Homegrown National Park: Making a difference by planting native species

Part Two of a series

MILLERTON — Claire Goodman of Millerton is at the beginning of her interest in planting native flora.

Having attended a screening of “What’s the Rush?,” a film from Homegrown National Park (HNP), a nonprofit based in Sharon, Connecticut, Goodman began to get energized around the concept of making a contribution to ecosystem health.

“I’ve always been very fascinated with larger projects like reseeding meadow — but I was frequently left thinking ‘it’s all too big.’ And then I encountered the idea that even if you only have a little pocket handkerchief of land, you can do something.”

For Goodman, who is on the Climate Smart Task Force in Millerton, having her interests galvanized has already led to a shift in how she sees her lawn and humble porchfront garden.

She’s thinking more actively about which plants to add to the mix; is accepting of a more shaggy, wild, and natural look to her garden; and spends more time thinking about how to connect with and cultivate the nature around her.

“What makes you feel compassion for a bunch of wildlife? What inspires that? Just last night Dolly Parton’s song ‘Wildflowers’ came on. That sort of lyricism, or poetry, can make people feel connected to nature — that they’re not separate from it, but a part of it. I’m from England, and all our gardens are lovely but totally manicured. America still has vast tracts of land that are wild, uninhabited. There’s a real possibility for an initiative like HNP to succeed.”

To HNP’s Michelle Alfandari, people like Goodman are the exact audience she hopes HNP will find and bring into the fold.

“Our main mission is to reach people unaware of what biodiversity is, what the crisis is, and what the solution is. And to do it with an urgency, to encourage fast action and spread it as quickly as possible, because we don’t have time.”

Time, however, is something that Dee Salomon of Cornwall, Connecticut, has put to effective use.

Sloping down from Route 7 to the Housatonic River, Salomon’s house sits on 15 acres of riverbank, forest, and meadowland. Salomon, who writes the “Ungardener” column in The Lakeville Journal, has undergone a personal and daily quest to rid the land of the invasive plants that once plagued it. Her constant maintenance has been overwhelmingly successful — our walk through the woods was spotted with trillium, devil’s walkingstick, and a whole diversity of native flora. Unlike most land in the region, there was hardly an invasive in sight.

To Salomon, working in the woodland connects her to nature in a profound way. Part meditative practice, part irresistible calling, it has cultivated in her a sense of responsibility to the environment.

“I love the physicality of doing this work, scrambling up trees and through underbrush. It’s where I do my writing. I was on holiday a couple weeks ago and couldn’t write and realized, ‘I’ve gotta be in the woods. I can’t write if I’m not in the woods!’”

The level of care Salomon brings to her property is exemplary in both senses of the word — many people are unable to commit to such a lifestyle. Some, however, will be — and the more people who are reached through initiatives like HNP, the more stewards like Salomon will emerge.

While HNP’s message seems to be spreading effectively — it routinely logs 30,000-40,000 page visits in monthly website traffic — it has been able to find help in partner organizations like the Sharon Land Trust (SLT), which manages 11 public preserves.

Maria Grace, executive director of SLT, showed off the Twin Oaks preserve, a swath of land SLT purchased in 1998 to protect from development. SLT’s mission is mainly that of preservation, and has not traditionally included planting in its land management. Once Alfandari reached out and the two organizations connected, however, Grace agreed that planting a small native planting garden out by the front gate would be a great place to start.

“Our mission is to protect native, natural landscapes, and to improve it for wildlife, improve it for people. That dovetails very nicely into HNP. We’re committed to protecting biodiversity, improving biodiversity, using only native plants when we do plant.”

And on the subject of HNP’s grassroots ambitions, Grace’s 20 year career in conservation has led her to notice changes in public awareness around ecosystem health and native planting that have given her hope. That trend, in her view, means that organizations like HNP are well positioned to help effect change.

“There’s a shift, people are becoming more mindful. It’s not just preaching to the choir anymore…awareness leads to action, and as a national movement, HNP helps with that.”

The importance of biodiversity

For HNP, success hinges around convincing many people, and fast, that issues like biodiversity matter. This, at its heart, can sometimes be a difficult task — the loss of biodiversity occurs on such a profound scale that it can elude tangible comprehension.

The terminology for it, even, can obscure harsh realities. In “What’s the Rush?” Tallamy quotes economic anthropologist Jason Hickel as writing,“‘Biodiversity loss’ is such a strange euphemism for mass destruction of nonhuman beings.”

Take insects, Tallamy’s research specialization. An abundance of research suggests that the world is losing its insects, a phenomenon known as insect biomass decline. Every year, up to 2% of the world’s insects die and are not replaced. This has cascading and catastrophic implications for the stability of food webs — and for humans, the loss of pollinators means the potentially devastating reduction in the productivity of vital food crops like soybeans, apples, and almonds to name a few.

But beyond even the very real implications to the functionality of civilization, future generations lose something subtle and yet vital about the world when its diversity and abundance goes away.

If you grew up in a rural place, your memories are likely filled with the buzzing of wings, the itch of skin feasted on by unseen swarms, the streaking movement of insect bodies swarming under street lamps, the dense spatter of bug goo on the windshield during summer night drives.

As the years add together, and the lack of those things compound, it is as if a bodily sense were slowly dimming.

HNP, in encouraging homeowners to think critically about their gardening habits and land management, strives to connect people with the realities of that kind of loss.

Avalon Bunge and Eli Arnow of Elizaville, New York, with masters degrees in ecosystem restoration and environmental science respectively, steward some 600 acres of family-owned land, much of it former farmland. Planting native plants near their home has always been a part of expressing their connection with nature. Bunge, as we walked through tallgrass in the fields outside her home, put it succinctly.

“It’s this idea of: you protect what you love, and you love what you know.”

Alfandari agreed, “You don’t protect them if you think insects are really creepy. For me, it used to be the case that if I saw a bug in my house I screamed at my husband to kill it. Then, I yelled at him to save it — and now, I save them myself…our mission is to regenerate biodiversity, ASAP. But our tagline is, ‘start a new habitat.’ Having a direct experience with nature will form greater connections, will get the world into a different habit of looking at nature, of what we perceive as a beautiful landscape.”

Michelle Alfandari and Eli Arnow pointing out rehabilitated meadow in Elizaville, N.Y. Photo by Elias Sorich

Dee Salomon walking along her property on the banks of the Housatonic River in Cornwall, Conn. Photo by Elias Sorich

Michelle Alfandari and Eli Arnow pointing out rehabilitated meadow in Elizaville, N.Y. Photo by Elias Sorich

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