Wednesday, February 25, 2015

If We're Serious about Saving Bees and Butterflies, Here's What We Should Do

In June 2014, President Obama appointed a Pollinator Health Task Force to develop strategies for improving the health of insect pollinators. In November the Task Force held public listening sessions and invited written comments regarding best management practices, public-private partnerships, research, education opportunities, pollinator habitat improvements, and other actions. This is an edited version of my submitted comments that was originally published in Wild Ones Journal (subscription required).

Best Management Practices: a general statement

Because I use judiciously applied herbicides to help control invasive plant species in the forest preserves, I respect both the power and usefulness of these toxic chemicals [see note below]. However, out of this respect and long professional and volunteer experience grows a conviction that pollinator, beneficial insect, and general ecosystem health will not improve unless: 1) large scale pesticide use is curtailed on agricultural land, on public land such as roadsides and city parks, on large corporate and institutional campuses, and in private backyards and gardens across the nation; 2) agricultural and landscaping practices designed to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem health are instituted on a large scale in rural, suburban and urban areas; and 3) widespread IPM methods are instituted, again on a large scale.

The studies, practices and tools already exist to improve pollinator health 

If the EPA and USDA (and Congress) can disengage from the smothering embrace of big agricultural and chemical companies and their lobbyists, the agencies will find that important work is already being done (some of it funded through your own programs and recommended on your own websites (!). We already know that pesticides (particularly broad spectrum, systemic ones such as neonicotinoids) and fragmented and destroyed habitat impair pollinator health. We already know the kinds of farming, gardening and landscaping practices that will foster pollinators and beneficial (pest destroying) insects. Anyone familiar with the work of science-based organizations such as the Xerces Society knows that we know this. Anyone who gardens for biodiversity in their backyard knows this. What is frustrating is that while EPA and USDA sub-groups such as the NRCS are doing good work, a corporate-lobbying-induced blindness seems to prevail at the policy level, which I believe ultimately is damaging to the land and people of our nation. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot continue business as usual and expect to actually halt pollinator declines. If pollinator health is made a priority, to be successful much current policy and practice must change.

Habitat: The more diverse and native plant-oriented, the better

  • Ramp up efforts to help (require?) large-scale commodity farmers to increase pollinator-friendly, biodiverse native plant areas on their land such as hedgerows, buffer strips, insectaries and the recent USDA sponsored bee-pastures.
  • Encourage efforts by municipalities and local organizations. For example, West Cook Wild Ones, homeowners and the park districts of Oak Park and River Forest are planting pollinator gardens, creating a broad east-west corridor between Columbus Park in Chicago and Cook County Forest Preserve land along the Des Plaines River.
  • Require conventional farms to establish shelterbelts that keep pesticides in their own fields. Drift from neighboring cornfields should not harm plants and reduce pollinator diversity on land I help care for in central Illinois.
  • Increase mixed-use farms that utilize agroecology, agroforestry, managed grazing, and crop rotation and diversity.
  • Increase habitat along roadsides and change management practices to favor reduced pesticide use, reduced mowing and increased biodiversity.
Partnerships: Find people who are already doing good work and help them out

So much great work is being done by so many individuals and organizations that forming partnerships beyond the usual trade associations and corporate councils should be a huge priority. Seek out these stakeholders who have scientific and practical expertise, who are already partnering with and educating municipalities, farmers and homeowners regarding land management, landscaping practices, use of native plants, and even urban green infrastructure such as raingardens, bioswales, and green roofs. Tap into the local and sustainable food movement. 

Besides national organizations such as Xerces Society, Wild Ones, American Community Garden Association, and National Wildlife Federation, others have much to offer, e.g. native plant growers and nurseries; ecological landscaping associations and their member firms; organic farm associations; and conservation organizations.

Education: Find, encourage, and create formal and informal education programs

Much of my work is directly involved with teaching others about ecosystem- and pollinator-friendly land use practices. For example, I partner with my school’s environmental science and ecology instructor to lead experiential learning opportunities for students. Our sustainable ag tech program teaches pollinator-friendly farming practice. We are currently collaborating to help a high school in an underserved community create a school food garden that will include perennial native plant areas to serve as pollinator and beneficial insect habitat. 

Education needs to start at an early age and include families. I know of school butterfly gardens that have been replaced with turf grass because parents lacked knowledge about pollinators. Children are taught to be afraid of rather than understand and respect bees and other pollinators. Frequently, educators themselves lack the information to be able to teach about these things. Consequently, elementary schools and forest preserve nature programs are a good place to start.

High school science programs and college sustainability, science, agriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture and design, urban planning, and civil engineering programs should all be educating students about ecosystem health, reconciliation ecology, and practices that promote species diversity, including pollinators, in anthropocentric landscapes. To do this will require professional development and training for instructors, and changes in policy, learning outcomes and curriculum. In addition, interdisciplinary collaboration will be required among departments and instructors.
This work is already being done in many places, but could use encouragement and federal dollars to be successful. 

A plethora of other groups desperately need educating, including: Homeowner and condo associations; landscaping companies; golf course managers; school and park districts; large commercial growers; and last but not least, legislators.

Research: We need more, but already know enough to act

The scientific research that is presently going on is phenomenal and much basic research remains left to be done. Certainly, studies regarding honeybee health and best practices for beekeepers are crucial. Little is known about the many species of wild native bees that inhabit our continent. And, though much is known about the biodiversity-enhancing practices that enable beneficial insects to thrive so that pesticide use can be reduced, more can be found out. Citizen science programs involving activities such as butterfly monitoring and bee spotting are vital.

However, even though there is a necessity for such large-scale studies as the STRIPS program in Iowa, we already know enough to be able to foster diverse, healthy pollinator populations. Any citizen scientist with moderate natural history skills will observe the following: Areas with few (particularly native) plant species where pesticides are used will have fewer pollinators. This is observable at any scale, from the back yard to large acreage and I, personally, have done so. 

