There is so much talk these days about sustainability that you are probably tired of hearing that word. However, a recently published book—The New Ecology: Rethinking A Science for The Anthropocene (Princeton University Press, 2017)—provides extremely valuable insight to what sustainability is truly all about and why it matters so much to each and every one of us.
Yale University professor and author Oswald J. Schmitz furnishes us with numerous in-depth examples of how human behavior can alter ecosystems (the communities of living things interacting with their non-living environments) so much that they can no longer support us. He does a superb job of making clear why humans must learn to take into account the natural world when deciding how to live their lives.
For example, codfish off the coast of northern New England and Canada were once so plentiful that they sometimes stopped the progress of ships! When discovered by European explorer John Cabot in 1497, no one could have imagined that the commercial cod fishery that would develop from these stocks would end 500 years later in a devastating collapse that would not be possible to resuscitate.
The story of this fishery provides a historically detailed case study that illustrates how human exploitation of a resource species can lead ultimately to an alteration in the proper functioning of the ecosystem and thus to disastrous consequences for humans. The inability of cod to recover by the end of the twentieth century resulted in serious economic and social consequences for the coastal communities of New England and Eastern Canada, as well as Europe.
Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English fishermen started harvesting cod off Newfoundland in the 1500s, when they mostly caught inshore fish by trawling baited long-lines or by casting small nets from rowing or sailing dories. The cod was salted and dried throughout the summer, and the fishermen would return with the preserved fish to Europe in the fall.
With the building of permanent settlements along the seacoast from Newfoundland to New England, however, fishing became a major enterprise. Larger ships, known as schooners, carried dories to harvest cod in offshore waters as well as inshore. Size-selective fishing began, with the largest fish (90-100-pound range) being valued more highly than middle- (60-90-pound range) or small-sized (less than 60 pounds) fish.
Increasing societal demand meant major American cities as well as European and Caribbean markets received fish, increasing the need to catch ever more cod, preferably the largest ones. With the development of the factory ship that could catch and hold larger quantities of fish, the small-scale 450-year-old inshore fishery was doomed to extinction as cod fishing became an industrialized activity.
Gigantic vessels employed emerging sonar technology (a product of World War II inventiveness) to electronically pinpoint the locations of codfish. The ships trawled huge nets behind them that could capture large amounts of fish in a single sweep. Factory fishing led to a rapid increase in harvests, which dramatically crashed in the mid-1990s, halting the entire northern cod fishery, probably forever.
The takeaway from this situation is that humans cannot just increase or decrease their “withdrawals” from the environment based solely upon changes in human demands or prices without any regard whatsoever to their effect upon the harvested population. When harvest levels fell, fishermen should have backed off to allow the cod to reproduce and rebuild their numbers. Instead, the fishing effort increased, and people added insult to injury by taking the largest fish.
By taking the largest individuals, people reduced the productivity of the cod because larger fish reproduce better than smaller ones. But it was not just the cod’s inability to reproduce their numbers as quickly as they might have that drove this fishery to extinction. No, it is more complicated than that, which is why understanding the life histories of our fellow creatures is so vital to our ability to sustain their existence as well as our own.
The larger codfish were top predators in their ecosystem. They fed upon mid-sized predators, such as squid, crab, and mackerel that feed upon small-bodied larval and juvenile cod (as well as other kinds of tiny animals).
Larger-sized adult cod are better able than smaller cod to assist their offspring to reach adulthood by limiting these mid-sized predators. In other words, it is now much more difficult for young cod to reach adulthood, which limits the numbers of adults to reproduce, which limits the numbers of young cod, and so on ad infinitum.
Because humans did not recognize cod as part of a system of interdependent species, they created a series of cascading effects that keeps the cod from recovering to harvestable levels, despite the now-decades-long moratorium on fishing. Accepting the reality that species are part of complex food webs that humans need to respect and work within is what sustainability is all about.
Professor Schmitz includes many other such narratives in his book, including a fascinating one explaining the importance of termites to such large animals as zebras, buffaloes, impalas, and wildebeests. (Who knew?) These accounts should probably be required reading for students and adults alike as they make the concept and importance of sustainability easy to grasp and to truly appreciate.
However, I feel the thesis of this book is seriously flawed. Professor Schmitz seems to believe that environmental problems wrought by people can be solved simply by teaching folks about the relationship of organisms with each other and their environment, which will, he hopes, lead to people choosing to live in a more thoughtful (i.e., sustainable) manner.
But even if people got the message and reacted accordingly, a burgeoning human population makes sustainability impossible. All organisms, including humans, must be limited in number because that is the only way in which the environment can function properly. Organisms need space, food, and shelter to live among us, but it is exceedingly difficult to get people to provide habitat for wildlife. Government does not help, what with regulations and tax laws that discourage appropriate landscaping.
Humans have significantly altered the world we live in, which some folks may believe is a good thing. But the diminishing capacities of the Earth’s ecosystems to sustain their proper functioning is cause for concern that must be addressed if we expect human life to persist on Earth.
The Dec. 1 gardening column by Mary Stickley-Godinez (“Gardening: Chemical warfare common in nature,” The Daily Progress online, Nov. 30) perpetuates the mistaken beliefs that humankind must constantly fight nature and that nature fights itself.
These notions — which every horticulture student learns and that virtually all garden writers, extension agents and nursery workers relay to the public — are wrong.
The horticultural industry is based upon experiences out of context. The difficulties encountered inside a greenhouse, or in an equally unnatural setting such as the monocultures created by farmers, occur precisely because these environments are artificial constructs out of sync with the natural laws governing nature.
The columnist’s comment that it’s “war out there” originates from the nonsense put forth by scientists who themselves work in an artificial environment of Petri dishes instead of the real world. Allelopathy — the concept that some plant species can hinder or prevent germination or growth of others by releasing chemicals into their environment — is dogma very much akin to that regarding “germs.”
Because scientists now possess the means to count the huge number of microorganisms that exist on surfaces that we touch, health hazards are suddenly deemed to be everywhere, when in fact, the effect of these organisms upon us is minimal. The preponderance of experiential evidence should tell us the truth, but people prefer to ignore facts in order to bash the natural world.
