This engaging essay was written by a first-semester student in the honors writing class that I teach, WRT 201, The Art of the Essay: Nature, Writing, and Nature Writing. With her permission, I offer it for your enjoyment:
WRT 102H: Arguing for/against Nature
12 November 2013
A breath of a breeze began to blow, softly at first, then stronger and faster. Circling around the cracked, grey bark of a cottonwood tree, the wind soared upwards and set the leaves in motion. Those heart-shaped leaves quivered with joy at the wind’s touch and sang out their gentle, rustling tones. Then, on a whim, the wind rushed down a sandy path between towering shrubs of mule fat and blue elderberry and clumps of fragrant, yellow-green sagebrush. It blew into the faces of a small group of people—explorers—with binoculars, field guides, and journals at the ready. Walking along the path, their leader, a naturalist, called out, “Look, children. Come see the California wild roses.”
We huddled round the beautiful plant with its pale pink flowers. Peering back at us with their cheery faces, the blossoms were more open than the typical garden rose. Their stamens and stigmas were visible like little yellow crowns.
“What are those?” one child asked, pointing towards some dangling red fruits, bright and glossy.
“Those are rose hips,” the naturalist replied, smiling. “They are safe to eat and are even a good source of vitamin C.”
After a few of the children tried the fruits, we moved on, our naturalist pointing out wonder after wonder. There was a western tiger swallowtail on sunny-colored wings; over there were some bush sunflowers, and in the sagebrush a common yellowthroat hid, singing his sweet, rapid song.
I never found out what rose hips tasted like. I was never one of those campers who were brave enough to try. But my time at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary was filled with many other precious experiences and lessons through which I learned to appreciate this place and all its native plants and animals. Attending Sea and Sage Audubon’s bird camps summer after summer fed my love of nature throughout five years of my childhood and has helped shape me into who I am today. Birds, other wildlife, and their natural habitats were thoroughly engrained in my mind as something valuable, something to cherish and protect. My faith also bolstered the value of nature in my eyes, seeing it as God’s creation entrusted to us to care for.
Over the next four years, I returned to the sanctuary as a volunteer. During the summer before starting college, I helped the children complete an intriguing project—a comic book, hand drawn, about removing lawns. It urged people to replace their lawns with plants native to their area to recreate the unique beauty of original habitats and provide homes for wildlife.
Since the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary has been replanted with vegetation native to Irvine, it has truly become a sanctuary for nature to thrive. We too can create sanctuaries in our very own backyards. We can restore natural habitats through planting species of plants that are native to our region. Native gardening, especially in Southern California, is a commendable alternative to growing and maintaining lawns and exotic gardens.
Your typical American lawn, though seemingly innocuous, is filled with hidden dangers. The amount of toxic chemicals used on lawns annually is mind-boggling. As the article “Keep off the Grass” informs us, “Every year, Americans apply more than 80 million pounds of chemical products to their lawns and gardens, including herbicides, pesticides and fungicides” (Scullin 35). These chemicals affect not only targeted “pests,” but also cause harm to many beneficial species. Furthermore, the deadly toxins travel up the food chain, wreaking additional havoc. However, growing native plants, which “have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases,” (Benefits of Native Plants) will lessen the need for pesticide use. In fact, a native garden helps restore ecosystems and is beneficial for native wildlife. Charlotte Seidenberg, an author and wildlife gardener, points out: “Each indigenous plant has the potential to attract an entire system of creatures, sized micro to macro” (26). These animals can find sanctuary in our very yards. So why would anyone hesitate to begin the adventure of native gardening?
Some people have a variety of misconceptions about native plants. They may think that native plants are very picky and hard to care for, or that the plants are unattractive and weed-like. Some neighbors who are used to the flat, pristine greenness of a lawn might object. In an article of Fremontia: the Journal of the California Native Plant Society, we learn that “many folks—when offered the native alternative—think of brown hillsides covered in dead weeds left over from winter rains. The fact of the matter is that most of the unattractive vegetation people see in open areas is comprised of invasive species which were introduced by early European settlers” (Moore 27). Southern California’s native plant-life may not be as bold and showy as many typical garden plants, but it is far from ugly. It holds a delicate and sometimes hidden beauty. You have to train your eyes to see—to see the cheery yellow of bush sunflowers, the sweeping, rosy branches of manzanita, the russet, white, and pink of buckwheat, and the silvery-green and bursts of purple of Cleveland sage. Also, the fear that native gardening will always be high maintenance can be put to rest. As Glenn Keator, botanist and teacher, points out, “Local native plants are already well adapted to the conditions of climate and soil, making them easy to grow and likely to succeed” (1). After the plants have been established, they are actually less work than a lawn.
