Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard
I read Doug Tallamy’s latest book Nature’s Best Hope just as the world began hunkering down for an uncertain period of self-isolation. We are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It seemed odd to be reading about the severe decline of our ecosystem while being inundated with news updates on the more visibly urgent threat of a virus that has no approved vaccine and no widely proven cure. But the title of Tallamy’s book has the word hope in it, and I needed a little of that.
In Nature’s Best Hope, Doug Tallamy takes topics from his popular book Bringing Nature Home (Workman Publishing, 2009) and expands upon them. He explains, with examples and statistics, what is happening to the ecological systems around us, and why we should care. This book is geared toward the private landowner – not one whose primary landscaping concern is how green their lawn is – but one who could also be convinced to be concerned about the alarming decline of birds, insects, and other wildlife.
The beginning of the book focuses on the “why” – explaining how declining habitat affects insect populations, which affects other plant and animal populations, which affects human health. As E.O. Wilson so eloquently states: insects are “the little things that run the world.” But this book isn’t just a harbinger of doom, solely focused on bringing our awareness to the problem at hand, it’s more importantly a call to arms. Many of us already know that our ecology, our future economy, and our health are all connected, and for those who don’t know, Tallamy’s book is a compelling synopsis. What we may not know is the important role each person can play in the conservation effort. We feel helpless, with such a large-scale problem that seems completely out of our control.
The typical homeowner may believe their yard is too small, isolated, and ordinary to make a difference, and so they look to the National Park System and other publicly owned conservation lands to do the heavy lifting. Tallamy argues that the largest percentage of land in the United States is privately owned, and so public conservation land will never be enough. He points out that private yards and neighborhoods, suburbs, and even cities can play a significant role, especially when they play together. A small pollinator garden in the middle of a suburb may not save significant populations of insects, but a small garden next to your neighbor’s garden, next to their neighbor’s garden, begins to form a network. What if, Tallamy proposes, we can accrue a lot of tiny patches that form a larger network? He says we could call it “Homeland National Park.” Together, we could create enough conservation land to make an enormous impact.
In the second part of the book Tallamy delves into the “how,” explaining why focusing on the removal of invasive plants and the establishment of native plants on private landscapes is the best way to combat the decline of habitat. He further argues that by incorporating “keystone” plants, we can support a large number of insect species. The large number of insect species then supports a diversity of other wildlife. Tallamy makes a strong case that with enough property owners following that strategy, we will not only help stop the decline of wildlife, but we will begin to turn the tide.
Gardeners at all experience levels will gain inspiration and pointers from this book, but it is not a step-by-step guide to designing a wildlife garden. Beyond a few examples, it doesn’t tell you which plant species you should use. Those choices depend on your region and site conditions. Tallamy offers resources: places to go to find that information, and guidelines on where to start. He suggests ways to layer plant types to get more benefit out of small spaces, and how to maintain them. Many insects and other wildlife hibernate under leaves and soil in the wintertime. There is no point, as he illustrates with a photo of a tree stuck in a lawn, in supporting moths and other beneficial insects with a host tree, if the ground below is so densely compacted and devoid of plant matter, that insects cannot complete their life cycle.
While I was reading the chapter “The Importance of Connectivity,” I noticed a recent trend circulating via social media. In the midst of social distancing efforts brought about by the new coronavirus, residents were being urged to place shamrocks in their windows for St. Patrick’s Day. Families on neighborhood walks could hunt for shamrocks. It was a way to bring neighborhoods together while staying apart. It occurred to me that if homeowners can place a shamrock in a window to delight their neighbors, then why couldn’t they plant a small native tree and a patch of wildflowers? The next time families are out walking, what if they were counting birds, butterflies, and caterpillars instead of shamrocks? I think Tallamy’s Homeland National Park – a homegrown patchwork of pocket-parks coming together to form the nation’s largest National Park – could be just what the country needs as an antidote to our current state of isolation.
About the Reviewer
Angela Tanner has worked at the intersection of the built and natural worlds for over 15 years. With a background in both architecture and landscape architecture, she strives to create environments that are beautiful and functional for the people, plants, and wildlife that inhabit them. She is a Landscape Architect at Jenick Studio, a Cape Cod based landscape architecture and conservation planning firm specializing in the integration of ecology and modern design.
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