The concept of allelopathy, easily disproved by direct observation of the natural world over time, begs the question: If plants are capable of fighting their own wars, why do humans need to step in with yet more chemicals?
Truth be told, in gardens that support predators to prevent plant-feeding critters from overpopulating, the plants — which, by the way, exist to feed animals — do not need to chemically defend themselves.
Folks should learn to live in agreement with nature by growing a nature-friendly garden. It doesn’t require chemical warfare by plants or people.
Seed catalogs are arriving in the mail now, exciting gardeners with visions of the beauty they can enjoy during the upcoming growing season. Whether you are planning your next garden makeover or your first garden ever, I hope you are giving the natural world due consideration.
When you create a nature-friendly garden, your reward is extra beauty and excitement from the numerous kinds of critters that will visit or make your yard home. You can feel proud that you are providing desperately needed wildlife habitat.
If you are interested in helping wildlife, you may have heard and taken to heart Doug Tallamy’s advice to plant an oak tree. This University of Delaware ecology professor has been working hard to encourage folks all across the land to plant one.
Unfortunately, his message has been lost in translation as garden columnists and bloggers tend to misinterpret the advice and spread misinformation to the public. They often tell readers that planting an oak will provide food for over 500 species of Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) caterpillars, which will provide an abundance of food for a chickadee (a cute bird anyone would want to assist) and its chicks.
However, a single oak tree is not going to live up to that expectation. Professor Tallamy is referring to the entire genus of oaks, comprising about 60 species of these trees in the United States. Your lonesome oak is only going to support a fraction of the species total promoted by the professor.
Should you still heed this ecologist’s advice? In many cases, the answer would be no, even if one tree did indeed host that many species of caterpillars.
If you own a small yard, it is never wise to plant a tree that is going to attain great height and breadth. As the tree grows ever bigger, its expanding area of shade will severely limit your ability to grow a variety of plants on your property that would create a thriving habitat. One tree does not a habitat make.
If you own a large property that can easily include one or more oaks without shading most of your land, is planting an oak tree the best thing you can do to bring nature home? Again, the answer is no.
Although Sudden Oak Decline (brought on by stressors, such as severe drought or ill-timed frost) has been occurring in the United States, we still have plenty of these trees in our area to feed the moth larvae and the few species of butterfly larvae that need them for sustenance. (You can verify this fact by visiting a forest near you.)
The real problem is not a dearth of oaks, but rather an overabundance of lights. They burn at night inside and outside of buildings (including homes), in parking lots, along roadways and walkways, and in many public parks. These lights attract moths (that comprise the majority of the 500-plus species mentioned by Professor Tallamy) that do not then fulfill their destiny of mating and producing the next generation.
Artificial lighting has been disastrous for these insects, which are such a hugely vital component of a properly functioning ecosystem throughout the various stages of their life cycles. As light pollution has increased, moth populations have plummeted.
Moths are practically nonexistent nowadays compared to when I was a child. When you have a dearth of moths, you have a dearth of caterpillars for those chickadees—no matter how many oak trees you plant.
Furthermore, in most people’s yards, Professor Tallamy’s oak becomes, essentially, nothing more than an invitation to reproductive failure for many kinds of moths and butterflies. Although some lepidopteran species manage to escape the effect of our artificial lighting to mate successfully, they leave behind offspring that overwinter underneath leaf litter that many people habitually remove.
When people take away the protection afforded by the fallen oak leaves, these caterpillars and pupae do not make it to spring when they would have transformed into adults. So again, when fewer adult insects exist to mate, fewer caterpillars will exist to feed those chickadees—no matter how many oak trees you plant.
If, as a society, we are to increase caterpillar numbers for the benefit of our birds (and other critters), we must alter many of our life practices. To accomplish this goal, you must recognize what is truly important in life (maintaining the health of the environment) and what is not (removing leaves from underneath trees and excessive artificial lighting).
If your yard is large enough and you can keep the leaf cover where it belongs, you might want to plant an oak tree as part of a multidimensional nature-friendly garden. However, living in agreement with nature is not quite as simple as Professor Tallamy suggests.
Please do not let yourself be fooled into believing that all it takes to make a significant difference in the numbers of moth and butterfly caterpillars is to plant an acorn.
Many farmers have decided that the Black Vulture is a predator that takes newborn calves and lambs. And when a problem arises nowadays that involves wildlife, the attitude of most people is to simply kill the offending animals.
However, that knee-jerk reaction can bring about much more serious problems in the long run because all organisms provide services that are vital to our own well being.
For example, the value of vultures to our waterways is largely overlooked. They help to limit health hazards throughout the 64,000 square miles that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Some 150 major rivers and streams, plus innumerable smaller tributaries, deliver water to the bay, and I have observed vultures performing their important purification services along my own local river.
One day as I was exercising, I noticed vultures perched in the trees up ahead of me. They were overlooking the river that the road parallels, and I knew their presence was a sure sign that there must be a dead animal somewhere in their vicinity.
When I got closer, I could see several of these big birds standing on a dead deer that was lying in the river. It’s likely the deer was hit by a car but not immediately killed, and then managed to reach the river just a short distance away where it then died.
It’s also possible the deer was ill before it perished in the waterway. Although most wildlife is healthy, sometimes animals get sick, just as we do, and a severely ill animal often makes its way to water. It knows it will continue to require this vital substance to remain alive, but unfortunately, it may then succumb to its illness in or near the water it had sought.
When carcasses end up in or along waterways, they can contaminate them if not removed in short order. Indeed, when vulture populations plummeted in South Asia, it led to a proliferation of rats and a rise in infectious diseases as a result of carcasses left to rot on the ground. (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/casestudy/156[birdlife.org])
When an animal dies, it begins to decompose almost immediately. Particular species of bacteria work to recycle the dead creature and in the process produce bio-toxins. These natural poisons can sicken or kill people and most animals other than vultures.
Therefore a vulture is the ultimate sanitation worker to provide carcass removal services because it’s able to metabolize the noxious substances found in decaying flesh. It’s protected by highly acidic stomach liquids.
