Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Not at all.

Some people think that natural yards look messy, unattractive, and unmaintained. They take pride in mowing their lawns and pruning their shrubs, thinking that by doing so they are showing that they care for their property, and that this in turn makes them a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good American.

But a recent book argues that America’s Founding Fathers were themselves devoted gardeners, and that the way they gardened – the way they thought about plants – bore little resemblance to the beliefs and habits of many Americans today.

Here is one particularly striking paragraph from Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, written by Andrea Wulf, and published in 2012:

“By the time Jefferson became president, many trees had been lost [in Washington DC, which at the time was still more of a wilderness than a city]. Most shocking of all, those on the grounds of the White House had been felled by Federalists* after the accession of the Republicans, one observer noted, ‘out of spite to them who cherished it.’ Enraged by Jefferson’s election, so the rumor went, his rivals had ordered the ancient trees to be cut down as a parting gesture, knowing how such vandalism would wound the new president, who regarded tree-felling as ‘a crime little short of murder.’ Jefferson was so furious at this unscrupulous destruction that shortly after he moved into the White House, the author of the Declaration of Independence was overheard making the rather surprising comment, ‘I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling.'” (page 148)

(*Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, as it existed in his day. The opposing political party – of which departing President John Adams was a member – was called the Federalists.)

And here are some other fascinating facts from the book:

Many of the most important figures in the founding of America had strong feelings about the importance of gardening. The first four presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – all couldn’t wait to retire from politics and go back to working on their farms, vegetable plots, and ornamental gardens.

The “Founding Gardeners” understood the importance of nature. The fourth President, James Madison – the person after whom Madison, Wisconsin is named – was the first major figure to publicly call for an end to deforestation in America.

In the opinion of the “Founding Gardeners”, conventional yards are un-American. Jefferson and Adams, while serving as ambassadors in Europe, observed that many people there were turning away from a formal style of gardening, seeing straight paths, pruned trees, and geometrical hedges as too dictatorial. These landowners thought that a free people should embrace a more natural look in their gardens. In other words, Americans who value independence and democracy should show it by letting garden plants follow their natural life courses.

The “Founding Gardeners” believed that native plants make America great. At his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington planted trees and shrubs from all over the thirteen states, but he did not allow any plants from Europe in his gardens. And, while some Europeans disparaged America by saying that the wildlife there was inferior, Jefferson sent samples demonstrating that the New World had bigger animals and more beautiful plants.

Being a good American means having a yard that reflects the natural plant communities of America. Being a good American means letting plants have their own life, liberty, and pursuit of vegetative happiness, rather than constantly imposing our own will on them.

America invented the idea of national parks. Having nature in our yards shows that we share the longstanding American values of respecting and conserving our natural environment.

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Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Is it like this everywhere?

As described in several recent posts, people who don’t like naturally-growing plants often try to shut down people who do by claiming that liking nature is strange and wrong. Sometimes this claim shows up in the form of the argument “It’s like this everywhere.” That is, every town insists on frequently-mowed grass and harshly-pruned trees, and anyone who doesn’t agree with this consensus on how to treat plants is just an odd person with a fringe opinion.

But it isn’t true that it’s “like this everywhere”.

In most other countries, lawns have never been a common feature of residential yards. Even in the United States, where lawns achieved a level of popularity never seen anywhere else in the world, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Communities all over the country now encourage native plants. Increasingly, Americans towns and cities are banning lawns.

The habit of pruning shrubs into geometrical shapes – a hallmark of American gardening in the 1970s – is hardly universal either. In Sweden, gardeners do sometimes prune shrubs. But they don’t let their aesthetic preferences overrule the needs of other species. If a Swedish gardener finds a bird’s nest in a hedge, she’ll leave an oddly-shaped lump on the bush rather than harming the nest in the pursuit of a perfectly straight line.

It is also untrue that people all over the world casually destroy trees whenever they find the trees a little inconvenient. In the city of Curitiba, Brazil, property owners cannot cut down trees in their own yards unless they get a permit first – and the permit always requires homeowners to plant two new trees for every one that is destroyed. Rather than making it easy for residents to complain that they don’t like their neighbor’s native flowers, Curitiba’s leaders instead have created a dedicated phone line for people to report that someone is killing a tree without a permit.