Another concern of those considering renovating their yards is that some exotic plants and lawns have become part of America’s culture. People might not want to lose that. But native gardening can help people appreciate their home region in a whole new way. It shows them the unique features of their piece of earth. Keator asks in his overview of Designing Native Gardens:
What better way is there to remind ourselves of this special geographic region we call home than to recreate, in our own yards, the native gardens found in the wild? Anyone can have a garden with roses (mostly hybrids from China and Europe), petunias (from South America), fuchsias (from mountainous South and Central America), and impatiens (many from Africa). But natives tell about where we live; they make us feel at home. (1)
To me the sweet fragrance of sagebrush is the smell of home; the songs of birds—the melancholy whistle of a lesser goldfinch, the wild laughter of an acorn woodpecker, and the bouncy rhythmic song of a wrentit—are the voices of dear friends. We should celebrate and cherish the land that we are blessed with. It can become more than just our surroundings; it can become our Southern Californian heritage.
Native gardening in Southern California and other such dry climates is especially important. Author Dorothy Green warns us about the dangers of non-native plants: “Some exotic plants… gulp vast quantities of water and deprive local wildlife … of the habitat needed to survive” (163). Specifically in Orange County, conserving water is crucial since we live in a low-rainfall region, are dependent on outside water sources, and sometimes face droughts. “With dwindling water resources a stark reality…making the case for utilizing California native plants in suburban landscapes and gardens has become imperative” (Moore 24). This is one effective way of conserving our precious water. Water is a valuable resource that needs to be allocated carefully.
Money and time are additional resources that should be managed wisely. People are spending vast amounts of these on maintenance for their exotic plants. The author of The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession states, “American homeowners spend billions of dollars plus untold hours and energy on their front lawns every year” (Jenkins 2). All such people have choices to make about what kind of landscaping route to use. If they began replacing their exotic plants with natives, they would ultimately save money and time along with benefitting the environment.
The Environment. Nature. Creation. These are gifts—gifts from God. He put humankind in charge of this earth (Gen. 1:26). Native gardening is one way in which we humans can practice good stewardship over the gifts we have been given; through this we can help preserve nature for future generations and create balance between humans and the rest of creation.
The world needs more places like the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, where humans and nature can exist side by side. What are we going to do with the little piece of earth entrusted to us? Be it a backyard, front yard, or potted plants on a patio, we can create or own sanctuaries by growing native plants.
I hope I will tend my own garden some day—a garden modeled after those original ecosystems in Southern California created by God. Paths would weave throughout a patchwork of sagebrush, buckwheat, and Cleveland sage full of skippers, bees, and butterflies. Birds would feast on elderberries, and western fence lizards would sun lazily on stepping-stones. Perhaps there would even be a natural pond, glassy and tranquil, and dragonflies would whir through my yard—flashes of color. And towering over the water like sentinels would grow a stand of cottonwoods. The wind would rustle through the leaves, filling the yard with peaceful music—a sanctuary, for people, plants, and animals.
“Benefits of Native Plants.” cnps.org. California Native Plant Society, 1999. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
Green, Dorothy. Managing Water: Avoiding Crisis In California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. Print.
Keator, Glenn, and Alrie Middlebrook. Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2007. books.google.com. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
Moore, Rob. “The Art and Science of a Native Garden Design.” Fremontia: Journal of the California Native Plant Society 37.4/38.1, (2009/2010): 24-33. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.
Scullin, Wendy Munson. “Keep Off The Grass!.” E: The Environmental Magazine 16.3 (2005): 34-39. Science Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Seidenberg, Charlotte. The Wildlife Garden: Planning Backyard Habitats. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 Oct. 2013.