Leave Us the Birds and the Bees

canstockphoto1628056There are so many things to be outraged by, but I try to find some eventual, rational stance. Just don’t talk to me about your perfectly manicured lawn, with the little sign on it that says pets and children should stay off of it for the next 24 hours. Yes, my neighbor. I’m talking about you.

I like to stroll about my front and back yards in the morning. Morning dew makes my feet wet and cold. Rabbits dart by, startled by my intrusion on their breakfast nibbling.Ā  The catmint, heavy with condensation, is bent over into the sunlight, where a bumblebee buzzes its way through the task of collecting pollen.

A robin dive bombs my head, causing tea to slosh over the sides of the cup from which I’ve been leisurely sipping. The robin is on guard – its babies are on the ground, flapping their fledgling wings, trying for the holy grail of air time. I see at the edge of our eave, that a wasp is building a nest. We won’t disturb it – it’s out of the path of normal traffic and wasps eat or paralyze a lot of pest insects. They serve a purpose as well.

canstockphoto4150081It’s an urban ecosystem that supports a great deal of life – from the small mammals to an astonishing range of birds. The Twin Cities is marvelous for its green spaces, although with urban sprawl, those green spaces are getting smaller and smaller. Deer and coyote are being spotted in places they’ve never been before. Their instinct for survival deems that they cross paths with humans and their manicured lawns.

Thus far, we’re the only lawn in the neighborhood that is more perennial plants than grass. We have been developing this garden for the last 8 or 9 years. It’s finally starting to fill in, but we did it the hard way – ripping up grass as we put in various beds. The easy (albeit expensive) way is to have a landscaping company come in a pull up the whole thing, to start with a blank slate. I’m a do-it-myself kind of person, though and doing it bit by bit suits my temperament.

canstockphoto1938554 I gave up the fight, long ago, to defend our plants and vegetables against the animals that reside in and visit our yard. We share. The racoons and squirrels eat themselves giddy on our Concord grape vines in the fall. The rabbits taste test everything, often settling on the clover and dandelions for a main course. Chipmunks, their cheeks expanded to hilarious proportions, collect stray birdseed from under the feeders.

If I sit still and listen, there is a constant buzz of life. I am cautious of the bees and wasps, but rarely afraid. I like to imagine that they understand I am the gardener. Bumblebees and honeybees and black potter wasps go about their business and I go about mine.

Perhaps it is the fact that I lived for many years without a yard that I wax rhapsodical over flora and fauna. I marvel that only a few minutes kneeling in the dirt centers and calms me. From where I see so much life, I look next door and see nothing, except a long span of green, evenly cut grass, aesthetically appealing, but ultimately uninteresting. And at what cost?

Lawns in the U.S. were initially established by the wealthy, seeking to mimic English gardens. In the 1950s, with the creation of suburbs, they became the standard. Most lawns contain a single species of plant, cutting down on biodiversity. Lawns require quite a bit of water to establish and maintain. 50-70% of residential water is used for landscaping, most of which is for lawns. And finally, pesticides and chemicals used to maintain lawns in this country outpace agriculture in their usage per acre.

A conservative estimate is that 67 million birds a year are killed by exposure to pesticides. A lot of practices have changed and many synthetic chemicals have been pulled from the market, but the damage is still staggeringly high. And then we get to the bees, about which Snoring Dog Studio just wrote. Recently, in Oregon, 25,000 bees died as a result of insecticide usage on trees around a Target parking lot.

Beyond the science, which is often disputed, I find the pathological need to maintain a rectangle or square of green grass to be kind of weird. I never see people sprawled out on their lawns, luxuriating in the field of monochrome green. It’s a sedentary approach to nature, something that is looked at out the front window. That somehow we are not part of it. This severe disconnect is a dangerous attitude to cultivate in a time of dwindling resources and steamrolling population growth.