How we treat plants is a choice, not a universal law. Compare the stories of two countries: Japan is a densely-populated island nation with few resources, yet two-thirds of it is covered with forest. In part this is due to Japan’s climate and topography, which favor rapid tree growth while making logging difficult. But it is also largely due to choices, made over centuries, to value and protect forests.

Conversely, Australia’s climate historically made it the least-forested continent. Yet, today, Australia is logging its forests at one of the highest rates in the world, losing 100 trees for every one that is replanted.

We can choose to treat plants as living beings, not as yard decorations. We can choose to treat them as members of our communities, rather than as our personal property, to be destroyed whenever we decide we don’t like them anymore. We can choose to value what plants do for us when they’re alive, instead of only calculating what they’re worth when they’re dead. And we can remember that plants are important not for what they look like, but for the vital roles they play in the ecosystem.

It’s not “like this” everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be like this where you are, either.

Is it like this everywhere?

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

What is solastalgia?

We’re all familiar with nostalgia: the sadness we feel when thinking about places we love but don’t visit anymore. Solastalgia is nostalgia’s dark cousin: the sadness we feel when looking at places we once loved, but which have been irreparably transformed from how they used to be.

Maybe you can think of a specific moment in your life when solastalgia suddenly set in. Maybe when you were a child, the forest or field you played in was bulldozed to make room for more houses. Maybe you went to a favorite creek one day, only to find it had just been paved over. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists describe just such an experience as a defining moment in their lives, the time when they first understood that natural places matter and must be actively preserved.

Maybe solastalgia has set in for you more slowly. Maybe as you drive around your town, you say “That used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland.” But the housing developments and strip malls sprung up one at a time over decades, and there was no specific day when you realized that the character of your community had changed.

Or maybe your family has lived in the same home for generations, and by talking to your parents and grandparents, you can trace a slow history of the surrounding hills being gradually deforested and then blasted apart for mining operations. The view from your house is no longer what it was when your ancestors settled in this spot, and you’ve lost something that you valued about your corner of the world.

Nostalgia makes us sad because there is no going back, even if we can physically return to the place we love. The creek where we played as children may still be there, but we just can’t experience it the same way as adults. We can walk the halls of our old high school, but we can’t recreate the good times we had with our friends.

Solastalgia makes us sad because what we loved is gone, irretrievably. We can’t go back to the neighborhood woodlot to stand in the cool shade and remember the adventures we had there when we were young, because the woodlot is now a treeless private yard. We can’t take our children cycling on country roads and show them our favorite vistas from when we were their age, because those roads are now busy city streets, unwelcoming to cyclists, and the views of farm fields have been replaced by gas stations and convenience stores.

The world, including natural environments, is always changing. But in recent times, change is occurring fast enough that we can see it happening over a single lifespan. We feel sad about how things are because we personally remember how they used to be.

When change is positive, we may reminisce about what things were like before, while also appreciating how they are now. But when change is overwhelmingly negative – when cookiecutter suburbs march across endless acres of what used to be healthy nature – we’re left with a deep sadness about what we’ve lost, while having little offsetting happiness about what we’ve gained.

Like biophilia, solastalgia often gets brushed off as a kind of illness, even though it’s perfectly normal. Nowadays, solastalgia is increasingly recognized as a real and legitimate form of grief. While biophilia is characteristically accompanied by action to repair the distressing circumstance, the defining feature of solastalgia is that the damage cannot be undone on any timescale short enough to help the sufferer feel better. If you are experiencing severe solastalgia, a counselor may be able to help.

What is solastalgia?

What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

What is biophilia?

How can we help plants?

In conventional gardening, plants are treated like yard furniture: inanimate objects that we can arrange and modify to suit our own preferences, and which will quickly fall into a degenerate state if we don’t constantly maintain them. This is, of course, biologically inaccurate. With a few exceptions, even highly cultivated plants are essentially wild creatures that, given appropriate growing conditions, can take care of all their own needs. Plants don’t require our help.

How do we know that this is so? Quite simply, because plants thrived on Earth for million of years before humans appeared on the scene. In contrast, humans literally would not survive for one day without plants.