Wildlife conflicts between vultures and people must be resolved by the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture because these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But farmers haven’t been satisfied with the federal handling of their complaints, so they talked a state senator into introducing a bill this legislative session to make it easier for them to kill Black Vultures.
Because vultures reproduce very slowly and would be unable to quickly rebound in numbers, killing too many of them could impact the health of waterways and subject the bay to yet another stressor. Additionally, disease would be allowed to linger in our environment.
A female Black Vulture nests only one time each year, laying one to three eggs that take over a month to hatch. The young remain in the nest for two to three months, which comprises most of the breeding season.
Senate Bill 37 (SB37) to allow farmers to kill Black Vultures is quite likely to become law, but it shouldn’t. The crime the Black Vulture is accused of—killing lambs and calves—doesn’t make sense. This bird is not designed for hunting.
American architect Louis Sullivan wrote, “Form ever follows function, and this is the law [of nature].” With flat, weak feet and blunt talons that are not capable of grasping (form), the Black Vulture is clearly designed for scavenging (function).
So how and why is this species killing newborn animals instead of feeding only upon dead ones? When animals start behaving unnaturally, there’s a logical reason for it. The answer to the vultures’ strange behavior in Virginia is obvious if you’ve been paying attention to our environment over the course of the past 20-30 years.
Many farmers have done away with hedgerows, the mix of shrubby and herbaceous growth that had served as protective windbreaks as well as habitat for wildlife, such as Northern Bobwhite Quail that have disappeared in Virginia along with the hedgerows.
Today’s farm is typically wall-to-wall fescue (grass) with a few large trees. This unnaturally barren land has not only destroyed wildlife habitat, but has also done away with a “birthing room” for cows and ewes where they can safely give birth.
Pregnant females actively seek a spot away from the rest of the herd or flock where they can hide from predators while bringing new life into the world. But a field devoid of cover forces them to give birth out in the open, where they can be easily seen by predators and vultures that, like any hungry animal, will take advantage of a situation that presents the opportunity for an easy meal.
In this case, the vultures have learned that the afterbirth (the placenta, which is the membrane that transfers nutrients from the adult female to her young in the womb) will be expelled shortly after the birth takes place and they wait for it. As for the claim that Black Vultures deliberately kill newborn lambs and calves, I believe people are misinterpreting what’s actually happening.
Newborn lambs and calves are covered in mucus, a mixture of water, sugars, proteins, and other substances that are just as appealing to vultures as the afterbirth. These scavengers could be simply trying to feed upon this mucus, rather than intentionally trying to kill the newborn animal.
Additionally, Black Vultures are often getting blamed for killing newborns when, in reality, the young were born sickly and abandoned by the mother or succumbed to the cold. The natural time of year for most mammals to give birth is spring, but farmers often manipulate births to occur in late fall or winter, which is unnatural and thus inappropriate.
The difficulty that farmers are experiencing with the Black Vulture is a relatively recent development that mirrors the growing disconnect between humans, their environment, and their livestock. When people refuse to live within the context of the natural world, it invariably creates problems.
Farmers have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of their animals, and they should use their intelligence to accept, and work within, the constraints set by the natural world, rather than trying to ignore real-life limitations on their actions.
If you are like most gardeners, you probably hear the word “slug” and are instantly repulsed. Visions of slime and eaten plants may come to mind.
But slugs deserve far more respect than gardeners and others give to them. These invertebrates have the very important job of helping to recycle organic matter, returning it to the soil ultimately for the benefit of growing plants.
If you think that these critters exist to destroy your plants, then you have been misinformed. Unfortunately, it’s easy for that to be the case. University extension websites across the country perpetuate this very mistaken notion, and a book was even put out several years ago titled 50 Ways to Kill a Slug.
I read a review of this book that, in my opinion, should never have been published. It was totally out of touch with the real world of slugs and what they do.
The reader was told that slugs “are guaranteed to infuriate, [they] parade through the garden, munching on tender plants and leaving slimy trails that will always seem to be concentrated in areas where your bare hand will be most likely to touch the greatest surface area of slime.”
In spite of having gardened for more than half a century, I cannot relate at all to these comments. Why is that? What makes my gardening experiences so totally different from those of other long-time gardeners?
The answer is not a mystery. Simply put, I live in agreement with the natural world.
I love nature and I have embraced it virtually all of my life. Spending as much time as possible in the out-of-doors as a child and as an adult, I have seen first-hand, and often documented by way of photography and handwritten journals, the roles that various organisms play in the natural world.
If you took one of my classes or attended one of my slide presentations, you would stop thinking of slugs as “pests” and instead recognize them for the very important animals that they truly are: Mother Nature’s recyclers.
It’s vitally important for all organic matter (the remains of organisms that were once alive) to be recycled back into the environment. That’s because all living things, including us, are composed of recycled organic matter. This is the reason discarded vegetative scraps and inedible animal parts should never be sent to a landfill where it will be locked away and wasted rather than reused.
Slugs feed upon all kinds of things, from dead animals to sickly plants to animal droppings. By doing so, they recycle nutrients that your garden needs to grow well. In other words, they fertilize your plants so that you don’t need to spend time, effort, and perhaps money to do so.
Yet gardeners are constantly told to kill all—yes, I said all—of these lowly-yet-oh-so useful animals. This advice is nonsensical, so why does the gardening community take it to heart?
The problem is that the study of horticulture does not include learning about the natural world. Therefore gardeners are often not familiar with the actual roles that all organisms play to keep the environment—including their gardens—functioning properly.
The reality is that unless you understand how the natural world works, you simply cannot garden well. Gardening involves knowing about the lives of the animals out there so you can comprehend how they interact with plants and each other.
A slug—there are many species—is typically a fat little animal that looks damp. It reminds me somewhat of a miniature seal, only without the feet. And like seals, slugs are usually found where it is wet.
These animals will die if they dry out. Thus they tend to avoid direct sunshine, staying among and underneath plant debris on sunny days and only venturing forth into the open on cloudy or damp days.
