A little creative neglect reconnects us to Earth


April 16, 1994|By TOM HORTON

In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches, to perceive which requires much living in and with.

Aldo Leopold, "Sand County Almanac"

It is time for a spring update from the columnist's "shaggy" yard, where last fall, readers may recall, I adopted the radical approach to leaf raking.

You just say no.

The leafy, natural surface that results, in contrast to a perfectly maintained lawn, sends less polluted runoff to streams and the Chesapeake Bay, favors wildlife, saves energy and takes less work.

Or perhaps it just takes work of a different nature.

Leopold expressed it when he argued for less bulldozing of highways into the back country, and more appreciation of wilderness:

Recreational development is a job, not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

In other words, to homeowners who ask, "What can I do to help the environment," one answer is to become more comfortable with doing less. And make no mistake: In our high-tech, well-engineered culture, doing less can take some heavy lifting.

To reinforce my resolve, and take my suburban half-acre to even more advanced levels of deshabille, I spent a few hours tramping the yard recently with Dana Limpert, director of the Wild Acres Program of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Wild Acres, begun in 1990, is a program of outreach and education aimed at everyone from rowhouse dwellers with a yen to feed birds at the windowsill, to people who would enhance wildlife habitat on substantial acreage.

Some 2,800 properties are signed up so far, including one by a woman who has created a backyard feeding station for vultures. (No sunflower seeds for these babies -- she stocks it with road kills.)

The program also is opening this year a mile-long trail at DNR's district office in Gwynnbrook, in Baltimore County, to demonstrate a variety of landscaping to attract wildlife.

Limpert just loved it that I don't rake leaves; and she positively admired a dead and rotting oak I have never gotten around to cutting down.

Such snags, along with fallen logs and decaying limbs, are as useful to a wild back yard as living trees. Owls, nuthatches and bluebirds nest there; moths and butterflies hibernate in them; insects and fungi decompose them, enriching the soil, nurturing new trees.

She said she was sorry to hear I'd just thrown away my old Christmas tree because those can be a start for brush piles prized by lizards, chipmunks and rabbits.

In one spot, she showed me a little blooming wild violet that I'd scarcely noticed before. It provides prime food for the grub, or larval stage of a lovely butterfly, the fritillary.

With my large red oaks and loblolly pines, interspersed with dogwoods, sweet gum and hollies, I was in pretty good shape as far as full-sized trees, Limpert judged.

Where I could use some work was on shrubs and smaller trees, to create "vertical diversity": Birds nest and feed and perch at different levels, and the more variety in a yard's physical structure, the richer habitat it provides.

Moreover, lower-level plantings would achieve two other goals I had -- to further reduce my already small area of lawn, and to keep blowing leaves in my yard and out of my more fastidious neighbor's.

Increasing biodiversity is a central concept underlying her approach to back yards, Limpert explained. Even if you have only a lawn, just learning to appreciate a few dandelions. They afford a nectar source to insects; and crab grass produces abundant seeds favored by several species of bird.

It is no coincidence that biodiversity is one of the hottest environmental issues now, both nationally and globally. Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, one of the world's leading ecologists, calls maintaining the Earth's varieties of plants and animals one of the most critical challenges of our age.

It is a problem of proportions as staggering as the Amazon rain forest, being destroyed at thousands of acres a day. But it is also a problem whose solution -- the beginning of one, at least -- lies no further away than remapping your perceptions of your own yard.

Lasting solutions to our environmental problems, whether they concern the Chesapeake Bay or global species losses, won't come until more of us are more comfortably connected to, and educated about, the natural world.

To those who want to save the bay, I would say begin by cultivating a more complex relationship with your own yard; it can begin with something as simple as obtaining a soil test; call your county's ag extension service. Or putting in a tiny pond; Limpert says water is as critical as food in attracting wildlife.

If we can learn in our own yards to live more as a part of nature's web, rather than apart from it, then it may be possible to do the same someday with the 64,000 square-mile drainage basin of the bay -- and with the planet.

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