Some people, in recognition of this fact, truly want to repay plants by helping them out. This is wonderful. However, many of the things that people do – with the best of intentions – to help plants are in fact harmful to plants. Pruning plants robs them of their food-producing ability and leaves them vulnerable to disease. Situating plants in a sea of mulch deprives them of the companions they need to be healthy. And spraying them with pesticides kills the insects the plants rely on for their reproductive processes.

There are some things we can do to help plants, though. Here are three simple actions with real benefits for plants.

Breathe on them. We know that animals take in oxygen and breathe out carbon, while plants absorb carbon and give off oxygen. We usually describe this harmonious dynamic by saying that plants clean the air for us. It is fascinating to realize that from a plant’s perspective, we clean the air for them! By breathing on plants, we can provide them with a little boost of the carbon they need to build their bodies. (It is thought that this is why some people swear plants grow better if you talk to them. It’s not the words we’re saying that benefit the plants; it’s the air we’re blowing on them.)

Relieve yourself on them. As described in a recent post, human bodily waste is full of nitrogen, a nutrient plants need. When we excrete on plants, we deposit nitrogen in a form plants can use. In contrast, when we excrete in modern toilets, we deposit nitrogen into the water supply, where it contributes to harmful effects. (Unless you are way out in the woods, though, don’t literally excrete on plants. Find a happy medium in the humanure process.)

Don’t walk near them. Some plants like to be walked near: for example, those that stick their seeds to our pants and let us disperse their offspring. For the most part, though, walking near plants only contributes to soil compaction and damages the plants’ roots. Resist the urge to hug trees. Instead, tell them loudly, from a respectful distance, how much you appreciate their service. They’ll enjoy the extra carbon more than they would the warm embrace.

How can we help plants?

Do people want lawns?

If you are thinking that you would like to throw out your lawnmower and fill your yard with native plants, you are not alone. The facts – about how lawns waste water, pollute the atmosphere, poison us, trample on wildlife habitat, and take our time and money without giving anything back – are making their way into the public consciousness. Surely there are some people who genuinely like lawns. But, even as lawns continue to be a default landscaping choice in many new developments, as outdated local regulations continue to favor and protect lawns, and as that one turf lover in every neighborhood tries to shame and bully others into mowing their grass, more and more Americans are taking the stance that lawns just don’t make sense. Though not all of those people have yet had the courage to take this stance publicly by changing how they garden, here are three statistics showing that views on natural yards are changing dramatically.

People hate mowing the lawn. In the fall of 2011, CBS News surveyed Americans about their least favorite chores. 20% of the people surveyed said that mowing the lawn was the chore they hated most, making lawnmowing the least popular chore in America. According to this poll, mowing was less liked than other types of tedious yardwork, including raking leaves and shoveling snow.

It’s worth noting that this survey presumably included people who don’t have lawns – meaning that among those Americans who do have lawns, even more than 20% hated mowing above all their other domestic tasks.

People really hate leafblowers. Somewhere prior to 2002, a Learning Channel documentary reported that people named leafblowers as the third-worst invention ever. In a survey about terrible technology, only parking meters and car alarms earned more votes for being awful inventions.

Leafblowers are not needed in natural yards, for the simple reason that natural yards have no “yard waste” that needs to be blown away. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, and other discarded plant parts are recognized as valuable resources that can be either left in place or quietly gathered into a compost pile, to fulfill their destiny and return to the soil.

People want more native plants. In 2008, a survey by Consumer Reports found that a respectable 26% of American homeowners wanted to replace at least some of their lawn with “flowers, rocks, or native landscaping.” More recently, the number of homeowners who want to plant natives in their yards has climbed to a whopping 84%, according to a survey  by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In this survey, homeowners also named planting drought-resistant species and establishing low-maintenance landscapes as changes they would like to make in their yards.

Natural yards are no longer a fringe gardening choice. They are not being adopted by people who “just like plants”; they are being mindfully established by homeowners who recognize the overwhelming evidence that yards that are in harmony with nature are better for the environment, our health, our community, and our pocketbooks.

Put native plants in your yard. Tell people why gardening this way is important to you. You are in good company.

Do people want lawns?