For example, an upscale, manicured suburban neighborhood will have fewer pollinators than a less kempt one and a conventional institutional campus will have fewer pollinators than a biodiverse one. (I once planted a small demonstration rain garden in the middle of a large area of turf and concrete walkways. Pollinators immediately showed up.) Conventionally farmed monocultures will have fewer pollinators (or beneficial insects of any kind, or birds) than biodiverse farming operations implementing IPM practices. By extrapolation, millions of acres planted exclusively to corn and soy in Illinois will have fewer pollinators than the biodiverse Chicago region. 

In my opinion, at this point we need pollinator-friendly policy and a will to act as much as research.

Policy: Pollinators should have standing

Obviously, fostering pollinator health goes far beyond bees into issues of overall ecosystem health, the types of subsidies we give, and the laws we create that favor one type of crop and style of farming or one type of urban/suburban development over another. None of the suggestions I’ve noted above can be widely implemented without good policy and law. Right now, owing to money and legal expertise, the large agricultural and chemical corporations are overly influential on policy. This is made abundantly clear by the types of policies that are enacted and from the resulting toxic-chemical-laden state of our soils and waterways, from our declining bird populations—and poor pollinator health. 

When developing policy and law, independent scientists, organic farm organizations and groups such as Xerces Society, Wild Ones and Center for Food Safety should have a place at the table and equal voice. This will be difficult to insure, owing to disparities in organizations’ available funds, but the policy situation will not improve until some kind of parity is created. In addition, when reviewing pesticide effects and environmental impacts, the EPA and USDA should not be relying on studies sponsored by the companies whose products are being reviewed. As a private citizen, I am extremely frustrated and disappointed that large corporations have more say in such matters than the people who have to live with the consequences of corporate-influenced government policy. We would not be in this crisis situation regarding pollinators if other groups had equal influence on policy, and had the ability to help craft policy beneficial to, and indeed prioritizing, land use practices that promote pollinator, and ecosystem, health. Recently, I reread the legal classic “Should Trees Have Standing?” In this case, very clearly, pollinators should have standing.

If pollinators had standing, farm and other policies might shift in surprising ways.
  • Adopt “do no harm” policies regarding chemicals similar to those in the EU.
  • Reduce the pesticides available to untrained homeowners.
  • Require lawn care companies to make organic lawn care the preferred, default option.
  • Require garden center suppliers to label their plants with the types of systemic pesticides used in production. Many concerned gardeners don’t buy these plants because we know that plants treated with broad-spectrum systemics such as neonicotinoids pose a danger to the very pollinators we wish to encourage.
  • Prioritize ecosystem and pollinator health in all landscaping of government property, similar to energy-use efficiency and reduction requirements in government buildings.
In conclusion: ecosystem health = pollinator and other species health = human health

Thanks again for the opportunity to give input to the Pollinator Health Task Force. 
I am sure many other people will be giving the same information and suggestions and hope our collective voice will prove useful to the work of the Task Force. Hopefully the EPA and USDA will create far-reaching policies and prioritize pollinator-friendly practices to the extent that declines of honeybees, native bees, and other pollinators such as monarch butterflies can be halted, that populations of these important creatures can rebound, and indeed, increase. Our lives depend on it.


Note to readers: My work in the forest preserves requires me to be a state licensed pesticide (herbicide and insecticide) applicator. Insecticides are not used in the preserves. I carefully brush a blue-tinted herbicide formula onto buckthorn stumps after cutting to prevent regrowth so that young oaks and native woodland flowers and grasses have light and room to grow. This is only done in the presence of other trained volunteers and never in the presence of children. I do not use pesticides on my own property.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Just What Is a Hedgerow? A Few Notes on History, Form and Function

Part two of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature. Part one, “Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape” can be read here. 

Cross posted at

Helping a landscape regenerate includes paying attention to old stories

One of the books I keep by my bedside is a translation by Seamus Heaney of the medieval Irish classic, “Sweeney Astray.” In prose and verse it tells the story of Sweeney, the King of Dal Arie, who, falling afoul of the Christian Saint Ronan, is transformed into a sort of bird-man cursed to spend his life wandering the wild, in suffering and jubilation, from thicket to thicket, riverside to riverside, singing songs and saying poems as he goes. 

Sweeney lives as a bird, roosting in trees and eating watercress, wild garlic, raspberries, sloes, and acorns; yet he remains a conscious, highly articulate being able to reflect both on his former life and life in the wild, the latter a life of cold and privation, but including its own leafy green satisfactions and exultations. He laments his isolation and exile, he praises his well-loved land, with all its named birds and animals, trees and flowers. Sweeney becomes the wild man of the woods, or the wild in ourselves made conscious. We humans may at times live in the wilderness, the wild may lodge in the innermost recesses of our beings, may inhabit our souls, but we never have been, never could be completely of the wild, which is why we are the one species that must eternally be learning to live with wild nature without wrecking it. Heaney, reflecting in the introduction about this relationship, and his own deep inhabitancy of the same landscape Sweeney wandered, calls out “the green spirit of the hedgerows embodied in Sweeney.” In so doing, he calls out his own remembrance of a fertile landscape, half domesticated, half wild.

While almost anyone in the UK will know exactly what a hedgerow is and how they feel about it, will perhaps have memories of growing up a “hedge kid” with an understanding of what that “green spirit” is, in the US the knowledge is not so widespread. What is a hedgerow? More broadly, what is a domesticated yet wild landscape?

