“All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in 1877, “And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”
Nevertheless, the poet marvels at the natural world’s resilience in the face of industrial degradation:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
I recalled those lines from “God’s Grandeur” a few weeks ago as I listened to Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope while trimming the lilac bush in our yard.
Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomology professor and conservation activist, is offering anyone concerned about this situation a practical guide to helping the “deep down things” survive. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard details his proposal.
It’s a great summertime read, and it’s changing the way many Americans are looking at their lawns.
How did we come to believe that our lawns should be covered with stretches of grass that must be watered, mowed, and doused with chemical fertilizer and pesticides?
Tallamy takes us back to the days of the American founders. Thomas Jefferson, for example, imitated the homes of wealthy European land owners when designing his Virginia estate.
With its large grassy spread (mown by sheep in those days) and gardens flowing with imported plants, Monticello’s lawn signaled to visitors even before they stepped inside the house that the future president was an important man. The expansive green and the abundance of Asian and European ornamentals on the property silently signaled that Jefferson could afford exotic plants and he knew people abroad who could ship them to him. He had money and connections.
Eventually, a green lawn with ornamental trees, shrubbery and flowers would become the landscaping standard across the country not just for the wealthy, but on one scale or another, for pretty much everyone: homeowners, businesses and schools.
But natural resources are not as limitless as they once appeared to be.
Today, bird and insect populations are dwindling. Water, too, is in shorter supply than it once was, especially in the American West.
Perhaps our lawn designs could show care for the creatures who share our neck of the woods, wherever that may be. That would require a paradigm shift, but Tallamy suggests that we signal our care for the creatures who live with us on this planet by the way our lawns provide for them.
He calls his idea Homegrown National Park, and it’s catching on.
There are no longer enough publicly owned lands in the U.S. to support pollinators and caterpillars and all the other tiny creatures that make up essential food webs, Tallamy says, and he’s challenging everyone to begin transforming their lawns and patios into spaces hospitable to nature.
The development of this idea makes for a compelling narrative. Tallamy begins by relating the stories of two of his conservationist heroes.
First is Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) who, as an early land and wildlife manager, was one of the first to notice the importance of predators in the balance of nature. Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac galvanized ecological thinking after his death.
Then Tallamy celebrates renowned entomologist and author Edmund O. Wilson (1929-2021). Deeply concerned about the number of vanishing species on the planet, Wilson believed that that 80% could be recovered if half the land on all continents and in the fishable ocean were preserved.
That may be unnecessarily radical, but thinking close to home, Tallamy’s idea flows from Wilson’s insight.
Sure, 78 percent of American land is privately owned, he acknowledges. But if everyone with a yard began redesigning its look by planting more native plants and adding structures that shelter birds and insects we would collectively create “biological corridors,” bridges of healthy habitat that would multiply the available land needed for their survival. This in turn would extend humanity’s prospects, because we cannot survive without flourishing plant and animal life. We need each other.
More than 44 million acres of American land have been planted with grass and we’re adding more acres each year. We use 8 billion gallons of water every day to water all those lawns, which were probably once forest or prairie or wetland where wild things could thrive. It doesn’t take much thought beyond that to realize that “lawns are actually terrible for ecosystems.”
Maybe we don’t need long stretches of grass as much as we think we do.
Forgoing some of that lawn space could collectively add millions of native plants to neighborhoods, roadsides, parking lots and business areas, and the biological corridors we create would make up for the acres of wild land lost to cities and suburbs.
The 20 million acres that could be restored would be larger than the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali and the Great Smokey Mountains National Parks combined. Hence Homegrown National Park could become a reality, one little yard at a time.
As a counselor, I have an additional reason for thinking Homegrown National Park is a great idea.
Birds, bees, butterflies, toads and turtles aren’t the only things dwindling these days.
So is our mental health in this technology tethered world, and spending just 15 minutes a day in creation’s beauty leaves humans calmer and more content. Maybe if we would all take a few minutes to observe the outdoor activity in our yards each day, we’d become peaceful enough to be kinder to our neighbors. Maybe spending our time on angry newscasts and social media scrolls will be a harder sell.