If someone tells me that he has a slug problem, I tell him that he must be keeping his garden too wet. In nature, cause and effect is always logical. But in order to determine what is causing the effect observed, you must investigate exactly what the gardener is doing and how that affects the behavior of the animal in question.
For example, sometimes a gardener over-waters his garden, or perhaps he has applied so much mulch that it never dries out. When organic matter remains constantly wet, it starts to rot. That means microorganisms have begun to recycle it.
If plants are growing so close together that they don’t have enough air circulation to dry them off, they too will start to rot because conditions aren’t right for the plants to remain healthy. Mother Nature wants to remove such plants from the environment as quickly as possible because they are not likely to be able to reproduce. If plants are not going to help perpetuate life, they are wasting precious real estate.
Therefore Mother Nature sends in slugs that can recycle the rotting, sickly plants more quickly than the microorganisms are capable of doing. This action opens up the space sooner for new plants to grow that may perform better than the previous plants in that location.
Sadly, gardeners see the slugs and blame them for destroying their plants when, in reality, the slugs are correcting a cultivation “wrong” performed by the gardener. So this is why we have slugs: They tell you to change your gardening ways so your plants can grow well and strong instead of sickly and weak.
Don’t buy into the gardening prejudice against these fine animals that demands they be put to death instead of thanked for the work they do and the advice they provide you—if you pay attention and learn to speak the language of Mother Nature.
One summer day when I was a young girl of about 10 or 11, I was in the back yard when our pet cat brought home a nestling Blue Jay. The dead chick was naked (without feathers) and therefore it had probably only recently hatched.
I immediately brought the cat into the house. Growing up with one or more cats at a time living with us, I knew all about their behavior. Cats were killers of all kinds of wildlife, from insects to mice to birds and anything else they could catch.
(This isn’t a statement to demonize these felines. It’s simply a statement of pure fact. Anyone who tries to say that cats are not eager hunters that are extremely proficient at this activity is either being dishonest or is ignorant of cat behavior.)
Unfortunately, any cat that has ever been allowed outside is a cat that can never be kept inside, especially when it knows there is a nest of baby birds to plunder. The cat will meow and meow until someone lets it out and that is exactly what happened at my house.
One of my siblings or parents, being annoyed by the cat’s crying, let it out again—and again and again as I kept bringing it back inside each time it brought home one nestling, then another and another until it had killed the entire brood of five chicks.
At the time, my only feeling about this was one of extreme sadness because I felt there was no reason for the baby birds to have been killed. The cat didn’t need to kill to survive and, indeed, pet cats rarely eat what they catch.
But now, as an adult with much more knowledge, I realize the tragedy was far worse than just having the lives of those five young birds cut short for no good reason. Another aspect concerns the Blue Jay pair, which often mates for life.
The male and female had invested an incredible amount of energy and time into gathering twigs and other plant materials and building their intricate nest, not to mention the huge amount of energy that goes into bringing forth another life inside each egg.
All of that effort had been for naught. In fact, this activity is so energy-and-time consuming that Blue Jays typically nest only one time per year. Thus the entire reproductive potential of that pair may have been robbed that summer.
As time has marched on, I’ve watched our “civilized” world become more and more inhospitable to wildlife. It’s quite frightening because our lives are totally dependent upon a properly functioning natural world. And that world can only be kept running smoothly by the wildlife that people, generally speaking, show so little appreciation for.
There’s nothing wrong with having an affection for cats, especially if you show that affection by keeping your kitty indoors where it won’t get hurt or killed horribly as most of the cats of my early years did.
At that time, when both cats and dogs were allowed to run free, I was horrified one day to see a dog with a lifeless cat hanging out of its mouth and I often witnessed dogs and cats run over by traffic.
Yet all these years later, there are people who continue to think that pets should be allowed to roam free. I truly find it hard to understand.
They often try to justify their belief by suggesting that cats are a part of nature and predation is natural. But this argument is fallacious.
No native predators (which cats are not) would be anywhere near as numerous in the environment as cats that are companions to an overly abundant human population. And, adding insult to injury, some people assist feral cat colonies that are outdoors 24/7 and truly taking an enormous toll upon the natural world.
Some folks think that cats should be considered helpful to gardeners, but this idea is particularly egregious. It’s based upon a lack of understanding of our natural world. In point of fact, pure and simple, gardeners who experience problems in the yard are doing things incorrectly.
When you choose to ignore the reality of the universe, you choose to have difficulties because you are choosing to ignore natural laws. Humans are not God; they have no power to successfully alter the way the world works.
Contrary to horticultural belief, “pest problems” are not a given. It should not be considered normal to encounter a variety of critters attacking your garden and interfering with your desire to grow favorite plants.
I know because I’ve successfully grown enough fruits and vegetables to eat fresh, give away to friends and neighbors, and to can and freeze without ever employing pesticides. The same is true of the ornamental plants I’ve grown, the number of species of which are too numerous for me to even estimate.
Consider the idea that cats will put an end to the activities of voles and bunnies. Yes, they certainly will have an effect because cats may very well wipe out every bunny in the area and make quite a dent in vole populations.
But a gardener who wants this outcome to occur is also a gardener who is blind to the impact his pet is having upon the natural world—and his garden.
Those voles (a type of mouse) are not just an important food source for other kinds of critters, such as hawks, owls, and foxes; they are also aerators of the soil you grow your plants in. By digging burrows they allow air and water—both of which are essential for plant roots to grow—to enter the earth.
Yes, voles do eat grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants other than grasses, sedges, and rushes). In the natural world, one of their roles is to help limit plant numbers so plants do not become overcrowded.
I have voles on my property, yet they have never been problematic. Why? I also have numerous kinds of snakes that I rarely see, but they keep vole numbers so limited that the chunky creatures do not pose a serious threat to my gardening efforts. In fact, and to my dismay, I hardly ever get to see a vole.
Snakes are the prime predators of voles and everyone who’s ever told me about vole problems have been people who have killed off these sinuous reptiles. As pointed out previously, these are people denying the reality of the universe.