Illinois farm, painted early 20th Century by W. F. Gingrich
I’ve lived my whole life in Illinois. Until I first traveled in the UK years ago, my own knowledge of hedgerows was imaginative, gained mostly through stories. After all, other than our forest preserves and some parks, most of the Illinois landscape is as subjugated as a people suffering under an autocratic regime. Growing up, I didn’t know what was missing, or why trips through our cornfields and visits to subdivisions were so depressing. I began to wonder why the landscape had to be the way it is, questions strengthened by what I was learning about our original prairies, savannas and woodlands. It’s true that the original vast prairies are now beyond living human memory, but throughout my life I have talked with people, many now no longer alive, who grew up among what were the small mixed farms of central and northern Illinois, who remembered a different landscape from the one now extant, a landscape of prairie patches, woodlots, fencerows and hedgerows. They spoke of how beautiful the land was in spring, full of flowering plums, crabapples and hawthorns bordering the roads, how their mothers went berrying along the hedgerows in summer in order to make pies and jam, how they themselves, when young, collected nuts in the fall in woodlots and along fencerows marked by tall, old hickory trees. They remembered a landscape full of birds, bees, butterflies and small game—full of life.  This had little to do with my own experience, or perhaps the reader’s.

A brief history
In many agrarian landscapes, wild areas surrounding fields, bordering streams and linking woodlots and coppices until quite recently have been simply part of the terrain. Traditional hedgerows have always been comprised of plants native to their place; have offered humans food, timber, even basket-making materials; offered animals habitat; and if necessary offered protection to crops from grazing animals such as deer. In England, where there have been hedgerows at least since the time of the Romans and possibly longer, they were used, as they were later in the US, as living fences to keep livestock separate from crops. This led to certain types of intensive management, to keep them bushy and dense enough to serve as fences. Farmers employed techniques such as trimming, laying (partially cutting and weaving branches together); coppicing (cutting small trees at ground level so that they produce whippy regrowth suitable for things like fuel, bean poles and baskets); and pollarding (cutting trees several feet above ground level to increase light and also provide fuel and for various other uses). The invention of barbed wire ended this necessity, and as farmers installed it by the mile, traditional hedgerow management--and hedgerows themselves-- fell into decline. There’s been some recovery, at least in the UK, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries as hedgerows’ value as wildlife habitat has come to be reassessed and newly valued. An internet search will yield plenty of British sites devoted to the subject.

In the US, farmers did not, in general, practice the art of laid hedgerows. Fencerows, as they are often called here, were often simply the never cleared edges of fields. Whatever grew there was what composed the row. During the 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries, in many parts of the country, fencerows (and woodlots) gave the small farms of the era their characteristic look. In the Midwest “living fences,” or Osage-orange trees planted closely together and severely cut back at timed intervals to form thorny hedges, were popular during the 19th century. In Illinois there were contests and prizes given to farmers who had grown the best Osage-orange hedges.

Even after barbed wire came into use, hedgerows and fencerows persisted. Farmers in the Midwest
would install a barbed wire fence along one side of a hedgerow that might include Osage-orange trees, oaks, hickories, and various smaller flowering trees, along with bushes such as gooseberries, currants and wild grape vines. They got the wood for the posts from the fencerow itself—Osage-orange wood has excellent rot-resistance--or nailed the barbed wire to the living trees.  These now roughly managed, even neglected, fencerows continued as a source for wood, nuts and berries and served as refugia for all kinds of native plants and wildlife even as the farming around them intensified. But, as Aldo Leopold and others lamented, “clean farming” gradually took hold and fencerows began to be removed to make room for big agriculture: big fields, big machines, big fertilizer and pesticides, big monoculture commodity crops—and no livestock or woodlots. Wildlife and native plant species began to decline. This has only intensified with the advent of full-on industrialized commodity farming (97% of Illinois crops are for biofuels or animal feed), especially as corn prices have increased.

It is important to acknowledge that these early-to-mid 20th century American landscapes were not natural, in the sense that they were domesticated and anthropocentric. Now it’s true that humans have been present on the land, managing on a vast scale since at least the latest glaciation. As the ice retreated in fits and starts, and plants colonized the newly exposed lands, humans were not far behind. However, European settlement, with its concurrent imported social patterns and material culture, brought massive disruption to natural landscapes that had been managed, but had mostly kept their integrity as “places in themselves.” There are huge, obvious differences between cultures that consider their role to be one of fitting into an ecosystem full of gifts for humans who behave properly
Subduing the American continent
and those that consider the land something created for their benefit and best managed through transformation and control. The US was surveyed and a grid of townships and sections superimposed on the natural topography. The prairie was broken, rivers channelized, oak savannas destroyed, wildlife killed: one could consider it a form of ecocide accompanying the human genocide taking place at the time. Nevertheless, wild nature hung on—in part because the agricultural, population and globalization pressures of those times were less intense, allowing places like remnant prairies, hedgerows and fencerows full of native plants to thread like ribbons through the landscape, serving as corridors, wildlife refugia and genetic banks carrying valuable plant DNA into the future.

Definitions and distinctions
At present, despite the good work and long struggles of countless individuals and groups over many years, in the US we are faced with vast areas of degraded land from which native wild species have been more or less extirpated, whether we are talking about the approximately 13 million acres planted to corn in Illinois, your typical homeowners-association-controlled middle class subdivision or modern exurban development with its houses, roads and infrastructure. (This is leaving aside major, purposeful destruction such as strip mining, mountaintop removal, tar sands mining and the like.) Most of that land is not escaping human control any time soon. Yet it is not just nostalgia that calls out for a need to let the wild back in. Not only preserving the wild in conservation areas, but rewilding human-controlled landscapes is vital in the effort to help mitigate climate change, environmental degradation and extinction. There are many ways to rewild a domestic landscape, or any particular piece of property. I am focusing on hedgerows (and certain variations) because they are iconic, they linger in people’s memories, and the types are variable enough to to implement at a range of scales. One might ask, do three shrubs make a hedgerow? What constitutes a hedgerow and how does that structure make room for wild nature in a domesticated landscape?

