Our Humanized Wilderness

Preserving What’s Left Wild Among People

Posted on: May 6th, 2021

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #44 – Earth Day – April 22, 2021

When I became a practicing conservation biologist, I knew I was transforming my focus from the creatures I loved to work on (insects especially, but also other wildlife, plants, and the habitats that support them) to working with people. I often say that conservation is a social science. It is done by people, for people, and because of people. While its ultimate purpose is to save wildlife and protect and restore what’s left of our dwindling wilderness, the actions, strategies, and measures of success are undoubtedly human-focused.

Modern conservation — especially in highly urbanized areas like our cities, suburbs, and communities surrounding protected areas or open spaces — is about building a level of understanding in the human population about the effects of the daily activities and choices we make about wildlife and nature. I’ll give you an example.

The shelves of garden centers and hardware stores are filled with dangerous chemicals mostly catering to the desire for a green and pest-free lawn.

Take a walk in the garden section of any big hardware store or major outlet. You’ll find a suite of products intended to make your yard and landscaping beautiful (according to specific traditional standards of beauty, such as perfect green lawns). You’ll also find products to protect your plants from pests, your growing vegetables from birds, moles, and other “vermin,” products and tools to remove nuisance weeds, especially dandelions, and more. You’ll see a diverse assortment of fertilizers, soil additives, and more pesticides. Finally, looking at the variety of ornamental plants, including trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines, and annuals, you’ll notice that most of them are non-native species from all over the world. Occasionally, you might find a small section of California native plants.

Without reading the locations, could you guess where these homes are located? Lawns help homogenize our cities and suburbs. And this is a loss for us.
Some lawns are not even safe for children and pets.

Here is the problem with our traditional approach to gardening and landscaping: the majority of chemical products and pest control methods have a considerable impact on wildlife and the humans that encounter them. The issues are multiple and complex. They include the use of chemicals of all sorts (pesticides and fertilizers mainly) that harm pollinators and wildlife; using pest control devices, such as sticky traps and netting that harm wild birds, reptiles, and small mammals; use of rodenticides (poisons for rats and mice) that travel through the food webs as owls, hawks, foxes, vultures, and other predators eat the poisoned rodents and get poisoned themselves. Again, the problems are multiple and complex.

The good news is that the solutions are pretty simple and well within every person. All it takes is good information and a willingness to make some changes that can produce immediate rewards and benefits.

Our fascination with “perfect” green lawns is the direct result of a decades-long huge marketing effort by the industry. Many books reinforce the fallacy.

Perhaps the first meaningful change needs to happen in our heads. For many decades, the lawn care industry has promoted an idealized version of what our home landscaping should look like. We know better now, as information about the state of biodiversity worldwide spreads through social media and thoughtful statements by experts. You can easily find articles, lists, and methods to increase the protection and support of native species, even in your backyards. Landscaping with native plants is something anyone can do, but it may require a shift in values and a redefinition of what is beautiful and doable at the home level.

Your Native Landscape

This is a photo of my front yard in April: pesticide-free, insect-friendly, mostly native plants. Sitting on the porch, I can watch bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds pay a visit. Birds nest in the trees and under the eaves of the house. Lizards scamper through the leaf litter and salamanders hide under the rocks.

Creating a haven for wildlife in your home doesn’t take a degree in biology. There are many ways we can develop mini-habitats and enjoy the beauty and excitement of witnessing life’s cycles in a personal and colorful way. Rather than the sterile, chemically induced “beauty” of a perfect lawn, we can welcome the diverse interplay between soil and water, seasonal changes, and colorful cycles of plants that flower at different times of the year. These flowering plants support the suite of associated animals that have evolved and thrived with their plant counterparts for millennia. Birds and insects are tuned in to the changes in temperature and rain. Flowering plants provide nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. The leaf litter that accumulates in the fall offers shelter and food for overwintering creatures. With a bit of thoughtful design, we can have home landscapes that provide food and shelter to nesting birds and bees, and host natural pest controls like ladybugs, praying mantises, and lacewings that feed on aphids and other destructive insects. The lack of poisonous chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers allows the proliferation of valuable insects that control each other naturally.

Natural outdoor spaces are precious and important for people that live in cities. Keeping these spaces free of pesticides and dangerous chemicals makes them even more valuable, for people, and for wildlife.

Watching and experiencing the cycles of nature is fun to see as well. California poppies provide a colorful ground cover in the spring. As they complete their cycle and dry up in the summer, they are replaced by other flowering plants that provide their bounties to the summer butterflies and other insects. Birds feed on the available insects and seeds from grasses and shrubs. Yes, you may lose a few tomatoes and leaves to caterpillars, but it is all part of the natural world, a wonderful oasis of life that contrasts heavily with the barren and sterile expanse of a manicured green lawn. And you will also be healthier, unexposed to dangerous chemicals that do nothing more than feed the industrial machinery that still insists on convincing you that a green lawn adds value and prestige to your home.

Life on planet Earth is unique and precious. Any effort to preserve it is worth changing our perspectives and values, so we can contribute to a healthier and more sustainable world.

Further Reading

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