Stewarding the Land, a Quarter Acre at a Time

Noah's Garden
There’s a sense, for those who live in the suburbs, that trying to ‘renaturalize’ their small lot, surrounded by manicured lawns soaked in chemicals, swimming pools soaked in chemicals, pressure-treated decks soaked in chemicals, large areas of asphalt and concrete, and invasive species, both cultivated and wild, is a hopeless undertaking.

The late Sara Stein wrote two books a decade ago, Noah’s Garden and Planting Noah’s Garden, that showed not only that it is not hopeless, but that it is our responsibility, as stewards of even small patches of land, to do so. I’ve just finished the former book, which provides the rationale for this responsibility and the grim history of how we in North America have ruined and impoverished our land, and I’ve ordered the latter, which explains in some detail how to rectify the damage we have done.

These books are not easy going. Ms Stein was an earnest and scholarly writer, and a ruthless debunker of well-intentioned behaviours. Many readers will be inclined to give up trying to implement what she recommends before they start, because most of what we’ve been taught to do, or intuitively seek to do, to restore a level of natural life to our altered landscapes, seems to do more harm than good.

Here are some of the key messages and data she conveys in the first book:

  • Our children, brought up in artificial environments and exposed to nature only in “stay off the grass” managed excursions, may never appreciate or realize what they’re missing once natural environments are forever gone.
  • Our suburbs, notwithstanding how green they are, are dreadfully impoverished landscapes, supporting a tiny fraction of the diversity of life natural landscapes do.
  • Our assault on the natural environment in North America has been going on relentlessly for four centuries, and is so effective that there is virtually no native landscape left anywhere: even parklands and conservation areas are dominated by invasive species and severely depleted of biodiversity, what Ms Stein calls “an appalling blankness” concealed by “a mask of naturalness”.
  • The succession process by which a devastated landscape returns to balance, richness and diversity involves many successions of one species with another, and cannot be rushed or leapfrogged.
  • Our clearing and mistreatment of land is causing excessive erosion of topsoil across North America at an average rate of 4-7 tonnes per acre per year.
  • Invasive species, some introduced to try to ‘naturally’ restore imbalances, have negative effects on biodiversity that linger for decades and even centuries.
  • The average American suburban lot is 10,000 sf (about 1/4 acre), about twice that of the average suburban lot in other affluent nations, including Canada.
  • Even small lots can, with some diligence, be ‘restored’ to allow a substantial improvement in biodiversity using a combination of native species (lists here) to create (a) meadows, with sedges, grasses and wildflowers, (b) artificial ponds, (c) wetlands for bog plants, (d) hedgerows of berries and other species, and (e) woodlands. The diagram above shows how these areas can be integrated, while still leaving some ‘lawn’ in the area most visible to neighbours.
  • Wild animals in our temperate ecosystems need large areas to stay in balance: 5 square miles per fox, 9 per coyote, even more for larger predators, and a substantial amount even for herbivores like deer. Excessive numbers are generally encouraged by our monoculture, which hugely upsets this balance and devastates species lower in the food chain, causing overpopulation and hardship to the predators. Our unnatural behaviours have severe and usually unobserved consequences on whole ecosystems.
  • So-called ‘natural’ herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers introduced to try to restore health or balance aren’t really natural and can do more harm than good. Ironically, occasional restricted burns can be healthier than ‘organic’ products.
  • The loss of wetlands across North America is barely visible to us, but is massive and has had dreadful consequences to most amphibian and songbird populations.
  • A lawn is the opposite of a natural meadow or prairie; a replanted monoculture ‘tree collection’ is the opposite of a woodland or forest.

In sum, renaturalization takes enormous restraint, learning, patience and hard work. The natural gardener’s job is best limited to planting appropriate native species the right way in the right places at the right times, being patient, trusting the soil and otherwise not interfering. It entails responding to what Mirabel Osler calls “a gentle plea for Chaos”, to achieve in time what Ms Stein calls “a humor of richness and meaning”.

