Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my biology high school curriculum was the idea that all life forms are interdependent. They form a food chain, where each link acquires the energy it needs by eating the previous link – humans eat tuna, which eat sardines, which eat krill, which eat phytoplankton. Food chains in turn interconnect into food webs, where species provide one another with energy through multiple pathways. If a link in the web is decimated, the other links are placed in danger.
We human beings are part of this web and dependent on it, because it provides us with the many things we need to survive: trees give us clean air; mycorrhizae, small fungi that attach to plant roots, fix nitrogen in the soil, enabling the growth of staples such as corn; earthworms increase soil fertility by transforming compost into humus.
We’re losing touch
Although important, our connection to the other species is easily forgotten. The cause is technologies we have created to lessen our exposure to the forces of nature or simply entertain ourselves. IPods equip joggers with music on the go. By blocking out the natural sounds of crickets and toads, they acoustically erase their existence. Video games tie teenagers to the couch, pulling them into a fantasy world where heroes have bionic powers and the laws of nature are suspended. Advances in food science enable grocery stores to sell meals that require only three minutes of microwaving before they can be eaten. Neatly wrapped in cardboard and plastic, these items are accompanied by tales of health and convenience. How many shoppers move beyond these narratives and ask how their dinner got into the synthetic dish that holds it?
That we so easily lose sight of the tapestry of beings and our place in it saddens me a bit. The reason is that we have so much power over our environment. No other species is capable of building nuclear weapons, changing the course of rivers with giant dams or draining wetlands the way we do. With great power comes great responsibility. But from years of studying policy I have learned that power just as often engenders forgetfulness.
When it comes to overlooking what surrounds us, I am as culpable as the next person. But recently two processes have put me back in touch with the biology lessons of my youth and rekindled my awe of nature.
The first process is the transition to a plant-based diet. When you handle fresh produce day in, day out, you come to admire its texture, color, and scent, and wonder about the plants that grow such beautiful offspring. When you prepare dried beans by soaking them overnight, you witness how they come to life, absorbing water, ready to expand into sprouts and then, if they survive, vines. These experiences remind you that your sustenance comes from living beings. They make you realize that their space needs protection.
Living in a garden
The second process I have in mind is spending time in a garden that teems with wild creatures. My husband was an avid gardener long before we met. His philosophy has been to grow habitat plants – trees and flowers that are magnets for birds, butterflies, and bees -, or to grow native plants, which by virtue of having for centuries formed part of the local ecology automatically attract the fauna that’s accustomed to it. He hardly uses pesticide or fertilizer, instead gratefully accepting the compost I so amply produce.
The result has been magnificent. The plants – Shrimp Plant, American Beauty Berry, Mulberry, and many other varieties – give us great joy. But so does the wildlife that they have nurtured: squirrels, cardinals, a family of opossums, a rabbit, butterflies, an owl, lizards, doodle bugs, dragon flies, and much, much more.
The photos you see on this page come from the garden and were created on Sunday, May 10. Taking the pictures took me only thirty minutes, and the shoot happened within a radius of eight yards. The first two photos – one towards the top of this page, the other one right here – are a of blue jay chick that was born in our garden. Last weekend it was sufficiently big to flutter around the fig tree but not mature enough to leave its birthplace for good. Photo number three is of a beautiful monarch butterfly holding on to a native flower whose name I don’t know. We have many such butterflies, because we give them what they need: plantings of Gregg’s Mistflower and Lantana provide nectar while Mexican Milkweed allows their progeny to evolve from egg-hood to the stage of metamorphosis.
The fourth image is of two lizards copulating. I came pretty close with my camera. Under normal circumstances they would quickly have scuttled away, but in this case they were too enthralled to mind the danger I posed. There are hundreds of such lizards in our backyard, perching over the compost heap to catch flies, chilling on sun-drenched bromeliad leaves, or jumping as high as eight inches to reach the leaf of a fern.
The garden reconnects me to a system of growth and decline that over millions of years developed magnificent creatures. Just imagine the complicated biochemical processes it takes to transform a fat, earthbound caterpillar into a butterfly so light that it can dance on a breeze. It is breathtaking.
The garden also gives me an inkling of the power we humans have as we fashion our environment: Around our homes we can stick to purely ornamental flowers with little appeal to local wildlife, or we can create a habitat that welcomes other species. If we do, they will come, acting as if they own the garden and you just happen to be in it.
Being in awe of the order of things is a beautiful state. We search for it when we go to church, temple, or mosque. Who would ever suspect to find it in something as mundane as produce or a medium-sized backyard?
Your own mini-habitat
Perhaps you are about to introduce more plant food into your life. If so, observe how your pineapple ripens, or how the papaya you bought has to turn ugly before becoming succulent. If you have a spot of real estate that is exposed to rain and sun, even if it is only a balcony, consider transforming it into a habitat space. If you don’t know where to start with this, visit a nursery that specializes in native plants. Its friendly staff will extend the guidance you need.
A few months from now you might be the steward of your very own mini-habitat. And instead of seeking a sense of home in the land of plastic-fantastic, you might find it right where you are, among your fellow living creatures. It’s an enticing possibility, no?