A Summer Without Fireflies

June 28, 1994|By ANN EGERTON

Debate has heated up lately about how much and how often grass on public land should be mowed. Pro-mowers, including Baltimore's mayor, argue that grass kept tidily short is aesthetically more attractive and discourages rats. Anti-mowers say that reducing cutting eases the budget and encourages a natural setting.

Encouraging a natural setting is one of the hottest topics in gardening today. It's part of the biodiversity movement, which is part of the movement to put something back in compensation for the widespread development and paving of America. Ken Druse, gardening editor of House Beautiful, notes in his book ''The Natural Habitat Garden,'' ''If even a fraction of America's 38 million gardeners turned a quarter of their landscape into a 'rewilded' spot there would be a measurable impact.''

So it stands to reason that if less public land is mowed, the elimination of native plants and, inevitably, of the animal species that are dependent on them for food, shelter and nesting sites will be reversed a little bit. This is a good idea; Mr.Druse says that a quarter of the earth's organisms may become extinct in the next 30 years, thanks to just one greedy and careless species, humans.

One might gently ask if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing on local public land. Project Cloverleaf, a joint effort of private industry, state agencies (the Maryland Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Depart- ment of Natural Resources/Tree-Mendous Maryland) and private citizens are in their second year of planting white pines, dogwoods, flowering cherry, crabapple trees, day lilies and black-eyed Susans to make Maryland, as they say in their brochure, ''a greener place.''

An early project, in which more than 2,000 trees were planted, was at BWI Airport. Project Cloverleaf's mission, as stated in its brochure, says that ''by re-establishing woodlands, reducing mowing and planting flowering foliage, the beauty and benefits of Maryland'snatural landscape will be restored.''

This movement seems to run counter to the mow-it-low policy currently at work in the city, which is both expensive and polluting. It was especially alarming to learn that the Department of Public Works not only mowed a three-block stretch of grass along Chinquapin Run recently, but also sliced a buffer of wild roses and wildflowers there that took four years to establish. Wildflowers, weeds and tall grass do not attract rats, trash docs; that's what needs to be removed. (I know -- again and again.)

Finally, remember the fireflies. In her book about biodiversity, ''Noah's Garden,'' Sara Stein states unequivocally, ''One can't mow the yard and breed fireflies too.'' She continues, those who haven't seen fireflies' normal evening sparkle may not realize that the fireworks have gradually petered out . . . one yard at a time.'' Fireflies' larvae, glowworms, also eat insects, cut worms, slugs and snails. One of their habitats is grass, which is being mowed, bulldozed and macadamized throughout the country.

Perhaps we could compromise on the mowing issue. Perhaps the grass could be allowed to grow several feet on either side of stream beds. Perhaps public land could be mowed at a higher setting and less frequently, but enough to allow easy walking. Perhaps the Public Works people could be educated to distinguish grass from wildflowers, and perhaps they, instead of mowing so much, could participate more in litter pickup, along with neighbors. Perhaps we can educate ourselves and our children about the many benign elements of nature that enhance our lives, even in urban and suburban America.

These are a lot of perhapses, but as we argue about mowing we realize that it involves working together, education and compromise, three major components of a successful democracy.

In the meantime, imagine a summer without fireflies.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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