Renaturalizing Your Community


The Idea: Whether you live in the country or the city there are opportunities to renaturalize your community, and in so doing transform and enrich it ecologically, physically and psychologically.

We had the great pleasure this past weekend of a visit and tour by wildlife biologist Natalie Helferty. The purpose of her visit, which I negotiated (thanks to Natalie for volunteering her time, and to Richard Procter of the local Green Party for helping me find her), was to acquaint us with the natural ecosystem in which we live, especially the local wetlands. We are extremely fortunate, as the aerial photo above shows, to live in an area where nature and wilderness coexist somewhat harmoniously with human habitation and human activity, an area on the Oak Ridges Moraine peppered with kettle ponds scoured out by ancient glaciers. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife: beavers and muskrats, woodchucks and skunks, wild turkeys, whitetailed deer, grey wolves, great blue herons, red foxes, spring peepers, and geese ‘superfamilies‘ with their dozen or more adorable and obedient goslings.

We learned how the moraine was formed, and how, in the ‘dirty thirties’ drought it nearly turned to pure desert (the soil in our area is very sandy), and we learned how the planting of drought-resistant red and white pine forestalled desertification. We learned how the various types of frogs in our ponds are the ‘canaries in the mineshaft’, the first species to perish when human poisons begin to flood the natural ecosystem. We learned that the creatures that utter soft quacks in the evening are not ducks but wood frogs. We learned that skunks are a favoured delicacy for the local owls We learned that white bullhead and yellow water lilies act as natural filters and can keep stagnant ponds from getting covered in algae and duckweed. We learned that our government will stock neighbourhood ponds with bass, but that such interventions could upset the balance and exterminate the frogs. We learned that Canada Geese like manicured lawns because they remind them of their summering ground — the sparsely covered subarctic tundra. We learned that our ‘destructive’ beavers create microsystems that support thousands of species of wildlife that live nowhere else. We learned what plants grow best in low-lying wet areas and on steep slopes (you can’t tell from the top photo, but our area is very hilly).


But while we were mostly focused on mammals and birds at the top of the food chain, Natalie had us focus at the bottom — at the plants that essentially create the ecosystem and sustain the rest of its life. Specifically, she told us which of the species of trees, shrubs, sedges, grasses, flowers and other flora were native to the Oak Ridges Moraine and which (an astonishing number) were not. She suggested the best thing we could do for all of the inhabitants of our lovely little community would be to renaturalize the plant life — to weed out some of the invasive species that keep the ecosystem out of kilter, and to seed and plant native species. This is difficult for the same reason all of the other significant changes we need to make in our world will be difficult — to get from here to there, things may have to get worse before they can get better. Short term pain for long term gain is not a very popular mantra in our modern civilization. Renaturalization can’t happen overnight — you need to prepare the ground for it, and let nature take its course slowly, going through some possibly shabby, messy-looking intermediate steps before the beautiful, natural, sustainable ecosystem can be fully restored. We have one neighbour who’s already started — no lawn, and only natural plant species planted. The largest business in our town, Husky Injection Molding, has won many awards for keeping the expansive grounds around its large plant planted only with native species, and those grounds are lovely — and sustainable. Most of the neighbours have stopped using pesticides and some now use only organic fertilizers, sparingly. Most lawns are only watered when re-seeding. But the idea of having no lawn is stressful to many, and the transition from uniform-cut lawn to natural vegetation will be much more so — and could invite some backlash from those concerned with ‘property values’. Natalie says the ‘English lawn’ originated with British aristocracy as a status symbol of nobility — for people who were so wealthy they could afford to have their land ‘do nothing’, and that ill-conceived vanity continues to this day.
The bottom line is that the beautiful, natural-looking community shown in these pictures is largely a fraud. Although the protected wetland areas cannot be touched, even they have been replanted and overtaken substantially by invasive flora and even some non-native fauna. Substantial parts of our community are paved, graveled, planted with ever-thirsty non-native grass and foreign trees that are ill-equipped to survive without chemical help, and indifferent or even hostile to the native creatures that came to depend on long-vanished native trees and plants. We are closer to nature than urban dwellers, or even farmers, but we are still a long way from the sustainable and harmonious natural wilderness — heavily forested for the most part — that prevailed for millions of years before our noisy and cavalier arrival. We have a long way to go to renaturalize the community in which we live, and hence renaturalize ourselves.

But what do you do if you live in a city, with concrete and steel everywhere and no place to start, or even imagine, renaturalization? Perhaps the best place to start is brownfield areas. Not only are they low-valued, they are the ugliest of our urban landscapes, and hence we might be more tolerant of the intermediate messiness as nature, with our newly-knowledgeable support, reclaims these lands as oases of true wilderness in the contemporary city desert.
Imagine if communities all over the planet gradually started to renaturalize, from the bottom of the ecosystem up. We might be able to renaturalize our entire world, so slowly no one would notice. What a deliciously subversive plan.

One step at a time.

(More articles on renaturalization here, here, and here. But this is a very local project. Chances are you won’t get much idea online of what your area looked like, and what plants it contained, in its natural state. You’re going to have to do some real research. Photos are all from 2004 — the top one is from Google Maps, the goose picture is from Bernd Heinrich, and the rest are mine, taken in our neighbourhood.)

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