Above: Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a native spring flowering wildflower, photographed by Len Green on his rewilded property.

by Leonard Green

May is migration heaven, all the birds singing. On my way down to the beach this morning, the air is thick with song: orioles, cardinals, chickadees, wrens. Closer to Gardiner’s Bay the trilling of prairie warblers, the buzzy notes of red winged blackbirds. 

Then the leaf blower starts. And won’t stop. I pass the garden crew on my way down to the shore. They are still at it on my way home.

Recent research clearly describes the damage resulting from our human-generated noise. It stunts the embryonic growth of birds; it disrupts fundamental behaviors such as hunting and mating. And of course, beyond the noise, leaf blowers destroy the habitat many insects require to complete their life cycles. Without insects, no food for hungry baby birds. All this damage because of our obsession with tidiness!

Natural Services vs Tidy

More recent research points to clear evidence that leaf removal reduces soil health, in turn reducing soil’s capacity to sequester carbon, manage nitrogen, or control excess nutrient runoff. These are “natural services” provided by functioning ecosystems.

There is also long established evidence that noise is not only bad for birds. It’s horrible for workers exposed to it for hours on end, day after day. It increases blood pressure and fills the air with lung-damaging particulates. Like the baby birds, we internalize the effects of noise. It’s not healthy.

Many of us live out here, on our island, because of the natural beauty, because we love our bays, the Sound, and the ocean. So why do we systematically set about dismantling nature, turning our properties into something antithetical to nature? We replace indigenous plant communities with monocultures and import exotic plants that have not evolved with the local soil and plant cultures, upsetting an intricately woven ecology.

Of Oaks and Butterflies

Coming home from my walk, I smell the native pitch pines I’ve let grow on what used to be a good piece of our front lawn. Like their neighboring oaks, they are a keystone native species, with up to 200 native caterpillars relying upon them for development. The oaks do even more, providing resources for over 400 species of native caterpillars. No caterpillars, no moths or butterflies. Something like 96 percent of terrestrial birds rely upon keystone plants for the soft-bodied caterpillars they will consume at some stage in their lives.

It’s spring, and leaves are emerging, timed perfectly with the return of warblers. In fall, the leaves will drop. In the woodland I’ve allowed to emerge where there was once grass, I’ll leave the leaves. They will provide shelter for butterflies, ground nesting bees, box turtles and more. They will return nutrients to the ground that will in turn feed the trees next spring. They will feed the fungi and microbes necessary for soil health and the root life of trees. 

Without fungi, I would not see the striped wintergreen and trailing arbutus that have taken hold in the leaf litter. These are just two of the native forest understory plants we have replaced with turf monocultures. Thanks to entomologists like Doug Tallamy, many now understand that with the loss of native flora and habitat fragmentation we are witnessing a major decline in critical populations of insects, including pollinators . But how many of us understand the same is true for microbial soil communities? Just as many insects are specialists, dependent on specific native flora for their survival, so too are many soil microbes. As we dismantle the native plant communities they depend on, we disrupt the soil ecology, the foundation for all terrestrial life.

Our Choice, Our Power

Unfortunately, we underestimate the power we individually have to combat climate change. Climate Local Now: there is nothing more local than our own front or backyards. We can make these spaces climate friendly or climate destructive. It’s our choice. Reducing your lawn spaces, increasing the native plant communities on your property, supporting the healthy ecosystems that work quietly to store carbon in the soil, these are all simple actions we can take.

A report in the Connecticut Mirror tells us that trees and other vegetated terrain remove more carbon from the atmosphere in Connecticut than produced by residential emissions.  https://ctmirror.org/2024/05/10/ct-co2-levels-forests/

That leaves tremendous potential for improvement. The more private, public, and commercial properties we return to native plant communities, the more we contribute to combatting the climate emergency we are leaving our children and grandchildren.

Back from my walk, at my desk, I look out the window at the flowering chokeberry, the wild geranium ground cover full of spring blooms, the columbine at the woodland edge: native, beautiful, and ecologically grounded.

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

Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and leaders of a grass-roots group inspired by the science of Project Drawdown to advance local climate solutions.

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Leonard Green
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 ChangeHampton.

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