‘Nature’s Best Hope’

Book offers grassroots effort to stem climate change


The wildfires, droughts, floods, extreme heat, landslides, disease, ocean acidification and other catastrophic consequences of unprecedented climate destruction seen this summer has eliminated all but the severely oblivious doubters that the climate crisis has arrived. As each of us come to grips with our slice of responsibility for this global catastrophe, we are asking ourselves: “What can I do?” The current mantra is: Drive less, fly rarely, consume less meat and dairy and abandon our overly consumptive and convenient lifestyle.

Professor Douglas W. Tallamy of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife at the University of Delaware has another easily adoptable solution everyone, everywhere on any size land can pursue --  restoration. His latest book is called “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.”

The climate crisis can be thought of more accurately as a trifecta of crises: overheated climate, species extinction and soil loss and depletion. Tallamy lives on a continent where 95 percent of his country has been logged, tilled, drained, grazed, paved or otherwise developed. The loss of species is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the background or expected, natural extinction rate. World wildlife populations have plunged 68 percent since 1970. The extinction of plants is also accelerating at a startling pace. Finally, soil loss and depletion leaves the planet with a mere 60 years of agricultural function.

   His prescription: shrink or eliminate your lawn and plant native vegetation. He points out that plants and animals co-evolved -- with animals adapting to the plants they evolved with and that our focus on decorative value, prestige and cultural uniformity has led us to live in communities with large and many lawns, but without animals.

He and his granddaughter inventoried the gorgeous plant life in one of the nation’s greenest cities, Portland, Oregon, to find out that “the city is a great example of how to create an attractive city with very few breeding birds, butterflies, bees or other desirable wildlife.”

Of 1,176 trees, only 100 of them were indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. A full 91.5 percent of those trees were introduced from other continents or ecoregions. When it’s time for birds and other animals to reproduce, the plants available in Portland simply do not make enough insect food to raise their young successfully.

Tallamy also points out an aspect of nature that he says “has been too ambiguous for the public and even many scientists to appreciate.” Health of a habitat is not best understood by the type or number of species present. Rather, it’s the way species interact with one another that forms the glue holding nature together. The most insidious form of extinction is not the loss of individual species, but the extinction of ecological interactions, meaning “interaction diversity” is a better predictor of ecosystem function. Introduced plants reduce both species and interaction diversity.

Insects are the animals that are best at transferring energy from plants to other animals and, in Tallamy’s thinking, plants “enable animals to eat sunlight.” Depending on the species and sex, birds make anywhere from 241 to 4,260 trips a day to feed their young (bobolinks 840, sapsuckers 4260, downy woodpeckers 4,095 and hairy woodpeckers 2,325 times). Birds need insects; insects need plants. The plants we have in our yards make or break bird production. His random samplings of typical neighborhoods found that 92 percent of “plantable” area is lawn and of the 8 percent of non-lawn, 79 percent on average was introduced from other continents. Lawns dominate landscape most everywhere; turfgrass has replaced diverse native plant communities of landscaped private property. Lawns accomplish very little. They capture scant amounts of carbon, provide little nutrition and use 30 percent of water used in the East during the summer and up to and 60 percent in the West.

   This review merely scratches the surface. There’s a good deal more in this important, highly informative read. With these three crises bearing down on the globe, we know we must do our part at countering the trifecta of crises. We each must do much more. His bottom line? “Wherever and whenever we can, we must reassemble the co-evolved relationship between plants and animals and among animals that enable ecosystems to produce the life support systems we all need."

Thank you to a friend who game me this book.

 A.T. Cole

Pitchfork Ranch