Half of the property of our community is protected wetland, which we are not permitted to touch (though some of our neighbours have stupidly ignored the law and done considerable damage trying to ‘clean up’ their property). At first I was ashamed of the green algae cover on the kettle ponds, alarmed at the dozens of trees felled sloppily each year by our resident beavers, distressed by the bare drowned trees and windfalls that made us look like messy caretakers. Now I realize how essential these untouched elements of the rich local ecosystem, replete with amphibians and songbirds and wild turkeys, are, and I have pledged never to disturb them, except to harvest a small number of windfall trees for firewood. I worry that the growing warmth and drought may mean the end of these fragile wetlands, perhaps within a decade. I am determined to gradually introduce native species on the rest of our property, and to persuade my neighbours to do likewise.

This involves generally doing less each year to meddle with nature’s struggle to recover from centuries of human destruction, disguised by the “mask of naturalness” that, to my unschooled eye, makes our community look so lovely, so unspoiled. Somehow, that is hard, but it is getting easier as, together with my neighbours, we learn to be humbler and modestly better stewards.

Ms Stein writes: “I’ve made the apple jelly and harvested the squash in the same spirit that squirrels have stashed their nuts and ants have dragged their grain. Our hearth is stacked with logs, our land is stocked with plants. I close my window against the frosty evening satisfied that ant, and mouse, bee, bird, squirrel, bloom and seed know well how to get from scary autumn to the next brief summer as long as we, bearing a shovel and a holly, can fill the gap-toothed faces of ourland and make the seasons’ smile complete.”

We do what we must, and sometimes, what we can.

Category: What You Can Do
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2 Responses to Stewarding the Land, a Quarter Acre at a Time

  1. Vish Goda says:

    How much can one individual do? How much can one community do? Can we reverse the damage to our environment one individual or community at a time? I believe that the answer is NO. Not if each group is working in isolation. Not if the rest of the world is continuing on business as usual. Not unless, the destruction process is first stopped completely and then the rebuilding process is taken one step at a time, by each and every individual. If there is no collective, collaborative effort at a global level – individual efforts will never be effective.The reason I say this is that, any individual effort is easily overshadowed or even reversed by the huge environmental impact of group or organizational behaviors. The time it takes to affect any changes to the environment, for an individual or a small group working in a 60 mile area – is much too long and too late as compared to what it takes for an entire nation – even one – to collectively destroy in a day.The best way this can be illustrated is by taking the example of our co-inhabitants – the plants, fish and animals of this planet. Without human intervention or interference, they have sustained life on this planet for billions of years. But within less than a couple of centuries, we have put their very existence in dire straits. And how did we do it? Believe me, we did all that, one individual at a time, one community at a time. Each small group all across the world slowly cleared away the forests for agriculture, burned away the wood for heat and comfort and invented technology to circumvent the forces of nature – mile by agonizing mile, until where we are now. In the same manner, if we work in isolation, then we might as well become part of another endangered species, whose existence is at the mercy of the rest of the humanity.Therefore the answer is in now using the same technology, to bring together like-minded people from across the world in a single global virtual forum or community thatis by virtue of its very size, bigger and therefore more effective, than any single entity or country. And then quickly and effectively, implement the corrective actions, not only by individual efforts, but more importantly by raising awareness and lobbying for policy changes at a global level. How many people can you find in a small community – that shares the same views as yours, however noble they may be. Now multiply that by millions, and you can see the power of the internet. The best part of working on huge, noble projects using the internet technology is that you can do it openly and broadcast your intentions to the rest of the world and thereby ensuring other fellow activists to jump on board. Until now, the monarchs, autocrats and crooks got away with their fraud, destructive and short-sighted behavior by taking advantage of the divide and rule policy. Isolated communities are vulnerable to the evil intentions of determined and motivated crooks. But now the tide is turning. While secrecy was their weapon, openess is ours. And open communities is always much more effective and powerful, if they are large enough to be noticed.Vish Goda

  2. Just a note to let you know I recommended your blog for BlogDay2007.”…One long moment on August 31st, bloggers from all over the world will post recommendations of 5 new Blogs, preferably Blogs that are different from their own culture, point of view and attitude. On this day, blog readers will find themselves leaping around and discovering new, unknown Blogs, celebrating the discovery of new people and new bloggers…”http://ascenderrisesabove.com/wordpress/?p=2044

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