On occasion, when I sit at my keyboard a mite too long or spend too much time on indoor activities, I feel that sense of disconnect. It all becomes “out there”.Ā  Then it’s time to become wild again, to enter a world that never noticed my absence, that does not acknowledge my presence as anything less than natural.

Reading for Nature Lovers:

Reading for Gardeners:

56 Comments on “Leave Us the Birds and the Bees

  1. Our flock of back garden hens put paid to any ideas I may have had about maintaining a prettified garden but are fabulous company when I am pottering outside. We enjoy our garden so much more since we stopped trying to make it look like an open topped extension of the house.

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    • They’ve been passing ordinances in the some of the suburbs around us to allow chickens, so I imagine we’ll be seeing a few more pecked at lawns. There is also a rise in urban beekeepers. I love to see the progress, but from a visual perspective, I still see so many pesticide warning signs, sprinklers running nonstop and a dearth of people actually outside. It’s an amazing concept to spend so much time, money and materials on a lawn and then never actually sit on it. Again, I think it’s just weird. I like your description “open topped extension of the house”. Very true!

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  2. I so agree. And I’m even more struck by the dark side of lawns, after moving to Colorado. People will do anything to maintain that perfect patch of green, even in a semi-arid climate where water is precious. I don’t think it has anything to do with enjoying the lawn- it’s just for show, to look at šŸ˜¦

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    • I try not to be Chicken Little, but when the birds and bees start declining and water is tagged as the next resource war, I feel some alarm that so many people are blithely maintaining this lawn culture. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart and resourceful people focused on this issue. I just don’t want to be one of the people making it worse.

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  3. Thanks for this important post Michelle! We used to have a neighbor up in D.C. who had this “radioactive” (as we other neighbors called I) green lawn that was never used or shared…all the little rabbits were on our side of the street.

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  4. Even the middle of a raging blizzard is a good moment to be somplace natural (but maybe just for a moment…).
    I’m more of a park person than a backyarder, but that might be because I’m an apartment dweller right now…

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    • Having been an apartment dweller for many years, I was (and still am) a park person. We’ve got some great regional parks with trails that lead through wetland areas – lots of opportunities to see birds that don’t show up in the back yard.

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  5. I’m with you on folks who obsess about their lawns, I mean really. We have a neighbor who is a compulsive leaf blower. He does it for about. 2 hours a day. Every day. And his 5 acres are heavily wooded. Except the parts of the lawn he covers in Olin’s.

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    • Don’t even get me started on the leaf blower! What an idiotic, noisy piece of machinery. Most of the people I see with them could afford the extra calorie burn with a rake and broom. I know, incredibly snarky, but that is the machine that turns a lovely contemplative time pulling weeds into a front row seat at the Daytona 500 on Saturday mornings.

      Our neighbor is retired…and apparently bored. I’m sure we must make life very hard for him, with our free-range gardening! He spends hours and hours on that lawn.

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  6. LOVED this post, Michelle! I also cringe when I see those signs and have taught my boys to avoid those lawns like the plague. And I think the 24 hour rule is absurd. Do the pesticides and fertilizers just evaporate after a day? My husband keeps pushing me to have our lawn sprayed. And I will continue to push back on this one — I keep saying that if I’ve had cancers in my thirties, then why would you knowingly risk exposing your children to carcinogens when they are probably genetically more likely to develop cancer than the average Joe? Drives me crazy!
    Whew, sorry for the vent! I guess I got a little carried away! Great post — I enjoyed the imagery very much! šŸ˜‰

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    • I can work up a pretty good head of steam over lawn culture. How about schools that use chemicals to manage their playgrounds and fields? It happens all over the country. It is a mentality that people can’t seem to shake – so completely inured to actual nature that everything but a green lawn strikes them as unkempt. I think your vent is absolutely appropriate, especially given your own experiences and I appreciate your comment.

