We live on an island in an age of rising seas and hotter and wetter weather. Earlier this season, there was a rare Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic. The consequences of accelerated climate change are here. And they are just beginning.
Yet, on my daily walk down to Gardiner’s Bay, I am struck by how little we seem to value the natural systems that maintain a resilient, living coastal environment. Piece by piece, out of ignorance or indifference, we dismantle the natural services that protect our beaches, our ground and surface waters, and our coastal wetlands.
I begin my walk in what used to be an oak-hickory forest. Most of the oaks, hickories, cedars, and sassafras are gone, however, replaced by lawns, all cut too short and watered too often to have developed the deep roots and rich underground biodiversity that supports healthy, porous, absorbent soil.
It is autumn, but there are no leaves on the ground. We hire lawn crews to keep our yards as tidy as living rooms. We deprive the soil of the nutrients that support its natural function. Consequently our soils are compacted, facilitating the nutrient rich runoff that results from fertilizing and overwatering our lawns. And when it rains hard, as it has been and will continue to do because of our warming atmosphere, we’ve deprived ourselves of one line of defense against contaminating our bays and estuaries.
In one yard after another I see exotic, non-native flora. All too often these plants escape our properties, invading the remnant woods I pass on the way down to the water. Strangling oriental bittersweet and wisteria choke out the native keystone cherries and oaks, and Miscanthus displaces the native switchgrass and little bluestem. Our Long Island native ground cover, blueberry, huckleberry, wintergreen, mosses, and the lovely spring harbinger, trailing arbutus— all replaced by turf and foundation plantings.
Down the road and around a bend, and I’m at sea level on the barrier peninsula separating Gardiner’s Bay from the back dune wetland and a large local harbor. The landscape changes. The first bayside lot is mostly mature and undisturbed dune land. There’s a little cottage, the kind of summer house that used to be common out here. The rest of the lot has been left to nature: a small scrub oak forest with an understory of beach heather, bayberry, prickly pear, beach plum, and little bluestem. It’s a beautiful example of nature at work. In spring, it is white with blooming beach plum. It takes a very long time for back dunes to accumulate enough organic material to accommodate woody species like beach plum and oak. It is natural succession — the transformation of mostly inhospitable sandy soil to a more fertile environment.
Nature works miracles like that, converting sand to living soil. The upland forest’s porous, loamy soil filters the water entering our aquifers. It soaks up rainfall like a giant, earthy sponge, regulating the moisture and temperature in the surrounding air. It is home to nearly countless creatures that work above and below ground to sustain a living, healthy environment.
Dunes, too, are living, dynamic ecosystems. They respond to wind and tide, transforming sandy beaches into shifting dunes, anchored by an array of indigenous flora, each playing a role in the complex living system that protects uplands and wetlands from storm surges and salt water incursions. Our wetlands are some of our most precious and productive resources. Around the world, they sequester more carbon than rainforests.
Yet, as I continue walking, I see more human destruction of these natural protections. Lot by private lot, we treat our properties as if they were isolated islands, not elements of intricate cross property systems. Two of the biggest threats to dune systems are fragmentation and non-native invasive plants. Every time we build on the back dunes we fragment the dune ecology. Every time we bulldoze, we open the opportunity for colonization by non-native invasive plants.
And that’s the trend I see on my walk; bulldoze and build bigger. Private property is, of course, a right those of us fortunate enough to own property all enjoy, but we also have responsibilities to protect the cross-property systems bigger than our yards and houses, the ones that protect us all from storm surges, keep our ground water potable, and support the biodiversity essential for a green, habitable planet. Faced with the clearly increasing ravages of climate catastrophe, we have a choice. We can be good stewards of the land we temporarily own, or not.
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 Drawdown East End, whose mission is to inspire local solutions to reverse global warming.