Pictured Above: At the groundbreaking for the East Hampton Town Hall Pollinator Garden |. Richard Lewin photo for ChangeHampton.
By Leonard Green
Think about how our island has changed. In my 70-plus years, there’s been a complete transformation. I remember the first “garden apartments” built in my hometown, constructed on “reclaimed” swampland. The word, “reclamation,” was popular back in the 50s, when the island’s population ballooned 141 percent. In those years, our family stopped getting its daily milk delivered from the local dairy farm, and farmland gave way to many versions of Levittown.
Largest Grassland Prairie
Before colonial settlement, Long Island was home to the largest grassland prairie east of the Alleghenies, part of an ecosystem extending from New Jersey to Massachusetts. The pine barrens, oak hickory forests, and wetland communities dominating the landscape were the ecosystems that sustained life here. We have replaced them with suburban sprawl.
What happens when we replace complex ecosystems with housing, impervious surfaces, turf monocultures, and all the “improvements” of suburban life? To answer, we need to understand the ecosystem services that have woven our world into a living, green planet.
About a third of the carbon we have added to the atmosphere comes from land use. Clearing land releases carbon into the atmosphere and disrupts the natural mechanisms that actively store carbon below the earth’s surface. We have reduced Long Island’s vast grasslands to a handful of acres. In doing so, we have impaired an invaluable natural service: carbon sequestration.
Native Plants and Deep Roots
Grasslands and all our native plant communities promote healthy soil ecology necessary for both biodiversity and hydrological balance. Deep rooted native plant communities keep the ground porous and alive with the microbes, fungi, and other soil biota necessary to sustain a living soil. Suburban Long Island’s impervious surfaces, turf lawns, and non-native ecologies weaken or shut down biodiversity below and above ground, converting living soil into compacted dirt that no longer functions to infiltrate, filter and retain water. Because of this, the toxic chemicals we douse our lawns with make their way, unimpeded, into our surface and groundwater, resulting in the loss of another indispensable ecosystem service: hydrology management.
The soil biome is a richly complex set of enmeshed ecosystems, the foundation of the soil food web and all terrestrial life. Every native habitat converted to housing or commercial property diminishes this web, and we are living with the consequences: a vast collapse in the number of insects and birds. When we remove all our fallen leaves in autumn or apply lawn fertilizer in the spring, we subvert the underlying soil ecology. Overwintering insects lose their habitat. Fertilizers disable the microbes and fungi that keep the soil rich and healthy. The cascading consequences remind us that all ecosystems are connected, and when we lose these services, we lose biodiversity, the single most important measure of ecosystem resilience.
Our bays, once plentiful sources of shellfish, are prone to toxic contamination. Our once biodiverse grass, shrub, wetland, and forest communities have given way to resource-intensive lawns and exotic ornamentals. Essential pollinating insects are disappearing. This cannot continue.
We have the tools to reverse much of the damage we have caused. There are roughly 50 million acres of turf lawns in the U.S. and 135 million acres of residential properties. This gives all of us with yards or even the tiniest container gardens an opportunity to act locally to fight a global problem. If we reimagine our landscapes, and our stewardship of them, we will make a difference.
ChangeHampton, a community group in East Hampton, is trying to do just that. After a year of community organizing, ChangeHampton has broken ground for a 3,000 square foot native pollinator garden at East Hampton Town Hall. With the assistance of Abby Lawless’ Farm Landscape Design and scores of student volunteers, we have started an attractive, biodiverse alternative to a conventional lawn. ChangeHampton believes that we must convert lost habitat back to vital, life supporting ecosystems. And when we talk about habitat, we mean our own yards, office and municipal landscapes.
Many groups, including Pollinator Pathway, Homegrown National Parks, and the Audubon Society are working to reconnect our fragmented suburban spaces into corridors of revitalized habitat, in order to restore the eco-services we have, through indifference or ignorance, foreclosed. Unless we let go of the old paradigm of dominating nature, we will continue down an increasingly catastrophic path. We must learn to garden with nature, weaving our landscapes into the natural environment that sustains us.
Leonard Green grew up on Long Island, spending his summers in the African-American summer community of Azurest, Sag Harbor. He now lives in East Hampton, and is a founding member of the environmental action group, Change Hampton. | www.changehampton.org