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      • So true about the schools! Glad we are on the same page, but I wish everyone was — between the pesticides and plastics, it’s no wonder cancer is so prevalent in this country. I’d better stop now before I start a new rant, Lol! šŸ˜‰

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  7. I am SO with you on this. And the leaf blowers. And snow mobiles, jet skis, et al. the recreational gas burners. Ohhhh, I feel a rant coming on….

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    • I am often accused of being too sensitive about noise, but I find all the things you listed to be jarring. We used to canoe a lot and nothing destroys the serene glide and rhythm of the oars than a roaring boat and its subsequent wake. That kind of talk is considered blasphemy in the land of 10,000 lakes, though!

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  8. Love this! You need to look me up if ever in the Pacific Northwest so you can give me advice on our lawn. I didn’t know that about wasps, and we just discovered a big nest on the front of our house: horrifyingly menacing, somehow. But if they keep down the pests…

    We have too much grass. I have a John Deere. The whole thing is “retarded.” Now I need to build a structure to house my John Deere so that I can write in the garage. The tribulations of the suburbanite…keep thinking about your eyes and hope they’re getting better. – Bill

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    • When I first moved into this house, there was lawn everywhere and my husband had a riding mower. Cut to 13 years later. No riding mower, small patches of lawn and wild things everywhere.

      The biggest tip I can give? Find out what is native, scalp the lawn piece by piece and replace it with tall prairie grasses, wildflowers, a couple of kids’ gardens for teaching and sharing, richly colored vegetables like chard and kale among the flowers. And expect failure. And expect it to take time. And expect it to look shitty for awhile.

      All the ups and downs of a garden yard are great metaphors for writing as well! My favorite thing to do when I am stuck is to flop in the yard and pull weeds. Clarity eventually comes.

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      • Exactly, Michelle – going with native flora is the most ecologically sound thing you can do. Don’t plant stuff that wasn’t intended for your climate and soil. Yes, you can expect a yard like this to be a bit untidy, but mine is gorgeous and I really don’t have to water that frequently.

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        • I take a Darwinian approach to gardening. Once something is established, it must hold its own. I rarely water, except for seeds if we haven’t had much precipitation (not a problem this year!).

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        • Same here, Michelle. If it makes it with my watering schedule, then it was meant to be. If it dies, it was in the wrong climate and yard.

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    • PS – I’ll find out next week on the eyes, when the bandage contacts come off. Fortunately, they have allowed me to sleep through the night without fear and that can only help towards the healing process.

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  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for joining in on this crusade, because for me, it is a crusade. We’re killing this planet with our selfish need to have bigger veggies, more abundant and prettier fruit, greener, lusher lawns AND no pests anywhere in sight so that we can enjoy NATURE. What a joke. When I think about my years in Texas, watching people insanely try to keep lawns alive, in spite of their frequent water shortages, I want to puke. I committed murder when I moved into this house – I killed off my lawn, front and back. I grow ground cover of all varieties that flower and attract bees. My yard is alive with bees and butterflies. We coexist. And I love it. I will boycott Target forever if I find out they requested that toxic spraying. What a damn, disgusting shame.

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    • I think I’ve been on this conservation and preservation bender for many years -it is one of those things about which I feel passionately. It begs common sense to not see how humans can negatively impact this planet, much to their own detriment. That being said, I’m on a continuum – there’s more I can do, so I have to be careful about getting on my high horse! The lawn thing, though, is going to be a tough habit for people, especially Americans, to break, so we might as well start preaching now.

      The lack of understanding about how an ecosystem sustains and balances itself really impacts people’s understanding of the need for pests and beneficial plantings.

      I don’t know the story behind the treating of the Linden trees around the Target parking lot. If they did request this spraying, perhaps the negative publicity from this incident will prevent them from doing it again.

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  10. I couldn’t agree more. I hate those signs; they make me physically angry. We’re so detached from nature. Just the other day I talked to a friend about vegetables, and how he has no concept of “seasonal food” having grown up in the US. That by itself is scary to me. How little will the generation after us know?

