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An Occasional Word

This is my Meadow

This is my meadow. It's only a beginning meadow. At first glance you might think it looks kind of ratty. But my front yard grows an astonishing number of plants. Dandelion of course, and clover, but also yarrow, plantain, sedum, hawkweed, fleabane, evening primrose, and yellow wood sorrel. Those are only the plants whose names I've learned over the last few years of observation. There are countless mosses and plants I don't yet know. All of these are deemed by gardening websites as weeds worthy only of chemical destruction. But the bees forage happily in their flowers, and I'm fascinated by their variety.


When I bought this house in 2010, the front yard was moss and spindly grass. In the back yard were two oak trees and a handful of hostas arranged in straight lines around the deck, tucked in with that godawful red-dyed wood chip mulch. Grass didn't grow well in the shade from the oaks and the neighbor's house. It was alternately blistering hot or mildewed. It conformed to common notions of what a yard should look like, but the overall effect was of impoverishment.


Over the years I've observed and experimented. I pulled out the hostas and banished red mulch. I unsuccessfully tried to grow vegetables—too shady. I've learned to plant understory trees and shade-loving perennials. I've gotten interested in native species and building habitat for insects and birds. And little by little the plant life and insect and bird life in my yard has grown.


I didn't realize how much until a few years ago, when I had occasion to rent out my little house and live for the school year in housing provided by a teaching gig. My temporary quarters were in a grand old Victorian house, owned by summer people, and cared for all year by a dude who didn't give a rat's ass. He lived upstairs and in winter ringed the house with cigarette butts he tossed out of the upstairs windows. He mowed the yard and raked the leaves and sometimes shoveled snow. But nothing else was planted or tended. The yard was large and grassy but felt sterile. Then I moved back home. I opened the back door to the yard and a bug hit me smack in the face. Pure joy. I was back among the neighbors I love best: other living things.


The more I learn, the more I see yards differently.


Check this out: Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home (a cool book), studies the relationship between native plants and native wildlife. In one study of suburban homes (https://www1.udel.edu/udaily/2011/oct/native-plants-lawns100410.html ) he found that most homeowners devote 92 percent of their landscapeable area to grass lawn. About 78 percent of plants in yards are alien species—which means that native insects and wildlife cannot feed on them. He says: "The typical yard is a barren landscape that isn't part of the food web…Native plants are necessary to provide food and habitats for local wildlife."


Habitat loss is the biggest factor behind species loss, and we are dead in the middle of the Earth's sixth mass species extinction (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn). The loss of pollinators is particularly worrisome—that has a direct impact on plants and food. Many people are familiar with the plight of the Monarch butterfly—its numbers down a staggering 96.5 percent as of 2014 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/monarch-butterflies-could-gain-endangered-species-protection/ ) , largely due to the loss of its food source: the milkweed. The Monarch is beautiful and easy to recognize and love; what about the unknown millions of other pollinators?


Put these two ideas together: 1) we are losing species and 2) our yards don't feed local wildlife and suddenly the typical yard or church lot looks scalped and barren to me. Isn't it kind of funny that we think a mowed yard looks cared for?


This spring was unusually rainy and cold. There wasn't much for pollinators to feed on for a long, long time. In May a local beekeeper told me his bees were not increasing in numbers, as they usually do in preparation for a season of flowers. I found a few dead bumblebees in my garden—maybe just old, but maybe exhausted or starved. It seemed the perfect year to let the wildflowers bloom unmolested in my yard for a while.


I confess I felt a bit insecure at first. The yard looks shaggy. But one of the benefits of living in a modest neighborhood is that there's a greater range of aesthetics than in an upscale subdivision. I like my neighbors but my need for neighborly approval is only episodic—and if they mind they aren't telling me to my face. So I'm letting it all hang out. I'm gradually learning more about the plants in my meadow. It's a mix of native and alien species. The clover is likely European. So is the plantain, but it's been here so long it could be considered naturalized and the bees do visit it. Hawkweed is complicated—there are both native and non-native species and I have to figure out what I have. There's more than one kind of fleabane, too. Thinking I'd like to introduce more native flowers into the mix, I realize my meadow is here to stay.


The word "meadow" conjures up beauty for me. A place of abundant grasses. Where people picnic in the flowers. Where creatures of all kinds conduct their courtships. Where Clara drags herself out of her wheelchair and walks on Heidi's mountain. A place of magic and love. My little meadow isn't a prize-winner but it has its charms. I don't have to mow. When it rains the moss glows a vibrant green. The plants go through their life cycles: leaves to flowers to seeds. The tiny native bees and bumblebees are busy at their work. All I have to do is walk outside. It's a kind of paradise, watching small animals forge their lives.

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