And the idea that you need cats to kill bunnies that are so adorable to see is ridiculous. Vegetable gardens should always be fenced. (It’s called living in agreement with nature.) Flower gardens can be made less attractive to rabbits by simply allowing so-called “weeds,” such as Common Plantain that they prefer to eat, to grow in the lawn.
A lawn should not be a monoculture for its own best health and well being anyway.
Allow White Clover to grow—which Eastern Cottontail Rabbits also prefer to eat instead of flowers—and it will collect nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, naturally fertilizing your grass. Then you don’t need to go to the expense of buying and applying petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer, too much of which is often applied, which then runs off and harms the Chesapeake Bay.
In other words, create a nature-friendly garden and you will be not only a successful gardener, but a gardener at peace with the world and virtually every wild critter in it.
My husband and I were in a card shop one day when I suddenly heard him exclaim, “Hey! That’s you!” When I looked at the shelf to see what he was grinning about, I saw Lucy van Pelt (from the Charles Shultz comic strip “Peanuts”) behind the wheel of an old-timey police car.
On the side of the car where it would normally say “Police” it instead said, “Common Sense Patrol.” Now Lucy is my writing companion, off to the right of my keyboard.
Common sense is most often defined as sound practical judgment based more upon one’s personal experience rather than specialized knowledge or training. However, very few people have faith in what their own eyes tell them or are confident in their ability to make decisions without the advice of, or confirmation by, one or more experts.
For example, you will read in gardening magazines that the feeding activity of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker that makes shallow “wells” in the surface of tree bark to access sap, is deleterious to trees. But an astute observer can find many huge trees that are covered with ancient sap wells as well as more recently made ones.
Obviously the woodpeckers that have visited the trees through the years did no harm of any consequence; otherwise the trees could not have lived long enough to have gotten so big! Therefore common sense should tell anyone who pays attention to the natural world that this gardening lore is just plain wrong.
Yet when I point out the fallacy of these kinds of accusations against wildlife, people are often reluctant to employ critical thinking that would lead them to the truth. If they know someone with Ph.D. after his name who is a supporter of a supposed truth, they are going to put faith in that person’s purported credentials instead of in what reality tells them is true.
Consider an experience I had one autumn more than two decades ago. I visited a nature preserve every morning for a week or so to make notes about the plants and animals that could be found there. I’d been asked to write a nature column for the newsletter that was mailed out monthly, and I wanted to make sure I mentioned the appropriate organisms.
Many wildflowers were in the process of going to seed in the fields while other plants, such as goldenrod, were beginning to bloom—just in time to provide nectar that would be especially valuable to Monarch butterflies migrating south at that time of year.
The fields were absolutely bursting with life! A variety of insects visited plants for their final meals of the year while numerous species of birds poked about to feed upon seeds, insects, or both. Bees buzzed and birds chirped. It was exhilarating.
Then, within the course of just 24 hours, I returned to find the place quiet and lifeless. Every single field had been cut; every plant was lying on the ground. Virtually all of the activity that had been taking place just the day before had ceased.
The insects and the birds had been forced to move on to find other sources of nourishment and cover; the Monarchs would get no help from this nature preserve as they tried to get to Mexico.
I immediately expressed my dismay to the person in charge, providing her with the details of my observations. I explained why the fields should not be cut in the fall, but rather only in early spring so as to minimize the detrimental effects of mowing upon wildlife.
She listened intently, and I thought she understood how sensible my explanation was. But even though the course of action I was recommending for future management of the area was logical, common sense didn’t prevail.
When I next visited the area and talked to her, she told me she hated “to pull rank” on me, but she had asked her husband, a U.Va. biologist, what he thought. He had disagreed with me. He felt mowing would impact critters no matter when it was done, so the timing didn’t make one bit of difference.
I didn’t know what this man’s area of expertise was supposed to be (he had a Ph.D.), but I could tell that it was not wildlife land management. I was very surprised that he would voice his opinion when he obviously had neither personal experience with, nor personal knowledge of, the circumstances of this situation.
The professor was overlooking the fact that a fall cutting meant the plants, along with their seeds and any eggs laid upon them by invertebrates, would be prone to rotting as they lay upon the ground. If they’d been allowed to stand tall throughout the fall and winter, they would have been able to dry out by swaying in the wind following a rain or snow storm.
If the seeds and eggs rotted, plant and animal species would not be perpetuated, and wildlife trying to survive the coldest months of the year would not be fed. And, of course, with the plants on the ground, they couldn’t provide cover or shelter for wildlife during harsh weather.
In other words, cutting the fields in fall creates conditions that are problematic for wildlife, whereas cutting the fields in early spring—the best time to cut them—would follow the example of Mother Nature herself.
By springtime, dried plants are beginning to decay and fall over; animals have been fed and sheltered when they needed it most; and the seeds and eggs not discovered and consumed have a chance to start the cycle of life over again.
Although I find the idea of following Mother Nature’s example to be intuitive, my experience has been that people ignore common sense and instead try to fight this suggestion at every turn. It certainly doesn’t help when “experts,” who may not possess much knowledge about a situation, don’t hesitate to offer their opinion as seemingly sound advice anyway.
In truth, a Ph.D. following someone’s name does not automatically imply expert status with regards to any subject, no matter how distantly related to that person’s field of study. It’s simply proof that the person successfully mastered a particular topic.
Unfortunately, when people seen as reliable sources of information provide poor advice regarding our natural world, there can be seriously detrimental consequences for its welfare (and ultimately, for ours) as a result.
But no one needed a Ph.D. to understand the logic and common sense of managing the fields as I had explained. A little bit of analytical thinking about the deafening silence of the cut fields after they had been so full of life should have made obvious the correct course of action to follow.
So now you know why I always have to be on common sense patrol!
Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County, with the help of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, successfully fought the EPA’s attempt to regulate storm water flow into Accotink Creek.
The EPA was trying to keep the creek from being drowned in sediment from storm water runoff. The board was trying to keep from using taxpayer dollars to adequately fix this problem that was totally caused by inappropriate development.
The sediment from Fairfax County storm water runoff does not just impair Accotink Creek. It affects the Potomac River, which the creek enters, and the Chesapeake Bay, which the Potomac flows into.
