The disadvantage of learning a little bit about native plants is that I have to balance my newly acquired knowledge with some daily dread.
Every window I look out of in Charlottesville, I can see a tree of heaven (and probably some autumn olive and porcelain berry in the underbrush). I am prone to exaggeration, but I don’t think I’m being too hyperbolic about this. These trees are everywhere. Posters have also been going up lately about the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species and serious threat to crops and fruit trees, among others, which has now been observed in my town.
Invasive species feel like a battle we are bound to lose. My heart hurts every time I look at these trees of heaven—trees of hell, shall we say?—and their thousands of evil little saplings, springing up in every backyard, every forest, every roadside in my town.
But! I am not entirely powerless. I have a tiny plot of land at home that I can control. I may not be able to do much about the vast Virginia acreage dotted with invasive flora and fauna, but I can pull up every single tree-of-heaven sapling I see and rip up every porcelain berry vine and root out every tendril of English ivy. And I can choose to plant beneficial flowers, shrubs, and trees in their stead.
This orientation, slight though it may be, helps me to feel more hopeful and energized about the future of the Earth, rather than sink into a depressive internet-spiral of malaise, which seems to be a default stance of many people of my generation and can be a default stance of my own in unhealthy times (see: winter 2020, winter 2021, winter 2022).
More hopeful things
Along with getting rid of invasives and planting natives, I am thinking about:
Making a safe and inviting habitat for the wildlife that make their homes next to me in the suburbs. I was very inspired by Nancy Lawson’s book The Humane Gardener, which I read a few years ago. Lawson gives practical tips about how to make a hospitable environment for all manner of creatures, including why you should leave dead trees or stumps and piles of leaves in your yard, among other things that could get you in trouble with your HOA. (It’s just the right level of rule-breaking for me!)
Identifying native ferns, mosses, and grasses. I’m decent at flowers and other native perennials, but I am absolutely clueless about the beneficial ferns, mosses, and grasses that make their home in Virginia.
Identifying native trees. Similarly, I’m pretty bad at trees. I can identify major families in the summer (i.e., that’s an oak, a maple, a spruce, etc.), but I am very ignorant of the majority of trees.
Identifying birds. As with trees, I can recognize and name the most common ones, but I want to get better at this. Big goal is to be able to tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-shouldered hawk. And properly name all the cute little woodpeckers and sapsuckers.
Identifying insects. OK, fine, I just want to know the names of everything!! I might start with butterflies and moths. Moses and Guion found a giant leopard moth in the hallway here at the apartment complex this week, and we were all riveted by its beauty. I immediately felt an urge to know all about the hundreds upon hundreds of moth species in Virginia.
Learning a bit about mushrooms from Guion. Just a bit. He already has much more knowledge than anyone in a single family really needs, but I am learning gradually how to identify the common ones, thanks to his (and Moses’s) tutelage.
I say it all the time, to myself and to my sons, but we really only learn to care for the world when we know what things are called. This is just how human beings are wired.
As my leading lady on the grammar of nature, Robin Wall Kimmerer, says:
“Names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.”
In another book, Gathering Moss, she expounds on the concept:
“Just as you can pick out the voice of a loved one in the tumult of a noisy room, or spot your child's smile in a sea of faces, intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world. This sense of connection arises from a special kind of discrimination, a search image that comes from a long time spent looking and listening. Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.”
Without names, we casually refer to a vast, intimate ecosystem of living things as “nature” or “the forest” or “my backyard.” This vagueness makes us feel like we bought a pass to actually caring. It’s just the yard, we think. Who knows what’s in it?
In a roundabout way, I suppose I am saying that the way to fight this climate dread, this easy slide into laziness/hopelessness, is to start learning some names.
As Thomas Berry, Catholic priest and North Carolina native, remarked:
“We must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
Also, don’t forget:
“Lawns are nature purged of sex or death. No wonder Americans like them so much.”
— Michael Pollan, Second Nature
Back home soon
On a home renovation note, we move back in this weekend! Our families are generously coming to help, and I am beside myself with anticipation. Photos and post-move notes to come soon enough, I suspect.
Some nice analogies here on how to live and heal the civic world as well as natural. Keep on keepin on in all the small moments of dedicated care and thoughtfulness and maybe listen to Candide 😉❤️