This September was a banner season for migrating monarchs. When we spotted our first batch swooping through the hedges surrounding a lush estate down a back road in Cutchogue, just blocks from the Peconic Bay, it felt like an anomaly, perhaps a luxury. It must be nice to have the acreage to provide refuge for all the earth’s creatures.
But then we were startled to see the butterflies, battered by the autumn breezes, making headway down ordinary side roads, found their broken wings in beds of leaves alongside the post office, a pair flirting effortlessly in the weeds at the roadside.
Egged on by their beauty, we opened our eyes. There were congresses of bees feasting on sedum flowers, ducking among cosmos and pining for goldenrod, birds and moths of every stripe making their way, from backyard through backyard, hunting dogwood berries along paths through neighborhoods that human inhabitants can’t see.
Our first thought was that it is really nice to be able to live in a place where those who have land nurture the ecosystems they ultimately control. But we stopped short of turning the beauty of the natural world into a treatise on class dynamics when we realized how crucial drainage ditches and public spaces, highway shoulders, schoolyards and even the entrances to our municipal buildings are to connecting a fragmented ecosystem that supports us all.
There’s a billionaire down the street who probably doesn’t know about the bumper crop of beach plums that dot his seaside plantings this autumn, some of which made their way into a canning jar in the back of our refrigerator. Come by and try some jam. Bring fresh bread.
Natural places enrich all of our lives. Street trees change a scorched city block into an oasis and a garden outside your workplace window can change a terrible job to a place of joy. Gardening is not a sport for the rich. It’s a way to connect us all to the things in nature that sustain us.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a whole bunch of noblesse oblige at work in our surroundings. Providing access to the natural world was once seen as a responsibility by the upper class, back in a time when members of the upper class were actually really classy. The era of the creation of endowed urban public gardens may be a part of the distant past, but its legacy continues.
Public institutions like libraries, schools and even East Hampton Town Hall have gotten into the native planting spirit, providing a resting place for all who migrate through their property, both human and non-human. It’s not too far-fetched to think highway departments can get into the act along the roadsides they currently mow. It’s a matter of political will.
Funding natural places in a rural area seems counterintuitive — after all, many of us have long memories of the East End as a wild place, and land preservation has kept portions of this place wild.
But in unpreserved areas, the East End is already thoroughly suburbanized, and it’s in these densely packed communities, many of which huddle around the edges of the Peconic Estuary, that providing backyard habitat can have the greatest impact. If wild creatures can find a path through your property, they can make their way where they are going, like the monarchs, at rest in the scrub of cedar on an outcropping of old concrete ballast at the edge of the water, awaiting a gentle breeze to carry them to some new garden cared for, perhaps, by a gardener who cares as much as the ones along this shore.
These connections sustain us all, and they will only become more vital to protecting our planet in the years ahead.