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Guestwords: Hope vs. Despair

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 18:36

It is so hard to not give in to the temptation of despair. Economic inequity, bigotry, political regression, war. These often obscure yet are connected to the existential threat to our planet. Climate change ricocheting between landscapes in flames and communities or countries inundated with flooding water. These extreme events push populations to seek safer ground. Economic survival somewhere else. And that movement triggers nativist responses everywhere.

Another track of bad news keeps warning us about extinction in the animal world, including the catastrophic collapse of birds, insects, and pollinators. When will we reach the point of imploding food production because the pollinators are gone? But just when we think we can’t absorb any more anxiety, we are treated to news articles about our poisoned drinking waters, or disappearing water.

Last year a group of us — neighbors, friends, new acquaintances — decided to tackle our despair with action in a landscape we love — East Hampton and eastern Long Island. Action equals hope, we told ourselves. We cannot seem to solve the global challenge at a macro level, but we can start to act, now, locally.

We started right where we stood — in our own yards. We saw the ecological desert of turf lawns and the killing machine that so much of lawn maintenance supports. Besides the stolen habitat, there are those mowers, blowers, pesticides, and fertilizers. The latter two end up in our water, our bays. That’s after all the reckless watering those lawns require. More water is required for lawns than for some of our agricultural crops.

We are agitating for the restoration of a healthy ecosystem that has been lost. We are promoting the planting of native plants, grasses, trees, and ground covering. We hope to convince others that we can rebuild a bio-diverse, sustainable, and resilient habitat on our own properties.  

To do this work we are learning a lot. About native plants, about soil, about pollinator cycles. About leaves. About how native plants and grasses aid in carbon sequestration while cleaning toxins from the soil and water underground. Turf lawn roots are only an inch or so deep, while native plant roots can reach down as much as 15 feet!

We learned that some native trees and plants act as keystones supporting hundreds of species of caterpillars that are the main food for birds and their young. In order to allow the caterpillars to morph through their cycle of transformation, we need to leave the leaf coverage on the ground, especially below trees. That’s why we recommend that our town government ban leaf blowers, especially in winter when the insects are doing their transformative dance in and below those leaves.

There are great prophetic voices who have been trying to teach us about this miraculous cycle. About the eco-service functions of plants and insects. Messages we need to pay attention to about native plants and trees and how they create a complex universe with birds and insects and other animals.

I have been reading essays by the late Barry Lopez, environmentalist, traveler, and author. We must have patience and pay attention, Lopez advises. We must learn to love one another and love the Earth. All of it — creatures, plants, insects, and birds. The diversity. Learning. Loving. And maybe, just maybe, we can help to slow down this freefall.

Another prophetic voice, Doug Tallamy — entomologist, author, and lecturer — has founded the Homegrown National Park movement. If everyone in the country who has a yard, or balcony or terrace, can turn at least half of it into a garden of native and pollinator plants and trees, we can create a nationwide biodiverse park larger than all of our federal parks combined.

Another idea that seized our imaginations is the pollinator pathway — a trail of former yards and terraces, public and town properties, outdoor spaces for houses of worship, businesses, and schools — now filled with plants that provide the fuel and pollen for our pollinators.

Our group, ChangeHampton, proposed a large community pollinator garden in front of East Hampton Town Hall to jump-start a pollinator pathway and found a kindred spirit in Peter Van Scoyoc, the town supervisor. We found a local mentor who has been working on this mission much longer than we have — Edwina von Gal at the Perfect Earth Project, and a pollinator garden designer, Abby Clough Lawless of Farm Landscape Design. Individual residents and local businesses began pledging financial and material support. Local students have offered to volunteer. Today, Thursday, Oct. 27, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony at the garden.

And guess what? These projects are filled with pleasures — learning, beauty, and joy. Scientists and master gardeners have done much of the investigative work for us. First, though, we need to acknowledge the world we have so disturbed and destroyed and imagine something completely different, that embraces the interconnectedness of nature. And ourselves as part of it. Lopez would add: the divine in ourselves and nature.

There are concepts of exotic, imported beauty that will continue to seduce us. While we don’t need to be purists, our pollinators and birds require our native plants to survive and regenerate. For our community pollinator garden we are working on the 70-percent native goal.

This summer my husband and I planted at least a dozen species of native plants in our yard (like many yards, filled with good news and bad re: native versus exotics and invasives) — milkweed, joe-pye weed, asters, echinacea or coneflowers, Lobelia cardinalis or cardinal flowers, and many more. Not only were they glorious as they evolved and bloomed, but watching the bees, insects, butterflies, and birds gorge and caress them provided addictive pleasures.

Hope. Rather than despair. Hope isn’t about naïveté or ignorance. We all know there are powerful forces, interests, and habits that will push back at our vision.

Tallamy stated recently, “All of us who are not Indigenous, who are part of Settler America, we have this idea that ‘we have rights.’ On the other hand, the Indigenous will respond: ‘We have obligations.’ ”

Well, that may sound simplistic, but I heard similar words from Audrey Shenandoah (of the Eel Clan of the Onondaga tribe) in a PBS documentary, “Spirit and Nature,” that I directed more than 25 years ago. Shenandoah spoke about the lessons she received from her elders as a child. “We were always given instructions that although we can use nature, to use it rightly and give something back.” In that same film the Dalai Lama told us, “Having compassion for nature involves responsibility.”

What we need is a new ethic for the planet.

Since settlers arrived in the Americas we have been chopping, clearcutting, poisoning, developing, paving over, extracting, and controlling the natural world. That process continues here on eastern Long Island. We just have to look around and we see what we have wrought. Yet we also look around and see the divine in the light off the water, the shorebirds, the walking dunes, the grasses, beach plums and pines, the oak forests of Northwest Woods, the sublime harbors and omnipotent ocean beaches.

We can make a decision to do something now in the landscapes where we live, work, play, and pray. Our survival is all bound up together with the web of life that surrounds us of which we are only one part.

Gail Pellett is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and author. She lives part time on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. More information is at

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