradford pear.
Why such huge differences? It’s simple: Plants don’t want to be eaten, so they have loaded their tissues with nasty chemicals that would kill most insects if eaten. Insects do eat plants, though, and they achieve this by adapting to the chemical defenses of just one or two plant lineages. So some have evolved to eat oak trees without dying, while others have specialized in native cherries or ashes and so on.
But local insects have only just met Bradford pears, in an evolutionary sense, and have not had the time — millennia — required to adapt to their chemical defenses. And so Bradford pears stand virtually untouched in my neighbor’s yard.
In the past, we thought this was a good thing. After all, Asian ornamentals were planted to look pretty, and we certainly didn’t want insects eating them. We were happy with our perfect pears, burning bushes, Japanese barberries, porcelain berries, golden rain trees, crape myrtles, privets, bush honeysuckles and all the other foreign ornamentals.
But there are serious ecological consequences to such choices, and another exercise you can do at home makes them clear. This spring, if you live in North America, put up a chickadee nest box in your yard. If you are lucky, a pair of chickadees will move in and raise a family. While they are feeding their young, watch what the chickadees bring to the nest: mostly caterpillars. Both parents take turns feeding the chicks, enabling them to bring a caterpillar to the nest once every three minutes. And they do this from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. for each of the 16 to 18 days it takes the chicks to fledge. That’s a total of 350 to 570 caterpillars every day, depending on how many chicks they have. So, an incredible 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars are required to make one clutch of chickadees.
And chickadees are tiny birds: just a third of an ounce. What if you wanted to support red-bellied woodpeckers in your yard, a bird that is about eight times heavier than a chickadee? How many caterpillars would that take?
What we plant in our landscapes determines what can live in our landscapes. Controlling what grows in our yards is like playing God. By favoring productive species, we can create life, and by using nonnative plants, we can prevent it.
An American yard dominated by Asian ornamentals does not produce nearly the quantity and diversity of insects needed for birds to reproduce. Some might argue that we should just let those birds breed “in nature.” That worked in the past, but now there simply is not enough “nature” left. And it shows. Many bird species in North America have declined drastically in the past 40 years.
Fortunately, more and more gardeners are realizing that their yards offer one of the most empowering conservation options we have, and are sharing their properties with the nature around them.
By the way, you might assume that my oak was riddled with unsightly caterpillar holes, but not so. Since birds eat most of the caterpillars before they get very large, from 10 feet away the oak looked as perfect as a Bradford pear.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 11, 2015, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening.
All animal photos by Douglas W. Tallamy except the woodpecker. Rob Cardillo for The New York Times (violets), Susan Farley for The New York Times (black-eyed Susans), Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times (mayapple), William Widmer for The New York Times (oak), Randy Harris for The New York Times (pawpaw), Mike Mergen (spicebush), Scott Camazine/Getty Images (bayberry), Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency (milkweed) and John McNamara (woodpecker).
Charles Eisenstein is interviewed by Pachamama Alliance about “What kind of world do you want to live in?” and gives us a taste of what we can expect in his new book Climate: A New Story in this series of short videos:
The Core Themes of Climate: A New Story
What Kind of World Do You Want to Live in?
Our Salvation Will Come from the Margins
Signs that Humanity is Returning to Loving a Living Earth
Join the Sustainable Rogue Valley group Sunday Aug. 11th from 12:30 – 2:00 at the UU Fellowship Hall at 129 NW E Street, Grants Pass, OR and discover what you can do to help make your local community and our global community more resilient, regenerative and climate-friendly.
Ecological State: Regenerative land management practices create dramatic increases in biodiversity, water retention, and carbon sequestration. Regen Network monitors on-the-ground conditions and generates trusted attestations about the ecological state of managed land and water areas. Source: Regen Network
Building educational ecosystems of collaboration to improve planetary health
A couple of times in my life I have been thrown into deep reflection by the question “what if this was a magic wand and you could make a wish come true?”
The other day I was not asked that question, but I had a conversation with someone who is in an exceptional financial position and connected with powerful influencers. One person with the potential of being a key enabler of scaling-out capacity and action in regeneration around the globe. Yes there are many people in such positions, yet few who are so switched on to the urgency for redesigning the human impact on Earth.
Our conversation — and please don’t ask me for names at this point — was wide ranging and encouraging. It made me ask myself the big ‘What if questions’:
What if funding was no longer an issue and billions would be liberated to support the local and bioregional capacity building for ecosystems restoration and the regeneration of communities, cities, and globally cooperative bioregional economies?
What if we were suddenly enabled to convene conversations, planning and implementation locally and bioregionally to engage in the scale-linking redesign of the human presence and impact on Earth?