Remnant Illinois hedgerow 
The broadest definition is that a hedgerow consists of a long, fairly narrow arrangement of usually native, woody and herbaceous plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs (or flowers), and often including vines, which is used as an edge, or border, of a property, a field, or a road or path, or as a shelterbelt near buildings. It could be narrow, perhaps fifteen feet wide, or it could be much wider, looking and functioning like a linear woods, or a long oak savanna. Beyond that, depending on where you live and what your purpose is, the possible variations are nearly limitless. There is no generic hedgerow; it is always completely local, completely placebound.

Key is that hedgerows are tailored to their ecosystem with more or fewer conifers, different tree and shrub species, and different compositions of layers.  Some hedgerows are planted on berms or banks, some have ditches or fences along the side; some are still laid, trimmed, coppiced and pollarded, some leave tall standard trees at intervals or corners. It is entirely possible that an urban or suburban yard could encompass a mini-hedgerow and, if neighbors had the same, the individual groups could join to form a functional corridor. A hedgerow is not a windbreak—one of those dreary though functional arrangements of a single species of conifer ringing farmhouses like fences to keep out the strong west and north winds of the northern prairies. Nor is it a line of one or two species of shrub, such as privet, box, or barberry (all non-native, by the way). Plant diversity is fundamentally important.

In the days when humans were fewer and wild areas larger, there seem to have been few concerns about the necessity for wildlife habitat--about hedgerows and shelterbelts being designed for other species-- because other species were not so in danger of extinction as they are now. While no longer necessary for livestock containment, the post-modern hedgerow makes wildlife habitat enhancement explicit, enlarging the traditional definition using principles of corridor ecology. That is, ideally, a hedgerow should “improve the ability of organisms to move among patches of their habitat.” Hedgerows can serve as habitat and corridors through a larger, often unfriendly, human landscape (“the matrix,” in ecological terms). Thus, when designing a hedgerow, we should be thinking about what wildlife (including pollinators and beneficial insects) live in the area, and what connections will be gained. This is also an argument for hedgerows being as wild and as wide as possible, for reasons that will be made clearer later on in this series.

While all hedgerows can positively impact microclimates and help fields retain soil, shelterbelts, or hedgerows writ large, are wider and include rows of trees, both deciduous and conifers, on the windward side that can create truly sheltered conditions for a field or house. Shelterbelts and hedgerows have other, vital roles besides providing protection from wind: For one thing, as part of an agroecological, permaculture, or organic gardening or farming regime, they serve as habitat for the pollinators and beneficial insects so necessary to natural pest control and good yield. Recent studies have shown that many beneficial insects prefer woody, twiggy, perennial plants, aka  shrubs. Also important--especially in rural areas--is that a well designed hedgerow or shelter belt can help protect crops, humans and other species from pesticide drift. If this is the case, specific design features, such as a row of conifers on the windward side, can do much to help mitigate negative effects. Beneficial insects are less attracted to conifers than deciduous trees or bushes. Osage-orange trees seem to help against herbicide drift as well, though they are more attractive to the beneficial insects that might be harmed by insecticide drift.

Finally, because they are perennial, hedgerows can serve as carbon sinks. I’m not aware that this aspect has been formally studied. How much carbon can different hedgerow and shelterbelt systems store both in the living structure and soil? Is it roughly the same as grasslands? Closer to that of woodland areas? At the moment these calculations don’t seem to have been made, at least that I could find. Hopefully studies are progressing. It seems logical, however, to posit that hedgerows, with their deep roots and undisturbed, healthy, living soil full of organic matter, could help mitigate some of the carbon loss involved in farming arable fields. While a newly planted hedgerow would produce minimal effects, over time the sequestration would only increase--and hedgerows, if properly looked after, can live a very long time, indeed.

The conscious, ecologically mindful approach recommended here is different from old methods, such as simply leaving alone what was already growing along the margins of a field, or leaving remnants of woods between fields, though these still have their place. It’s also very different from 18th and 19th century English enclosure hedgerows (mostly a single species such as hawthorn) and early 20th century “wildlife management” hedgerows constructed mostly of non-native, ultimately invasive species such as multiflora rose, autumn olive and buckthorn--as though native species hadn’t served that purpose perfectly well for thousands of years. 

Post-modern hedgerow design and maintenance, therefore, require thought and intention at severalscales, some systems and biological knowledge, and local ecosystem knowledge. Like Sweeney, and the Irish poet who first wrote his story, old-time hedgerow makers doubtless knew landscapes, ecosystems and their denizens intuitively, in ways we don’t; but they also had greater margins for error, there being more ecosystem tolerance of their actions.
Post-modern hedgerow/shelterbelt
This is no longer the case. Rather than inhabiting a fairly whole ecosystem, we are faced and in future increasingly will be faced with the daunting task of helping marginal, damaged, even dysfunctional and ruined, landscapes and ecosystems recreate themselves. What was the landscape before-- fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago? What grew there in those times? What were settlement patterns? How, even in limited fashion, can we help the piece of land in question convalesce and recover to at least a semblance of its old complexity and fertility? While in residence? And do this in the face of climate change? We must be  co-creating with nature, whose complexities remain beyond our current true understanding. It behooves us to learn as much as possible, and to follow nature’s lead so as to be of aid and to avoid doing foolish things. As I have written elsewhere, so much of learning an ecosystem requires imagining backwards, so much of restoration mandates thinking forwards.

