By Doug Tallamy
Someone recently asked me a very interesting question. If I were able to give my 10 year old self one piece of advice about conservation, what would it be? This is a deeper question than I am used to answering, but I was surprised when the answer popped into my head immediately. I would tell my young self to not only think about preserving pristine habitats, but also consider returning nature to the many places from which we have expelled Her.
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the impacts of our rapidly-growing human footprint were obvious enough, but, like everybody else who was concerned about the loss of nature, I focused 100% on saving the bits of nature that had not yet fallen to the bulldozer. Never once did it occur to me that I could rebuild effective habitat right in my yard. I didn’t know anything about native plants vs non-native plants, or about how many caterpillars were required to support breeding birds, or about the plants needed to support those caterpillars. But I did know that little ponds supported lots of very cool creatures, because there was such a pond in what would soon become my new neighbor’s yard. I visited that pond nearly every day and enjoyed the pollywogs, dragonflies, water-beetles, and frogs that lived there. In fact, I was there the day a bulldozer came and buried the pond, along with all my creature friends.
I mourned the loss of the pond that had been filled in to make my neighbor’s backyard lawn, but why didn’t it occur to me that I could grab a shovel and dig a new pond in my own backyard? My parents would not have minded; in fact, they probably would have helped me. Instead, I mindlessly mowed our yard each week, as well as the yard next door that was now the graveyard of my favorite toad pond. What a lost opportunity! It would be four more decades before I realized that saving the nature remaining in our world would not be enough to prevent a biodiversity crisis, the very crisis that has put us smack in the middle of the 6th great extinction event the earth has ever experienced. We would need to protect the bits of nature that remained – the viable habitat that hung on where there weren’t a lot of humans – but we would also have to restore natural systems where there were a lot of humans; where we lived, worked, shopped, and farmed, because there were a lot of humans nearly everywhere.
And this is why I wish there had been an organization like Homegrown National Park when I was 10 years old. If I had found such a like-minded group, I could have learned how to help restore biodiversity even as a young boy. I would have learned the critically important roles that plants play in our ecosystems and that not all plants play those roles equally. I would have learned that the thorny bushes that had recently appeared in the field behind my house were multiflora rose, an ornamental that has escaped our gardens and was running rampant through our natural areas. And I would have learned that that plant, as well as many of the species we decorate our yards with, are usually from other continents and that they do not support the animals that help run our ecosystems nearly as well as plants that evolved right here. Like most boys of my time, I really liked snakes and turtles and salamanders, but Homegrown National Park would have taught me that it is insects that run the world, not snakes and turtles, and that it takes certain native plants to support healthy populations of those insects. Most of all, I would have learned that when you plant native plants, the birds, bees, and butterflies, as well as the reptiles and amphibians that I loved at the time, would return because there was something there to eat.
So many of us have been taught to fear the natural world or have been deprived of its wonders by an indoor digital culture. But whether we know it or not, we all share the responsibility of being stewards of the life on our one and only planet. All of us! Not just trained conservation biologists and ecologists, but all of us. We all share the responsibility of good Earth stewardship because we all depend on the biodiversity that good Earth stewardship protects. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know that. And if we don’t know that; if we don’t know what good stewardship is; if we don’t love the natural world we must steward for our own good, we will continue to be lousy stewards. We have been lousy Earth stewards for far too long and can no longer afford to destroy the natural world we depend on. It is my hope that Homegrown National Park will help provide the motivation and knowledge necessary to change our historically adversarial relationship with nature to the collaborative one that will sustain biodiversity…. and us in the future.