Therefore the county of Fairfax and the state of Virginia effectively ignored a moral duty to preserve a natural resource that has been historically one of the most productive estuaries on the planet—an economically important source of food and recreation (fishing, birding, boating) for all Virginians.
In Charlottesville, the Rivanna River feeds the James River, which flows to the Chesapeake Bay. Because of the huge amount of impervious surface area that people maintain on most properties, rainwater runs over the ground instead of soaking into it as would happen in natural landscapes.
The rainwater picks up pollutants, such as oil and grease from machinery as well as pesticides and fertilizers from yards, and is carried by ditches, drains, and pipes straight into local streams and rivers without the benefit of water treatment.
Thus virtually all of the pollution created in Charlottesville and picked up by rainwater ends up ultimately in the Bay. The EPA has been trying for years to get governments and citizens in the Bay watershed to voluntarily take steps to limit adverse effects upon the Bay.
People create the situations that result in storm water runoff, so they need to take responsibility for fixing them (unlike Fairfax, that shirked its duty). In Charlottesville, officials are giving the impression that they are taking steps to address the deleterious effects of runoff on the Bay by instituting a fee system, which Albemarle County may soon emulate.
The city will charge citizens for the amount of impervious surface area (such as rooftops, driveways, parking lots) on every developed property other than those built and maintained by government. The fee—referred to as the “rainwater tax” by some folks—is part of the city’s Water Resources Protection Program (WRPP).
The point of the WRPP is “to address Charlottesville’s storm water related challenges in a comprehensive and economically and environmentally sustainable manner.” Unfortunately, the main point of the fee is simply to raise money to resize or rehabilitate existing pipes to remove storm water from impervious areas more quickly.
This means polluted water will be moved to the Bay more quickly, which means the fee simply enables people to continue to harm it. As too often happens, local government officials are not attacking the root cause of a problem, but instead taking the most expensive route to accommodate the problem.
As with the decision to spend a lot of money to build a new dam at Ragged Mountain instead of getting people to continue to reduce their water usage, local government officials have decided to spend a lot of money for construction work instead of getting people to change their landscaping to minimize storm water runoff.
People can’t get rid of rooftops or perhaps even parking lots, but they can replace most of their impervious landscaping. If the City took the intelligent route, they would discourage the societal push for artificial landscapes that are overly manicured and sterile, lacking the life forms necessary to keep them functioning as the natural world is meant to do.
Right now, non-environmentally friendly landscapes are enabled by laws and regulations that forbid (city “weed” ordinances, suburban covenants) or discourage (county land-use regs) the nature-friendly landscaping that would not only make land in the Bay watershed permeable, but also perfectly functional without the use of pesticides and excessive amounts of fertilizer.
Consider that lawn and turf grass is now considered the largest crop grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—“more than 3.8 million acres covering a staggering 9.5 percent of the watershed’s total land area. Turf cover now exceeds total pasture cover (7.7%), hay/alfalfa acres (7.4%) and the acreage of row crops (9.2%—corn, soybean, wheat) grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” (chesapeakestormwater.net/2009/06/the-grass-crop-of-the-chesapeake-bay-watershed/)
Farmers are used to getting blamed for causing many of the problems affecting the Bay, but finally some scientists are recognizing that non-farmers (i.e., homeowners) are just as guilty by their cultivation of a turf “crop.” As reported in the same paper:
About 19 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used each year (mostly herbicides to kill otherwise fine-looking “weeds”). These pesticides are reaching local streams and rivers. According to USGS monitoring data, one or more pesticides were detected in 99% of urban streams, and one out of every five samples exceeded water quality standards to protect aquatic life.
Our compacted lawns produce extra runoff to the Bay. Thus, if we truly want to save the Chesapeake Bay, we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. We must face the reality that every person who maintains more than a minimum amount of lawn for relaxing—especially one that is a thick carpet of grass grown as a monoculture—is contributing to the continued impairment of the Bay.
It’s unbelievable that some government agencies, universities, and lawn care companies claim that lawns are “green.” Here are just some of the reasons that a lawn can never be considered environmentally friendly:
A lawn consists of one or more nonnative (i.e. invasive) grasses. To maintain the green color of the grass, a lawn tends to be over-watered and over-fertilized (a source of nutrient runoff).
People are told that a lawn should not contain “weeds” or insects, thus they apply poisonous herbicides and insecticides.
Continual mowing throughout the growing season is a huge source of air and water pollution from engine exhaust.
The continual mowing, week after week, year after year, compacts the soil (especially if it has a high clay content), thus making a lawn a prime source of storm water runoff.
If lawns were permeable (as the city of Charlottesville apparently believes since it plans to only charge a fee on hardscaped surfaces), lawn care companies would not need to sell aeration and dethatching services in an attempt to make lawns permeable for the benefit of the grass roots.
However, the degree to which a lawn care company can even make a lawn temporarily permeable is minimal. Manmade aeration consists of making holes just a few inches deep (as opposed to the depth of wildlife-performed aeration), leaving the compacted soil below that depth to act as a barrier preventing further penetration of water. Thus a lawn does little to hold back storm water runoff.
At its web site, the city boasts that the Stormwater Utility Ordinance is truly a partnership between local government personnel and leaders/partners within the community. It then immediately names numerous conservation-related organizations that support its fee system. This is exactly what Charlottesville and Albemarle County officials did to “sell” the need for the new Ragged Mountain Dam to area taxpayers.
It’s truly puzzling that the city, in concert with all of these conservation-minded groups, could have totally overlooked lawns as a serious contributor to the storm water problems facing this area as well as the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also deeply disturbing.
The Solution—Changing Minds, Changing Lawns, and Changing Landscape
To address the deleterious effects of local runoff on the Chesapeake Bay, Charlottesville has instituted a fee system, which Albemarle County may soon emulate.
The City will charge citizens for the amount of impervious surface area on their developed properties. “Impervious surface area” is defined as “any surface coverings that do not absorb water, including roads, roofs, and parking lots.”