Related Posts:

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Monday, January 26, 2015

How I Kept the Solstice

Two deer blend  in with the woods near the Des Plaines River
While in the midst of preparing the next hedgerow post (to be up later this week), I wrote a post for City Creatures, the blog of the Center for Humans and Nature. The piece is a reflection about sowing seeds in a cold season on what is called marginal land. You can read "A Private Solstice Celebration" here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

“Farming with Native Beneficial Insects” Means Solving for Pattern

A necessary guide for anyone who farms, gardens, or who wants to learn more about ecology-based land management

Saying no to pink slime solutions

Our culture is awash in pink slime solutions. If you’ve seen "Food, Inc.," you’ll recognize this as“solving” the problem of E. coli in ground beef by concocting an ammonia-containing additive (pink slime) and then building large factories to incorporate it into the beef before it goes to the consumer. Other examples abound. Want to transport people efficiently while lowering emissions and congestion? Let’s build new roads and develop futuristic driverless cars rather than retrofitting to create multi-modal systems with good public transit. Want to “solve” climate change? Some foolish, hubristic people propose geoengineering, or spewing more pollutants into the air, instead of doing all the not-very-high-tech things we already should and could be doing at scale.

Thus does Rube Goldberg’s ghost haunt our culture. Pink slime solutions try to use technology to address problems caused by technological or industrial “solutions” to other problems, instead of taking a fresh look at what is actually needed in the first place, rethinking possibilities, and solving with systems thinking, ecological knowledge, and current technology. Instead of more industrialization, the proven, low-tech method of removing cattle from feed lots and letting them graze could take care of the E. coli problem. Of course, additional new knowledge can augment these systems-oriented solutions, which often require tracing a path back to where the technological fork in the road occurred and changing to an ecosystem-based approach. For example, recently developed managed-grazing practices can help regenerate the land as well as support healthy livestock.

 Given our cultural context, it’s entirely predictable that the agroindustrial complex would push ever more baroque combinations of GMOs and pesticides (a term inclusive of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) to solve the very real problems of insect pests and opportunistic plants (aka weeds).  Luckily, however, though still a minority, there are farmers, land managers, gardeners, and scientists who are traveling in the opposite direction—rather than adding new technological fixes, they are studying and learning from how nature itself works out these problems and then developing ways to encourage these natural processes on their land. Many of the methods are as old as agriculture itself, some have been developed in the last hundred years, yet there’s so much to learn that ample research opportunities exist for scientists in a wide range of fields. And there is moral agency, as well as science, at work. An ethical stance that humans should function as citizens of the biotic community, that farmers (and, really, all of us) should be, in Wendell Berry’s phrase,
“solving for [the] pattern” of ecological health, is informed by a worldview radically different from that which proposes we should “fix” nature, improve it, or remake it according to our needs. 

Saying yes to working with ecological systems
For these reasons, the Xerces Society’s newest book, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions" (Storey Publishing, 2014), a companion to their essential "Attracting Native Pollinators" (which I reviewed here), is an inspiring, useful handbook. Like its predecessor, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" contains sections on why beneficial insects—those that spend at least part of their life cycles preying on pests—are important, relevant research, the types of habitats useful to them, lists of native plants, and a gallery of insects—who they are and what pests they go after.

Many of the same biodiversity-increasing practices that benefit pollinators also benefit beneficial insects, as the opening section makes clear in its explanation of what beneficials are and how they help control pests. But beneficials have been neglected. While bees are cute, fuzzy little creatures and butterflies are simply beautiful, beneficials are a motley crew of beetles, bugs, wasps and arachnids, many of whom (especially their super-predaceous larva) might inspire a yuck! reaction if looked at live and up close. Darwin even once used parasitoid wasps as an example of why the world didn’t seem to him designed by a beneficent God.  

However, this group also includes old childhood friends such as ladybugs, whose larva feast on aphids, and lightning bugs, whose larva eat slugs and other soft-bodied pests. Watching the fireflies from my back porch summer nights I’ve always loved to see the multitudes that emerge from my garden at dusk. Little did I know that my messy, native-plant centered garden, with its leaf litter and small rock and brush piles, provides a perfect nursery for firefly larva, as well as plenty of nectar, pollen and resting places for the adults.

A book for farmers and gardeners
Because the book is aimed at farmers, it offers very clear, practical instructions for improving and managing beneficial habitat on large tracts of land. Recommendations include use of native plants, hedgerows, insectary strips, cover crops, and buffers, and one of my favorites, beetle banks. These last, an idea imported from the UK, are long, low hillocks made with a plow and sown with native bunch grasses. They form habitat for multiple species of beetles that eat pests such as aphids, slugs, caterpillars, and rootworms. Some even eat weed seeds. Reading this made me want to try things on a much larger scale than my own garden affords, but this section also includes adaptations for the backyard—for example small-scale cover crops and beetle bumps—described so engagingly that any gardener would want to try them at home.  As I read, I began thinking as well about public parks and institutional campuses. Providing habitat in these areas could help reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity in large swaths of the country.

This book takes a reasonable, evenhanded tone. Though the goal is to help land managers reduce the use of pesticides, and the authors, rightfully, have nothing good to say about neonicotinoids, there is no shrill preaching. The demonstration of results-oriented practices on actual farms seems well calibrated to appeal to many a person who, even if using pesticides now, would like to minimize or stop their use but perhaps isn’t sure how to begin doing so. For this reason, there’s a chapter on Integrated Pest Management, which, though not pesticide free, seeks to minimize pesticide use by paying close attention to conditions in the field, making use of farming practices such as row covers, crop rotation, beneficial insect favoring land use practices such as buffer strips and beetle banks, and only using pesticides as a last resort. 

Significant work is being done in sustainable, regenerative farming that puts it at the forefront of the field of agronomy. The case studies, reports from farms in widely separated parts of the country, are among the most appealing parts of the book; farmers and scientists describe what they have done and how it has improved their farming. The news is not complete, however: themes of wanting to find out more, of incomplete knowledge, and the need for more experimentation run throughout the book. Instead of trying to use technology to keep doing things the same old way, these people are making a new path forward; here is a record of old/new knowledge being discovered in real time, a record of farmers, scientists, and others finding practical ways to work with nature. 