Tallamy adds that a once-a-year trip to Yellowstone won’t do families nearly as much good as having a place in their own back yard to observe trees, birds and insects every day. He’s absolutely right.
But why native plants instead of ornamentals from overseas or transplants from another region on the continent?
To answer that, Tallamy takes us to Portland, Oregon, perhaps the “greenest” city in the United States.
Portland is a beautifully designed, wooded city, but according to Tallamy, the vast majority of its trees are introduced species from Europe, Asia and even the northeastern United States, trees that don’t provide the food most of the local birds need.
It turns out that insect larvae, which birds need in huge quantities to feed their hatchlings, don’t eat just any kind of leaves.
The Monarch butterfly may be the most famous example. Monarchs must lay their eggs on milkweed, because Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Other insect species have specific plant needs as well. That’s something Thomas Jefferson didn’t realize when he imported so many ornamentals for his gardens.
Portland’s city planners didn’t understand it either, something Tallamy realized when he noticed a surprising lack of birds and insects there when he visited his family. Only about ten percent of the city’s trees are natives.
For Portland to support more local birds, they need more native trees that the local insects will lay their eggs on…great quantities of which are essential at nesting time, when bird parents need an enormous amount of caterpillars soft and squishy enough for their young to digest.
When I got this far in the book I had to question which plants in my yard were natives and which were introduced.
I began taking pictures with my phone and learning what we had with the help of Google lens, then searching the name of the plants to learn their history. We have a number of bushes that originated in Asia. Even though one of them is recommended in xeriscapes for its low water intake, it is considered invasive as well. Nature’s Best Hope doesn’t suggest we immediately replace everything we have, but to make a small start.
And here’s where the book becomes immensely practical. One of Tallamy’s students helped develop the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder and by entering our zip code I found an extensive list of plants native to our own area. Audubon’s Native Plant Database is great as well.
If you try it, you’ll find which plants are most needed to sustain the wild things near you. Every year you can add a few more and enjoy the presence of more living creatures in your own back yard. Your yard doesn’t have to be planted with 100 percent natives to qualify as part of Homegrown National Park. Tallamy encourages us to make our beginnings as we can.
Nature’s Best Hope contains lots of small-start suggestions in its final section.
Shrink the lawn. Learn which are the most invasive of the introduced plant species already living in your yard and replace them with natives. Focus when possible on keystone plants, “the most productive plants for the most productive insects.” Be varied in your plantings. Consider container gardening with keystones if all you have is a balcony or patio.
You can also cover window wells that trap birds and if you must have a backyard light, make it a motion light, so the nocturnal insects and other creatures have more freedom to roam at night.
If you simply raise your mower height and try not to mow in evenings when lots of creatures come out to search for food, you’ll be helping the wild things survive.
Nature’s Best Hope will also teach you about bird bubblers, bee houses, logs and leaf piles, small additions we can all place in our yards to attract and shelter vulnerable life around us. Plus, the more our lawns shrink, the less fertilizer we’ll need, and we can pass up the pesticide section when shopping for garden supplies as well.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was deeply saddened by the desecration of the earth happening a century and a half ago. Veronica Arnz points out in her lovely reflection on Hopkins that the poet well understood that “All of creation is groaning for the hope of a Savior and the promise of redemption.”
Yet he still exulted that “nature is never spent.”
“What is all this juice and joy?” Hopkins once exulted when observing the beauty of spring, “when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.”
Who couldn’t use a little more “juice and joy” in these contentious times? Nature’s Best Hope is a very practical guide for helping God’s grandeur flourish into the future.
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You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s Loathing and Hopelessness, Juice and Joy: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Secret Sorrow, Tolkein, Trees and a Naturalist’s Notebook and The Blessing of Birding by Ear: Tips for Identifying Birds by their Song.
I’ve enjoyed the brilliance and spirituality of Gerard Manley Hopkins as never before with the help of As Kingfishers Catch Fire, a new collection of his poetry annotated line by line by Dr. Holly Ordway. Ordway’s introduction not only provides a synopsis of the priest-poet’s life, but offers a rich preparation for spending time with this great poet.