In other words, Charlottesville officials are making people pay for the impact of structures they require. Although you can and should limit the size of your dwelling, you do need a place to live. That means you probably also need a “road” (driveway) or a parking lot (if you live in an apartment) to access your dwelling, so you are being asked to pay a fee on necessities.
Because there is not much an individual can do to avoid needing these particular impervious surfaces, it does seem a bit immoral to assess a fee on them as if anyone has much choice. (The same is true for food—commodities such as meat, dairy, vegetables, and fruits—should never be taxed.)
However, because lawns are optional and highly detrimental in many ways to our environment in addition to contributing to storm water runoff, there would be absolutely nothing unjust about assessing a fee on the amount of lawn area on a property.
There is now a legitimate and compelling reason for government to encourage, via the power of taxation, the creation of more natural, and thus more environmentally friendly, landscapes that would not only make land in the Bay watershed more permeable, but also perfectly functional without the use of pesticides and excessive amounts of fertilizer.
What government should be doing is allowing a minimum square footage of lawn around the house and charging a fee for the amount of lawn area beyond that amount. The reality is that most lawns see little, if any, use and the only reason that most people have lawns is simply because it’s the accepted form of landscaping in our society.
A lawn could—and should—be replaced by whatever combination of flowers, wild grasses, vines, shrubs, and trees a landowner enjoys seeing. The idea that a lawn with a few plants here and there will function without problems is an idea born of ignorance.
There absolutely must be a variety of plants to support a variety of organisms because the critters are the ones that keep the environment functioning properly. For example, the animal activity that takes place in a nature-friendly garden is responsible for helping it to retain even heavy rain.
A natural area with large numbers of plants of different heights comprises a vast multilayered canopy that must have all surfaces dampened before a drop of rain even reaches the soil.
When a droplet does hit the ground, the soil will accept it because of the innumerable kinds of invertebrates living within the soil, aerating it with their activities. Additionally, most mammals either dig for food, tunnel through the soil, or make their homes underground, allowing water to enter the earth through the holes that they make.
Yet the unnatural landscape dominated by lawn that supports very little wildlife is favored by development covenants and city and county officials even though it is doomed to being problem-prone from the get-go. People, including government officials, must change their minds about what our immediate environment should look like. Abolishing “weed” ordinances and instituting a lawn tax would definitely be a start in the right direction.
When I’ve spoken with government officials about why they seem obsessed with limiting the height of grass and other plants in yards, the word “vermin” always comes up. Again, this is a display of the ignorance in society about our natural world. The word “vermin” is typically used as an excuse for people to kill particular animals that they fear or view as competitors, such as foxes, coyotes, rats, mice, and even hawks.
Right here in Albemarle County in the 1980s, hawks were shot and killed illegally as “vermin” on billionaire John Kluge’s estate. Coyotes are being killed nowadays with the approval of the Game Department, even though they offer a better way to keep deer populations in check than waiting for disease to take its toll (the means of last resort for Mother Nature when other population-control methods have failed).
It’s time for people to accept the fact that the consequence of eliminating predators is dealing with overpopulations of their prey. While government officials worry that mice and rats will be a problem if they allow citizens to create meadows around their homes, these animals are legendary for their abundance in big cities where there are no meadows—and few, if any, predators.
In Albemarle County, many suburban neighborhoods are governed by covenants that severely restrict the kind of landscaping that is allowed. People who live in these areas are going to have to decide whether they want to rescind the covenants so people can landscape in a more intelligent manner and not pay a tax, or whether they want to keep covenants in place and pay for the “privilege” of harming the Chesapeake Bay.
In the rural areas of Albemarle, supervisors must make a case to our state legislators to change laws to allow supervisors to give tax breaks to everyone who creates a nature-friendly landscape. Right now, only owners of large properties get huge breaks on real estate taxes—even though they aren’t usually doing a thing to help the environment or the Bay to be healthy!
People who grow grapes (please note that wine is not a necessity) pollute the landscape with pesticides throughout the growing season.
People who raise horses (again, not a necessity) tend to maintain a landscape that is every bit as manicured as a suburban lawn—and every bit as detrimental to our environment.
Some people own large tracts of open area that, if they can line up a farmer to cut hay, will get a tax break even though it would be far better for that land to be maintained in a natural state for the benefit of our wildlife.
We are losing numerous species of birds and other critters that need fields in which to reproduce—not a cut field that is, for all intents and purposes, just another, albeit larger, lawn. These animals have value, providing services that keep the environment in and beyond the field functioning properly.
It makes sense to give farmers a break on land assessments because they are feeding the rest of us. (However, even they should maintain some habitat for wildlife. Unfortunately, now days even farmers do away with natural areas.)
But what is the justification for allowing a break to owners of large tracts of forest? What is a 20-acre forest doing that a one-acre forest isn’t?
In point of fact, the one-acre forest protected from yet further development within an otherwise environmentally degraded subdivision is going to do far more to help that environment to function better than twenty contiguous acres elsewhere.
These regulations are not only senseless, they are also grossly discriminatory to most of the citizens in the county who pay far more in taxes on small pieces of property than do those who own much larger parcels.
The sad truth is that people refuse to recognize the true cost to our environment of maintaining unnatural landscapes. And, while well-intentioned, taxpayer-subsidized rain barrels and rain gardens are not sufficient to solve our problems.
What we need is an extreme makeover of our developed landscape. Otherwise, there can be no saving of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Green Infrastructure Center in Charlottesville has released a book to guide community efforts to maintain the natural environment that humans are dependent upon for their survival. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
The Green Infrastructure Center in Charlottesville has released a book to guide community efforts to maintain the natural environment that humans are dependent upon for their survival. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Generally speaking, people have become so removed from the natural world that they no longer realize that the environment constitutes our life-support system. Many folks think that it’s not at all important to conserve natural “infrastructure”—the forests, fields, waterways, soils, and wildlife—without which mankind cannot easily survive.
The evidence that people feel this way is all around us. In the recent past, Charlottesville City Councilors continued their historical disregard of the intentions of Paul Goodloe McIntire when he donated a large swath of land to the city in 1926 to use as a park.