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    • My little “next generation” is growing green beans, spinach and marigolds this year (her choice – that’s going to be a weird ass salad). I like that a lot of schools are adding gardens to their grounds and as part of their curriculum. All is not lost, but this revolution must literally start in our yards and our communities, before seeds are patented beyond our grasp and gardening knowledge becomes a quaint hobby of the past.

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  11. This makes me think of a song: “Give me spots on my apples. Leave me the birds and the bees. Please! Don’t it all seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot!”
    –Joni Mitchell from “Big Yellow Taxi”

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      • I thought you might be thinking of that. The title was so close to the lyric. It seems Joni Mitchell was a prophet. Counting Crows is version is excellent and does the original justice.

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        • Quite a few people have made remakes of this song, including (and I choke a bit when I type this) Amy Grant and Bob Dylan. So far, only the Crows version seems palatable after Mitchell’s.

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  12. As always, beautifully said. (Also, much love for Joni!) I’ve always longed for a wild garden — we’re talking about finally getting one going next spring. Any tips/resources for those of us with no gardening background? šŸ™‚

    We read Sand County Almanac in one of the classes I took for my final semester of college. I absolutely loved it (especially being a native Wisconsinite myself!). Guess that means I’ll be reading everything else you recommended now! šŸ™‚

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    • Thanks! As far as book recommendations, I know it’s a pretty subjective thing. A lot of these books I read in college as well. I specifically took a course on North American Wilderness Writing – I loved being able to read about hugely different environments. I’ll never see the desert as hot and lifeless again after Desert Solitaire. Sand County Almanac has been an all-time favorite – an example of how much can be learned through sheer observation and patience. I’m visiting the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and the Preserve (farther north) this summer!

      Everyone starts with no gardening experience. You have to figure out what is native or at least perennial (returns each year) to your location. Buy a few plants, try a few seeds, see what works in your soil. I go about it very unscientifically. It’s all an experiment and it takes mistakes to figure out what will do the trick. Also, picking plants you like is very personal. Sometimes a smell or a color or a leaf texture is appealing to a person. Smell is a big deal to me, so my garden is loaded with thyme and lavender. Just enjoy the challenge!

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      • Thanks for the tips! I’ve worked at REI in the past and really wish I spent more time in the wilderness. Hoping once I’m a little more financially secure (yay, recent college grad budget!), I can plan some trips. In the meantime, I’ll garden. šŸ™‚

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  13. Your garden sounds beautiful. I love flower gardens. I’m totally with you on boring plots of nothing but perfectly mowed grass and the use of pesticides.

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    • It’s beautiful to me, but my garden and I have a long history! I’ve come to love visual variety, be it flowers or interesting grasses or variegated plants. Thanks for reading and commenting, Fransi!

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  14. I was so upset about the bees.

    My neighbors have an amazing urban farm in their front yard, and we are very slowly creating a garden, too. It’s such a joy to pick sun-warmed strawberries and blueberries from the front yard. I used to have a lot and a half at my old house. I removed the grass by covering it with free wood chips from the city’s tree trimming program and then covered it all in compost and soil the next year. I planted edibles, perennials, shrubs… you name it. It was so wonderful. I spent hours each day working in it, and it was such a great way to get to know my neighbors who would stop and chat. I miss it terribly. We live on a steep, rocky slope and it will take a major cash investment to get some professional help to get the front yard ready to garden (retaining wall).

    I just heard something on NPR about ‘heat islands’ which is a phenomenon in cities that happens because 1) trees are cut down (and they are naturally cooling by giving off moisture and providing shade), 2) all the concrete collects and gives off heat, and 3) all the machines give out heat (cars, vacuum cleaners, AC units, etc). It’s disturbing.

