Hope for a better world

Celebrating Pockets of Wilderness

I wonder what our ancestors did with their lawns two hundred years ago. Did they keep them meticulously mowed with the manual rotary kind of mower my widowed grandmother still used when I was a teen? Did they wait until it grew tall and then use a scythe?

Apparently the Puritans were fairly meticulous about their homes, cleanliness is next to godliness and all that. But did that same obsessiveness pertain to their lawns? Or maybe they were so busy growing crops and shoeing horses and sewing clothes that they just didn’t have the time to worry about the aesthetics of their lawns.

Let me hasten to add that I don’t believe an unmown lawn is lacking in aesthetic value. I do understand the appeal of a great expanse of green. But do you know what I like even better? Life. Life in all its glorious diversity.

This theme keeps coming up for me over and over again lately, the benefits of an unmown lawn or field.

When I was living in the high desert land of New Mexico and Colorado it was, of course, not an issue. Most lawns were rather dusty affairs populated with various types of cacti and native shrubbery. Generally people were so happy to have anything grow in that rain-barren land, that all plant life was generously allowed to grow.

Funny, isn’t it, how we humans have become so imperial that we decree on a regular basis which plant or animal is allowed to live and which is, rather callously, cut down, poisoned, or otherwise killed?

I was presented about two months ago with a stark example of what happens when fields are left to their natural devices. I had been journeying for about four hours from southcentral Colorado to the southeastern quadrant of the state. I drove first through mountains, then high desert, then an occasional small town with lawns and beautiful trees, and then “Monsanto-land.” I passed miles and miles of land in which the only growing thing was the crop. Every other living thing had been obliterated. Except for the humans, of course. Their death by various forms of cancer would be further down the road.

Then I happened unexpectedly upon the exit for my destination. I was heading toward the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. I was going to offer prayers for the Cheyenne and Arapaho who had been so ruthlessly and senselessly killed about 150 years ago. As I turned down the small road named after their peaceful leader, Chief White Antelope, I marveled at the beauty of sunflowers and other prairie flowers and grasses spreading out around me in all directions. How very interesting that a place that had seen so much indiscriminate killing was now thriving with life! I’m quite sure this was due to the fact that the land had been set aside as a historic monument. Human residents and their not-so-benign activities were not in evidence.

After noticing the proliferation of flowers I was delighted to see insects darting about in front of my car. This used to be quite a common sight, but as more and more homeowners and farmers, not to mention state departments of transportation, have begun to routinely use weedkillers and pesticides, the insects have begun to disappear. Some people will not consider this a great loss until they realize that the butterflies and fireflies are also dying, as well as the pollinating bees and the many birds that feed upon insects.

After noticing both the flowers and the insects, I noticed the birds. There are fewer birds around us now, too. Have you noticed? The smaller birds, especially, are disappearing.

And then I noticed through my open windows the thrum of life–not of machines, not of cars or lawnmowers or weedwhackers or tractors, but the song of birds, the hum of insects. I was in heaven.

I was so thrilled to find this island of life in the midst of such vast agricultural sprawl. One might find it odd that I don’t consider crops “life,” but our poor crops have become so modified that they are light-years away from their natural, native ancestors. And there are no grasses, insects, or birds within their midst. The land has become too poisoned to permit true “life.”

When I arrived in Pennsylvania a month ago, I stayed for a few weeks with my dear friend, Ann. She was in the midst of the sad honor of going through her mother’s things after her passing from an aggressive cancer probably associated with the badly polluted water where she lived. (Ann and I and her neighbors had to use spring or filtered water for drinking and cooking.)

Ann’s mother had had the delightful habit of gathering wildflowers at the sites of abandoned gas stations and distant meadows and then replanting them around her home. Among the phlox and asters were tall goldenrods, bending over the walkway from the weight of their great growth. Every single time I walked on that path toward the driveway, I stopped to delight in the bumblebees and honeybees which happily fed from that goldenrod.

After her death, a neighbor continued to mow her front yard but apparently decided not to bother with the backyard. This was a wonderful decision from my point of view because I was treated each night with a magnificent serenade of crickets and other nighttime creatures through my open window.

I noticed, as Ann and I daily walked around her neighborhood, that the only properties which had cricket sounds emanating from them were those very few that had pockets of “suburban wilderness.” Like Ann’s mother, they had sections of lawns or gardens which were slightly less manicured.

Recently I stayed with other dear friends up in the charming city of Burlington, Vermont. The folks who live there are generally well-educated and know the value of living closer to the earth. On my walks I passed both cultivated gardens and patches of “wildness.” Everywhere I was delighting in the sights of butterflies and bees. They were abundant there! In a city! The bees loved the asters and all of blooming life. The butterflies loved the zinnias, the Shasta daisies, and the purple clover.

This morning I passed a patch of clover about five feet long and one foot wide. It ran between the sidewalk and the road. In most towns, this strip of land would probably have be mown, but here, in dear Burlington, the clover were allowed to grow. As a result, I saw eight beautiful orange and black butterflies fluttering and feasting upon the purple flowers.

One home in the neighborhood had large patches of very tall asters and, I was thrilled to see, milkweed! Many people would probably not consider this particular property to be traditionally “pretty,” but knowing that milkweed is an essential food for monarch butterfly caterpillars, I found it downright beautiful.

I vote that we change our attitudes about what is beautiful and what is not when it comes to lawns and fields. Somehow in this country we have come to the collective decision that the only “proper” lawns are a uniform blanket of short green grass. Why not instead love a lawn filled with riotous color and variety–perhaps clover, grape hyacinth, dandelions (another favorite food of the beleaguered bee), and all manner of tiny pink, yellow, white, and red blossomed plants?

Why not celebrate life in all its glorious diversity? Why not give the bees, the butterflies, the fireflies, and the songbirds which feed upon the insects a chance to live?

If we’re going to live, let’s surround ourselves with as much life as possible.