Left alone, land speaks for itself Ecology: The soil around our homes can play a symphony, orchestrating grass, flowers and trees in a movement that emulates the original Chesapeake watershed.

On the Bay

June 19, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AS A JOURNALIST and environmentalist, I endorse freedom of expression for both people and the land on which they live.

It's one reason I just say no to lawn care -- and abstain even from leaf raking -- on my suburban half-acre at the corner of Oak Ridge and Acorn in Wicomico County.

Faithful readers may recall previous progress reports celebrating the increasing shagginess, the burgeoning dishevelment, nurtured through years of studied inattention to my grounds.

I'm proud to report the spring of '98 saw the emergence -- eight years after the first one appeared -- of a second pink lady-slipper, a delicate woodland orchid.

Also spreading nicely are the shy wild violets that do not add much color but feed a grub that blossoms into a gaudy butterfly.

An old oak, its roots savaged by septic tank installers, has begun dying magnificently; well along in becoming a great, dead snag, hosting woodpeckers, nuthatches, owls, moths, mushrooms -- more life in rot than in health.

The soil around our homes and workplaces has so much to say, so many different songs to sing, if we only do not insist it drone perennially to the tune of turf, in the key of herbicides.

It was a surprise "present" from a friend on the western Shore that triggered today's outburst. I must come quickly, he said, and see the old graveyard by his house.

I had seen it countless times in many years, but this time a rare and spectacular oversight had occurred.

The mowing crew that tended the cemetery had missed two appointments; and the neat, cropped greensward had shouted its freedom in a great, glad burst of wildflowers, rows of delicate bells swaying from slender stalks, a rippling, blue gentian sea.

It was breathtaking, gorgeous, inspiriting. The next day the mowers came, and it was orderly.

As a people, subjugated for generations, forget their culture and history, so do we forget the full and free possibilities of the humble dirt beneath our feet.

Even in my citadel of natural expression on my half-acre, I had been hacking back a patch of briers for years, and severing the poison ivy that kept wanting to climb the decaying oak tree (even free expression, I reasoned, doesn't extend to incitement to riot).

But this year, I was slow to ax the briers, and they rewarded me with a tasty crop of blackberries. And poison ivy, I recently learned, has a silver lining.

In winters with deep snow, its berries, extending far above ground, are a vital backup food for bluebirds and other species that otherwise might not make it.

So it goes: Cut the vine you hate, and harm the birds you love.

Tending to one's yard, I suspect, is as much a matter of cultivating the mind, learning to see ecologically instead of monoculturally, as it is about raking, burning, bagging and mowing.

Now, all this about free expression and my half-acre lot may seem at first an insignificant yip in the cosmic babble.

But consider that in the last decade, Maryland's acreage in turf surpassed that in its leading grain crop, corn; and that the projected, 20-year increase in developed lands throughout the Chesapeake Bay's six-state drainage basin will include more than a million acres in lawns, campuses, schoolyards and the like.

That is close to 2,000 square miles where we must choose whether to let freedom reign or cloak another patch of planet in a soft, green mantle of unyielding subjugation.

There are sound reasons to make the first choice that far transcend my scruffy lot and matters of botanical freedom.

A natural yard emulates the rougher textures of the original Chesapeake watershed, whose forest canopy and deep leaf-mold slowed and filtered and purified the runoff of rainfall, resulting in a cleaner, clearer bay.

A yard with greater bio-diversity -- simply put, with all sizes and shapes and varieties of plants -- affords more options for life.

For example, in my yard viburnums and dogwood that came in wild, and shadbush and redbud that I planted, are adding a middle level of food and habitat between the tall oaks and pines and the bushes and ground coverings.

And thus complicating and adding structure to the makeup of one's yard is doing nothing less profound than following a tendency of our whole universe to perpetuate itself.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that every time work is done as in water running downhill or running your mower over your lawn, some energy is irretrievably lost -- not destroyed -- but no longer available to do work.

This means that in the long term, the universe is moving inexorably toward a state of decay, dissipation, disaggregation.

But life fights back by organizing, by ordering itself to minimize energy losses, to maximize efficiency.

A new science, known loosely as "complexity," has arisen to probe this seeming compulsion of life to organize, on scales from atoms forming molecules to evolution's march toward diverse ecosystems.

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