Noah’s Garden

Noah’s Garden
Sara SteinRestoring the Ecology of Our Back Yards

Book by Sara Stein.

A New Kind of Gardener

It’s quite an education to read  a field guide. One places oneself mentally in, in my case, broadleaf forest about halfway between Maine and Maryland and sees what one can see. Ilex opaca, our fine American Holly? Never saw it. Rhododendron viscosum, our fragrant Swamp Azalea? Not in these woods. Such pioneer species as American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) should have been early arrivals on the moist pond shore, but there were none. A boggy area was perfect for Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), a rise just right for Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum), deep clefts angling up the rock face of an imposing outcrop should have been thick with Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), but not a seedling of any of these was present. Where there might have been at least four species of dogwood – Cornus florida, C. alternifolia, C. racemosa, and C. sericea – as edge and understory in such a habitat, both niches were so filled by aggressive barberry and buckthorn that there was hardly an inch for shyer seedlings to get started.

The disappointment fueled my curiosity. I began to accumulate other reference books in order to learn what native species ought to be around. Sometimes I used the books to identify a sprig or blossom found on walks around the countryside; more often I wandered aimlessly through the pages of a world strangely new.

Surprise caught me up continually. Plants I knew well and assumed were native turned out to be exotics, and not only weedy species like the Japanese Barberry and Alder Buckthorn we had cleared from the choked fringes of our land, but also lovely things like Burning Bush (Euonymous alata), Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), and all wild apple trees whose fruits are red, not green. What dismayed me was not just the number of species that had failed to appear on our particular plot, but the number of species that in 50 years of acquaintance with this area I had neither seen nor heard of.

The nicknames of the unfamiliar plants I stumbled across only in books – Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana), Fetterbush (Leucothoe racemosa), Hog-apple (Crataegus crus-galli), Toothache Tree (Zanthoxylum americanum) – suggested an eye-winking, elbow-jabbing intimacy with species that must once have been as common as traveling salesman jokes. Where were they? In guides and encyclopedias, but seldom here, in what once had been their native habitat.

Gradually I realized that the remnant meadows, thicketed roadsides, and extensive woods of this regrowing area are a mask of naturalness that, once one is trained to recognize the species, drops away to reveal an appalling blankness. Biodiversity remains only in scattered preserves; elsewhere, what has grown back over the fields of our forefathers is merely a fraction of the species that can, and once did, grow here.

The reason struck me forcefully: our rage to clear, first for farms and now for yards, has made once common natives too rare in the wild to repopulate the land.

Our intelligence, however prodigious we like to think it, is trivial compared to the accumulated wisdom of the hundred million species that make up Earth’s biosphere. Since each microbe, animal, and plant possesses some minute portion of the know-how that makes the whole Earth work, the loss of any species erases some portion of organic intelligence, and leaves the land more stupid. Moreover, an ecosystem’s intelligence – its ability to run itself and to sustain its inhabitants – is more than a summation of the information each of its species represents. The intelligence of any system, whether a computer, a brain, or a meadow, arises from the complexity of connections among its separate elements. Removing an element unplugs many connections and therefore has a stupefying effect much greater than the mere subtraction of a part. By removing many parts and thus unplugging these connections, we have left our land too retarded to take care of itself, much less to be of any help to us.

This is not someone else’s problem. We—you and I and everyone who has a yard of any size – own a big chunk of this country. Suburban development has wrought habitat destruction on a grand scale. As these tracts expand, they increasingly squeeze the remaining natural ecosystems, fragment them, sever corridors by which plants and animals might refill the voids we have created. To reverse this process – to reconnect as many plant and animal species as we can to rebuild intelligent suburban ecosystems – requires a new kind of garden, new techniques of gardening, and, I emphasize, a new kind of gardener.

November/December 1996 Wild Ones Journal.