The councilors voted that the eastern edge of Mr. McIntire’s eponymous park should be destroyed so that a parkway could replace parkland. On the western side of the park, they voted to eliminate yet more parkland by allowing a huge building to be placed there.
In Albemarle (as elsewhere throughout the country), the desire to bring in more and more money—supposedly to limit the tax burden on the residents even though this has been experientially proven to be a fallacy—blinds many citizens and their government representatives to the more precious value of natural infrastructure.
Thus the Shops at Stonefield replaced woods full of wildlife with immense hardscaping that neighboring businesses across route 29 fear will create runoff problems for them. (A lawsuit has been filed against the county, the city, and the developers regarding storm water management.)
Most people have trouble discerning the true value of the natural world around them because they look out the window and not much seems to be happening out there. Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants do not change their appearance much from one day to the next. Birds are often the only form of life that is on the move and obvious to the casual observer.
Therefore it’s difficult for someone to grasp the significance of the natural world to his own existence. However, uncountable interactions are taking place in the environment that are essential to every human being’s existence.
All of those green plants are making available to us the oxygen that we cannot survive without. The roots of those plants are holding the soil in place so that it does not run off and smother organisms, their eggs, or their larvae that provide food and/or services to humans within our streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
The soil itself functions to cleanse whatever harmful materials may get picked up by rainwater, such as agricultural and man-made pollutants that would degrade our waterways.
The plants we need for food and oxygen depend heavily upon innumerable organisms in order to grow and thrive. Recyclers (such as slugs and snails) and decomposers (such as bacteria and fungi) work on wastes and dead organisms to supply nutrients to the soil for the benefit of growing plants that will not be healthy without such assistance.
Pollinators (bees usually come to mind first for most people but there are actually many, many kinds of pollinators) help most flowering plants to reproduce so each species is perpetuated instead of going extinct.
Predators work to limit the numbers of other kinds of critters so that plant-eating animals don’t destroy the very plants they (as well as humans) depend upon for their survival. By limiting populations, predators are also making sure that the environment is not overwhelmed by wastes created as a result of life processes.
In other words, there is an incredible amount of activity taking place out there, even though most people are oblivious to it. The natural world is, in actuality, quite dynamic. Should it cease to work properly, humans will be in deep trouble.
We are steadily marching towards such a dysfunctional state as we eliminate organisms whose functions can be viewed like the cogs in a machine. Organisms may seem myriad in number and unimportant at the species level, but each species is essential to the most efficient and proper functioning of the environment as a whole.
Luckily for humans, the natural world does have a limited number of backup organisms that can take over the jobs of those organisms we continue to wipe out. However, the key word here is “limited.” Eventually, if we choose to continue down this ruinous path, the natural world will no longer be able to support us.
But we don’t need to follow the pathway born of ignorance. In Charlottesville, we have the Green Infrastructure Center whose mission is to assist communities to “restore, manage, and protect…the natural resources and working landscapes” that provide clean water and air, thus ensuring quality of life while recognizing that the local economy must be sustained as well.
These folks work to identify critical ecological systems within urban, suburban, and rural areas that should be conserved in order to maintain healthy human and wildlife communities. They employ an integrative approach to land-use planning that maximizes returns for both the ecology as well as the economy of an area.
The idea is for local governments to take into account the natural world when considering population-growth, tax projections, traditional infrastructure, and capital improvement costs. This way of doing things should have been obvious long ago, but better late than never!
If you are a land-use planner, a developer, a member of a community group interested in helping to preserve the proper functioning of our environment, or even just an individual who wants the knowledge to speak out accurately at government meetings, you can purchase a resource guide called Evaluating and Conserving Green Infrastructure across the Landscape: A Practitioner’s Guide by Karen Firehock (available at the Green Infrastructure Center by calling 434-244-0322 or by visiting www.gicnc.org/)
This book starts with the basics, providing an overview of the reasons for green infrastructure planning, including the history of the field and definitions to make things clear. It goes on to explain how to evaluate and prioritize natural assets, how to map them, and how to organize an initiative that takes into account the views of various stakeholders as well as experts.
The Green Infrastructure Center is a non-profit agency whose existence could not have come at a better time. I hope citizens and government officials alike will take advantage of this group’s expertise and assistance.
Marlene A. Condon
Condon is a naturalist, writer, photographer and speaker living in Crozet. She is the author and photographer of “The Nature-friendly Garden.”
Re: “Trapping the borer,” May 9 news story:
The purple boxes hanging throughout the state to detect the Emerald Ash Borer appear fairly innocuous, until you take a closer look.
A Roanoke Times reporter found a dozen Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies — our official state insect — stuck to just one box in Botetourt County. In Virginia, 5,500 such (death) traps are being hung this year, effectively killing any insect that steps foot upon them.
Should people care about the unnecessary killing of nontarget insect species? Yes, because these insects all have important roles to play in the environment, and the numbers of insects are way down from what they were just a half-century ago.
This fact matters because our lives are possible only if we co-exist with unimaginably large numbers of insect species that provide services we require, such as pollination of plants to help perpetuate them and the necessary recycling of organic matter to enable optimal plant growth.
If this environmental cost doesn’t seem significant to you, then perhaps the colossal waste of your tax dollars will. Nine million dollars have been spent annually for these survey activities in each of the last several fiscal years, but what happens when a survey finds the borer is in a new area? A quarantine — a restriction of the movement of ash products capable of transporting this insect to nonquarantined localities — may be put into place to try to slow the spread of EAB.
However, enacting a quarantine after detection is too late — as has been empirically shown in Northern Virginia. EAB was found at multiple sites in Fairfax County in 2008, resulting in the establishment of a quarantine for 10 Northern Virginia counties and independent cities. Yet the quarantine had to be expanded in 2010 to two more counties and the city of Winchester due to additional EAB detections.
Instead of wasting tax dollars and the lives of numerous innocent insects, common sense dictates that quarantines and public education should be enacted before EAB has a chance to be transported from one locality to the next.
People should notify federal and state representatives, as well as Gov. Bob McDonnell, to stop funding EAB surveys.
“Those dead insects matter”, published June 22, 2011, The Roanoke Times