One can imagine the need for an updated and revised version of this book as more farmers and agronomists try new methods and publish the results. Spin-off books with a more in-depth regional focus—as though each regional case study, plant list and so on were made into its own book—would also be useful, as would guide's specifically for urban gardeners. Based on my own experience, I would certainly want to enlarge the plant lists for my part of the Midwest, and would want to know more about how farmers in this region are utilizing these methods and what modifications they’ve made for their own situations. And if only more of our universities would get seriously involved in studying and developing and publishing region-based sustainable farming methods to help farmers find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all, land-wrecking, industrial-ag model.

It’s exciting to think of the growers who are experimenting with these techniques, exciting to think of the farms that are growing biodiversity as well as crops. You don’t have to be an expert or become an entomologist, but it’s important to learn about the other species with which one shares a piece of land. And for anyone, thinking about the role beneficial insects play in the landscape is one more door into ecosystem thinking. Paying attention to pollinators’ needs by planting native flowers and grasses helps beneficial insects, and vice versa—and birds. Working at replenishing the soil, by growing cover crops and adding compost, winds up helping the insects while also helping replenish ground water supplies while adding fertility. Everything is so connected that no matter where you start, as you go on, the virtuous feedback loops and proper complexity will develop that are the hallmark of healthy land inhabited by humans who are deeply, ethically invested in solving for pattern.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?

Part one of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature.
Working hedgerows and corridors

A settled landscape can be beautiful only in so far as it admits room for wild nature

Before we get to hedgerows’ multifaceted functionality and usefulness, and why and how we should plant them, let’s start with beauty, a quality not often associated with the mundane, anthropocentric landscapes, whether urban, suburban or rural, of many parts of the Midwest—or elsewhere in the US, for that matter. Beauty—deep, profound, emerging through complexity, impossible to quantify—matters immensely.  As Aldo Leopold and a host of others, most recently Courtney White in Land, Soil, Hope, have pointed out, though there is struggle, suffering and disease, predation and often early death among the wild denizens, enmeshed in the food web as they are, nevertheless, an ecologically sound landscape—wherever it is, however lush, arid or in between—is beautiful in a way a degraded one can never be. Beauty’s necessity is a fact of life for indigenous peoples and for us moderns who have lived close to the land in regenerative fashion, who’ve been worked on by it until we have become re-enchanted, until we’ve have become naturalized citizens of our home ecosystems. Artists, writers, poets, composers and musicians have always known and celebrated this fact, as have certain religious writers, philosophers and scientists. I believe even the most urbanized, nature-phobic among us recognize and understand this necessity, though they may be unaware of it, or may have suppressed this knowledge to the detriment of their own psychic health and much else.

Because of the extreme degradation of so many human-occupied landscapes, some people might only associate beauty with a manicured corporate campus, or Disney-fied theme park, with the neat and tidy in general. Some of these landscapes might be pretty, but they have none of the deep mystery and complexity—and delight—that beauty entails. Others might only associate wild nature’s beauty—and ecosystem health—with nature reserves, national parks, and places of spectacular scenery well away from cities. This camp includes people, even respected conservationists and scientists, who hold the ethos that true ecosystem health and beauty depend on a lack of humans in the landscape, where nature can do its thing free of our interference. This attitude is important and necessary: it is why we need and have our great national parks and nature reserves and must continue to set aside land where other species can live and humans can visit without the threat of shopping malls apartment complexes, industrial farming and, worse, extractive industries, ruining the land.

However, and this is where hedgerows and other forms of greenways such as wildlife corridors come in, human-occupied landscapes can also be ecologically sound, full of a beauty not imposed according to strictly human rules and principles. While an overly controlled landscape or one managed only for short-term gain, function or appearances never can be beautiful, a working landscape will be beautiful if it is managed with close attention to natural processes and room for the messy complexity of wild nature. Unless there is room for wild nature, there will be no beauty or health—and there will be no life, in the sense of all the processes and cycles of living and dying that form that landscape. There will only be that tendency toward cessation, toward depletion, degradation and impoverishment—toward death in its guise of “nevermore,” that is, of finality, of entropy, of extinction, of the dissolution of complexity that is the ruin of any piece of land.

As far as I know, the first peoples understood that humans can be part of an eco-system without destroying it, and that human influence is not necessarily negative.  I’m pretty sure that those original settlers of my part of the world never thought about the question of belonging or not in the terms set forth here. Often the question was, and is, one of how humans can fit in properly, can earn the right to partake of the gifts our ecosystem offers, and of what we will give back. This is obvious if you read any of the old creation myths and stories about life on our continent, sometimes called Turtle Island. Humans belong here. The wilderness that Europeans “settled” was actually land that had been lived in and managed by its peoples since the Laurentide ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago. We humans, if we live and work, think, plan and do as citizens of the biotic community, can actually be of benefit to an ecosystem, but only if we make an effort to follow the rules, sometimes called the “original operating instructions.” This ancient, vital knowledge is only now being redeployed. Combining it with modern ecological science forms a powerful hybrid that can lead to truly regenerative land management practices.

Some caveats
Commodity farms in the Midwest
Now it’s true that some farmers, the ones who grow commodity crops like soybeans and corn on vast fields, don’t like hedgerows. Nor do many developers, park districts, or conventional landscaping firms. Hedgerows are inappropriate in large prairie areas, whether remnant or restored, where grassland birds require vast, treeless areas on the order of 10,000 acres or so to feel comfortable enough to nest and start families. They are shaggy, messy, unkempt looking. They require effort to put in, nurturance while young, and regular maintenance thereafter. We have fences.

I would never promote use of hedgerows in areas of the country where they’d be inappropriate, such as the desert southwest, or arid grasslands (except possibly where trees and shrubs might occur naturally, such as riparian areas) or large public lands managed for restoration. They have their own beauty and ecosystem complexity. My aim during this series of posts will be to talk about how, in temperate areas of our country that are already built on or farmed, that can’t be restored or set aside, hedgerows can be used to help heal the land. They can be an important component of green infrastructure, complementing bioswales and raingardens.