What if we were challenged to scale-out a glocal (global-local) capacity building and education programme that enables people to learn the needed skills and knowledge while already being an active part of the regeneration rising?
What if all of the experienced organizations, teachers, businesses that hold important skills and experience to contribute to this process where suddenly asked to collaborate in building the capacity of many millions of people to get involved and become active healers of the Earth and her people?
In the conversation I was asked whether I had a solution to the converging global crises and an idea how to create a wise response to them. My response was that anyone who claimed he had might be deluded at worst and at the least lacking the necessary humility to match the intensity of the challenges we face.
We will have to find those answers and solutions together. And to do so we need a shared overall vision and get started so we can learn along the way.
We also have to understand that this will be a continuous learning journey that will need many adjustment of course and constant redesign to adjust answers and solutions to changing conditions.
As I mentioned before, maybe questions rather than answers are the appropriate cultural guidance system — or ‘deep code’ ;-) — in this situation?
That said, we do know that bringing carbon back home, restoring healthy ecosystems functions, cleaning up the oceans and restoring watersheds, reforesting the planet rapidly with biodiversity reserves, productive analogue forests that provide food and biomaterials, creating healthy agro-ecological ecosystems in which farming is also about healing landscapes and safe-guarding biodiversity, building capacity for decentralized renewable energy production and catalyzing the massive amount of innovation that will be needed to shift towards regionally focussed circular biomaterials-economies and regionalized production and consumption patterns … all of these activities will take us into the right direction.
What is more, engaging in all these activities as and in community will provide a shared context of meaning locally, regionally and globally that might just take us into celebrating our diversity of opinions and finding a higher ground on which we can collaborate in the healing of the Earth and her people.
We need to find this higher ground to see our diversity as a source of vitality, resilience and creativity, rather than a reason to argue, go to war, dismiss and compete.
So what if the money was suddenly available to engage everyone who is holding pieces in the complex puzzle of redesigning and transforming the human impact on Earth in a concerted effort to enable this shift through education, community organizing, multi-sector/stakeholder regional visioning and planning processes, and enabling platforms and processes for glocal collaboration, knowledge exchange along with established pathways for flowing financial capital into living capital?
Are we ready? We better be!
Too often have I seen organizations that are broadly aligned on their higher vision and mission fall into patterns of behaviour that were more competitive rather than collaborative. Budget constraint made people more concerned with keeping their individual organizations functioning — rightly convinced of the importance of their contribution to positive change. It stopped them from feeling able to dedicate time and space to the exploration of how to link up with other players in the field and create synergies that would lead to all agents of positive change working in a concerted effort. This pattern could sabotage an effective scale-out regenerative literacy, capacity and implementation.
What if we no longer had the excuse to on the one hand admit that wider cooperation and whole systems design processes linking diverse efforts into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts are necessary and on the other hand justify inaction by saying that we don’t have the funding for it?
Imagine convening a series of meetings that would explore what needs to be done to skill-up and build capacity for ecosystems restoration and regenerative development everywhere.
Can we create a list of skilled agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, permaculture design and holistic land management professionals, of analogue foresters and biodiversity experts for every locality, region and biome? So we know who to call on as trainers.
Can we create an ecosystem of training and education opportunities that are taking place in existing projects, rapidly spreading ‘ecosystems restoration camps’, and the growing network of Regenerative Regional Development Hubs? So people who want to become active change agents know their options.
Can we link the different permaculture associations, agroforestry training centres, organic and biodynamic farming schools, demonstration sites and large implementation project of holistic management and diverse regenerative agriculture approaches into a global networks that trains people on the job? So we can begin to make progress while we scale-out capacity.
Can we establish multi-sector partnerships that link business, public authorities and civil society organizations into bioregionally focussed collaboration in regenerative development plans and implementation? So we can coordinate efforts that draw on our diversity of skills and experiences in ways that truly enable change.
Can we build the appropriate platforms to enable knowledge exchange, skill sharing, and capacity building through local, regional and global collaboration? So we can co-create a more regenerative and thriving future for all of humanity and the whole community of life (as a planetary process).
I will resist the temptation to continue as pieces that take more than 5 minutes to read don’t get a lot of attention. Below is a 11 minute rant to myself on my SUP board that explores the big What if even further. I sense soon there will be a lot of funding flowing into restoration and regenerative development. How do we make sure we are ready to scale-out when that time comes?
“We may not be able to raise the winds, but we can set sails so that when the wind comes we are ready.”
— E.F. Schumacher
For a map of converging efforts in regenerative development, ecosystems restoration, resilience building and improving planetary health, see this list of resources and the dynamic ecosystems map at the end of this article on ‘Planetary Health and Regeneration’.
Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.