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    • I find the bee story upsetting as well – such pointless waste for such a pointless reason. We have Linden trees in our neighborhood and I’m puzzled by the need to spray. Our trees sustain a lot of life and will outlive us, I’m sure, without insecticides.

      I have a long way to go on our property and am still learning to integrate the edibles into flower gardens, but you’re right, it takes a lot of time. I’ve met a lot of my neighborhood the same way – this is what is so sad about the lawn culture and the fact that people don’t sprawl on their lawns or sit on front porches anymore. You can live in a small neighborhood these days and not know (or have seen) 75% of your neighbors.

      In our neighborhood and really the Twin Cities, trees are in abundance. After being subjected to monsoon rains and winds this last week, many houses and cars are now wearing large trees – the damage was intense, but still, I do love the fact that when you drive in the metro area, you see more trees than buildings. I have no doubt about the “heat islands” as this often influences how different our weather can be compared to right outside the Cities.

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  15. We have also built our garden bit by bit as we’ve encroached on the ‘lawn’ which is less grass than daisies, clover and buttercups.

    I was horrified to read about all the bees dying in Texas last week, all down to pesticides. Have you read the really scary stuff about Roundup?

    Thank you for calling in to my blog from El Guapo. What a star he is! šŸ™‚

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    • Thanks for stopping by here as well. It is very easy to be disheartened by all the bad news regarding agricultural and simple cultural practices, like the lawn. Change is hard, though, and the only thing better than talking about it, is doing it and leading by example. It sounds like we’re using the same method to build our gardens!

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  16. Thank you for that beautiful post. I’m going to transform my ugly, struggling, green and yellow patches (because I don’t water) into something beautiful because of what you just said. šŸ™‚

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    • Thank you and good for you! The beauty of changing a lawn over to happier plants (grass can be temperamental), is that you can do a lot or a little, depending on your time and resources. Even if you started with the yellowest patch first and just put in a small bed, it would transform struggling space into space with a nice focal point and something that would give you pleasure. Good luck!

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      • Last month I planted three little shrubs in an area where grass just doesn’t grow. They should fill up the space nicely as they grow. šŸ™‚ I was just thinking how crazy it was to fight with mother nature… so I picked bright colors – some that flower. That’s a good start. šŸ™‚

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  17. Hi Michelle, sorry I haven’t been reading blogs in awhile, catching up now :). It was great reading about your yard; I really must come visit sometime. Also, couldn’t help feeling a shameless plug was in order for the booklist:
    youth gardeners–the Seed Savers Series by S. Smith. šŸ™‚

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    • I thought about your series when I wrote this post, but I’m planning a future post on bloggers who write and had planned on adding a shame-free plug there. But you’re right, this would have been a good post for it as well.

      The series, which my daughter has begun reading is called Seed Savers, a great way to get kids to think about where food comes from and how important it is, knowing how to grow your own. It’s dystopian fiction about a world where growing your own food is illegal – enjoyable reading!

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  18. We’ve usually made pretty heavy use of our lawns… croquet, badminton, sunning, picnics, playing with the dog. I never really even minded cutting the lawn.

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    • We never had much of a lawn and maybe I’m wearing my nostalgia glasses, but when I look out in our neighborhood now, there’s not much outdoor activity that doesn’t involve maintenance. It just seems weird to me.

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      • Oh, depending on where you live, no doubt some lawns are pretty strictly “trophy” lawns! To me they’ll always be a place to romp with a dog.

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  19. This was a wonderful read, masterfully written. My lawn appears to be grass for about 48 hours after I mow – what it is in reality is the remnants of a bluegrass lawn put in in the 20’s completely infiltrated by wild clover and thousands of wildflowers. The line where I quit mowing is a butterfly jungle and I like it that way. If the bees are getting to be too much I just mow off the clover blossoms and they move on. There is something restorative about just being out there in my patch of the earth.

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  20. Pingback: Blah-gging: In Search of the Joy | The Green Study

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