Prairie restoration
Further, as our climate changes, hedgerows and greenways could be crucial not only for their carbon-storage properties, but also for their ability to serve as corridors linking larger, wilder areas so that animals and even plants can migrate to more favorable habitats. Some of the plant migration could even be human-assisted, though that is controversial. In all, they are a prime example of reconciliation ecology, the practice of designing human-centered landscapes to accommodate the needs of other species.

Unless you’ve visited places with thriving hedgerows and have seen how they can positively impact a landscape, you may not understand why they are so vitally important. This is partly a case of shifting baselines. You can’t appreciate or miss a type of landscape that nurtures all the creatures that live in an area unless you experience it, and beyond that, have the cultural understanding to value it. In England, enough hedgerows have continued to exist and enough people and organizations have kept the cultural and historical knowledge alive to enable hedgerows as a concept to remain viable, and as a landscape feature to be to be saved and resuscitated. Here in the US, both the concept and the reality are having to be reinvented. A friend of mine, who has been studying hedgerows and advocating their use for twenty years, calls these new efforts “post-modern hedgerows.”

Gardeners, conservationists, permaculturalists and organic farmers are already practicing hedgerow making, particularly in California. By so doing they are reinvigorating ancient art and utilizing modern science that could, if practiced widely enough, help knit back together many of our fractured landscapes, providing habitat for pollinators, other beneficial insects, birds, and other animals while simultaneously providing food, materials, and shelter—in the form of privacy and microclimate enhancement—for humans. Properly planned and maintained, they can increase bio-diversity, store carbon, help manage rainwater, and add beauty and livability for all.

When a farmer plants and manages a wide, ecologically diverse hedgerow, or enriches an old fencerow, or a government agency does the same along a road, they might say they are creating a pollinator reserve, wildlife corridor, game bird habitat, micro-climate enhancer, even a carbon sequestration system. The same goes for those of us who have smaller pieces of land to work with in suburbs or city, whose small yards can link together in beneficial ways. But what we all really are doing is co-creating beauty.

Related Post:

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Sunday, September 14, 2014

An Afternoon Walk Along the North Branch of the Chicago River

Oaks, grasses and forbs at Middlefork Savanna (Alex Wild)
So there I was, alone, trudging along a path beside a small, slow river through the middle of a huge field of goldenrod, Silphiums, prairie sunflowers and asters all in full bloom, with big bluestem and Indian grasses waving their distinctive seed heads. I was hot, thirsty, a little tired, and, woodland savanna girl that I am, looking froward to walking in the shade of the huge oaks I saw in the distance. After weeks of nothing but the rectilinear constraints of city streets and institutional buildings, I was finally on a walkabout.

That morning I'd attended a Chicago Wilderness meeting held at Lake Forest Open Lands Association, quartered in what was the gatehouse of the old Armour estate. We met in a small adjacent building once used for washing carriages, now  fitted up as a classroom full of nature-related accessories useful for teaching children. Beyond the gatehouse is a swath of beautifully restored prairie owned by Open Lands; beyond that, the Middlefork Savanna, a large acreage of forest preserve land that includes some of the finest oak savanna on the planet (literally). After the meeting, I indulged myself with pretty thoroughly exploring the place, on the the theory that I might not be back, though I hope I will.

The landscape could have been a mirage, except I was walking through it. Not only were there acres and acres of all the golden and purple flowers of late summer surrounding the North Branch but the place was full of life: bees, butterflies, green darner dragonflies (very numerous since they are on migration), woodpeckers, goldfinches and blue jays--the birds all getting very alert and hopping up on willows or other scattered trees to warn others that I was coming. It's funny how blue jays used to be just another common urban bird, and now, post West Nile virus they've been somewhat elevated.

There were also numerous ponds and wet areas, much more conspicuous than the river, especially since they are ringed with snags, many boasting a white egret sitting near the top. There's nothing like the sight of an egret stepping up into the air, floating delicately down across the path, grumbling the while, until it poises upright on a rock by the river to inspect a person walking by. Willows grow all along the river and ponds, narrow leaves making that little shuffling sound they do, softer than the watery clacking of their neighbors, the cottonwoods.

In such a landscape, so beautifully preserved and expanded through restoration, one could wander for hours. I suppose we are lucky that Armour, having made so much money on the backs of the immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry, chose to spend some of it on a large, choice piece of property. Thanks in part to the company he ran there, Chicago in the summer was to be escaped if at all possible. Lake Forest was a world away, then, a world of privilege. It still is: modern McMansions hem in the preserve. They loom, discordant piles of brick sitting in swards of incongruously smooth, green grass. Everything that Frank Lloyd Wright considered wrong with Midwestern architecture, especially in relation to the prairie, these houses embody, olde world faux chateaux mash-ups that they are. If you pay millions to have an overly large house with a view of a landscape like that, the least you could do would be to create a design in harmony with its surroundings. But then, I don't understand the perceived need for grand, or even extremely large, houses in general. Smallish, olde world faux cottages might have looked a little better, if only because not so dominantly ostentatious--more easily ignored, I suppose.

Still, this is a wonderful, almost hidden place, easy to get to, and open to the public. Anyone can simply walk in, look around, and stay for hours. Many very devoted people have spent time and effort to make and maintain this preserve. It is truly a jewel. The children who take nature classes there and the volunteers who help keep it going are privileged in the more genuine sense of being able to experience first hand a working ecosystem, and in understanding and appreciating its beauties. That afternoon, I felt privileged to be able to take a walk, in peace, flowers blooming and birds singing all around.

Note to my readers: This blog is written in my spare time (as they used to call it). Posts have always been infrequent and irregular, but generally I've been able to find, make or steal a few hours to spend outside, do research and write. However, owing to an illness in the family this summer, the spare time has deflated. For the next few months posts will be even more irregular than usual.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall

 See more at Illinois State Climatologist
We are at the midpoint between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, a time of warm weather but slowly declining light as the earth wheels toward the dark hinge of the year in late December. Climate weirdness continues. The summer has continued cooler than average. In fact, this July is tied for coolest on record with 2009.
Just two years ago we were enduring the second warmest on record, and in a drought besides. With the abundant rain this year, in my yard, at least, there is full-on abundant, riotous growth.

It's that time of summer when, if you are a tidy gardener, everything is weeded, ship-shape, well groomed, and so on. You could go on vacation right now, and things wouldn't be too out of order when you got back. Or you might be harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and basil from your well-tended beds. Then again, it might be that after careful beginnings, all you can do right now is  throw up your hands before the boisterous, blooming, buzzing confusion, say "ok, ok, I give up," pick some vegetables, resolve to weed when you can, but mostly find yourself doing a lot of standing and staring full of gratitude and amazement. Particularly if you're aiming for native-plant-based, permaculture-influenced biodiversity. This year a family health issue has led to my spending a great deal of time visiting the hospital. When I am home, it continues to astound me just what plants, birds, pollinators and assorted small mammals can get up to.

Birds and Pollinators
Pagoda dogwood berries all gone
Right now in my yard the pagoda dogwood's fat deep purplish navy blue berries are ripe, hoisted delicately on their upright little red stems. Though not for humans, they are a feast for the birds. On a recent Saturday morning five robins, several sparrows and a squirrel were already brunching when a mourning dove showed up to investigate and a male cardinal reconnoitered from the garage roof before joining in. Every summer I enjoy this scene, a sign of food so abundant that the robins don't even bother contesting the territory. House finches sat on the electrical wires in the alley, gossiping, while chimney swifts circled, chittering high in the blue sky. Are their favorite aerial insects more abundant over non-pesticide-treated, abundantly planted areas?

Trying not to disturb anyone, I first observed a bumblebee buzz-pollinating a tomato flower and then walked carefully and respectfully past the dogwood to the narrow back bed where the prairie plants, assorted herbs (mint and oregano) and a couple of pollinator favorite non-natives (nepeta and Russian sage)--in all shades of bright yellow, purple, and white--are on full display. As are the pollinators. I leaned against the fence that separates this area from the walk to the alley and just watched.

Bumble bee on cup plant
Literally hundreds of pollinators were circling, landing, creeping, resting, sticking their heads inside blooms, getting nectar and pollen. I saw: sweat bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, miner bees,  a leaf-cutter bee, small carpenter bees; a few bees that I couldn't tell what they were but was pretty sure they were bees; two kinds of butterflies; at least three species of predatory wasps; not to mention flower flies, syrphid flies; and numerous small creatures flying so fast that though they glittered in the sun, it was difficult to tell what family they were from. It's enough to take your breath away, even if you've seen it before--yesterday or the day before, for example. It's not called high summer for nothing.

This is normal, I told myself. this is what everyone would see, would be used to seeing if we stopped using pesticides and planted gardens full of mostly native flowers.

I live in the middle of the block. To my north lives the gardening friend with whom I set out to attract hummingbirds some years ago. She raises butterflies, and grows native plants, too, and we've been trading plants-on purpose and not--for so long that it's sometimes hard to say which plants started where. Tons of pollinators and birds over there, of course.

To the south, very nice people (with cute little daughters) maintain what might be considered an average yard. They have grass with a little clover mixed in, three serviceberry shrubs next to the patio and a row of hostas in front of the garage. To their credit, they don't use pesticides (hence the clover). To look from my yard to theirs is to feel as if one is in one of those old "visible difference" ads on TV.  Or in an experiment in which their yard is the control, and mine the experimental conditions--or vice versa, now that I think of it. On a day like today you could see and compare. In my yard, birds and pollinators galore. Directly over the fence? Nothing. The demarcation is as sharp and dramatic as the fence that separates the two yards, a Berlin wall of sorts.

Prairie Flowers
Vernonia fasciculata
If you want to attract pollinators it helps to have at least eight species of native plants, preferably
selected so that they bloom from spring through fall. As I discovered this summer, I have over fifty species of natives alone and even the non-natives, including vegetables, herbs and weeds, are pollinator friendly. In spring the flowers tend to be short, attractive and well scaled for a small back yard. By late June, when the coneflowers and false quinine start, three to four feet tall is a good average, and still manageable.

But starting in late July, look out! These flowers are big, bright, sprawling and assertive. They have to be to stand up to the grasses such as big bluestem with which they share the tall grass prairies. Some designers suggest that late summer stars such as vernonia, cup plant, compass plant, rigid goldenrod and sweet black-eyed Susan might be too tall, too overwhelming for the small garden. But I love the feeling of excess, the sheer grandeur of exuberant life and well-being they impart. It's fun to see flowers at eye height or above, a pleasure to be surrounded by color, to walk under an arch of cup plant flowers leaning over the fence toward the garage. These plants demand respect. They are not charming, but  have an exuberant charisma your tame, overbred hybrids lack. To avoid feeling crowded, it does help to arrange them with shorter plants in the foreground just for balance and proportion's sake. Right now viceroys and yellow swallowtales are sunning themselves on the coneflowers. Very soon, if not already, the male bumble bees will be camping out nights on the cup plants. Later, when the plants set seed, the goldfinches and other small birds will perch and gorge themselves. And during the winter, solitary bees will be tucked in their nests in various hollow stems or in the ground, waiting for spring. A garden is so much more than flowers alone.

Related Posts:
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds and Bumblebees
A Short Journey by Bicycle
Diary of a Dry Summer
Hummingbird Sightings