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The Absent Steward
What if staying away is half the point?
Although we have several people coming and going all winter from Puddock Hill and looking over things, Pam and I were on extended stay in the Southwest desert and missed the early movement of the symphony of spring.
We were not there to catch the crocuses in flower or to see the daffodils bloom. We missed the early magnolias and dogwoods, the Virginia bluebells and squill, the Virginia spring beauties. We caught the tail end of the redbud show and missed the peak flowering time of all the witch-alder (Fothergilla) that we planted two summers ago. Here’s a witch-alder looking beautiful by the tenant house:
Some of the plants I mentioned above are not native, and daffodils are increasingly considered invasive, but they all carry emotional resonance as signs of spring. More important, the native plants, those few I mentioned above as well as a dozen others, serve vital purposes for the early arthropods that undergird our ecosystem.
I’ll report another day on what I found when I got home, but missing the early blooms got me thinking about whether my presence matters to the wild things at all.
I have thrown around the term “rewilding” now and then, but until humans disappear from Earth or at least abandon Eastern Pennsylvania, neither our property nor any place around it will qualify as truly wild.
Poking around the web, I came across the 2012 slides from a Wilderness Ranger Academy presentation conducted by the United States Forest Service. It quotes the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In the U.S., there are only 110 million acres left that meet this definition, less than six percent of 1.9 billion acres in the lower 48 states, and we can be sure that neither Puddock Hill nor its environs qualifies.
What we have is not suburban exactly, but it is not wild either. It’s a landscape managed to support nature. This includes certain interventions we have undertaken to promote native flora and fauna, for example, such as fencing out deer and working to remove invasive species. It includes reduced mowing (happy coming No Mow May!), biological and physical interventions to keep pond algae in check, and many other things.
But it also includes doing something sort of wild: leaving things alone.
As backyard stewards, we monitor the landscape we’re cultivating, but we don’t watch it. How could we? Almost everything nature does happens out of our immediate observation, because we are hardly ever in most spots in the landscape, and most places we go we don’t stay for very long. Even those with small yards will spend little or no time inside the hedge or standing under the tree at the perimeter. Those of us fortunate enough to have a bit more land to manage tend mostly to see those things just off the well-trod path, and the animals in our vicinity often flee or hide the moment they set eyes upon us.
This is all to the good. The difference between backyard stewards and conventional gardeners is that we don’t manage our landscape solely for us. We also manage it for them—the wild things. The seen and the unseen.
The Forest Service slides listed five “Qualities of Wilderness Character”:
Wilderness ecological systems are substantially free from the effects of modern civilization.
Wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.
Wilderness retains its primeval character and influence, and is essentially without permanent improvement or modern human occupation.
Wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from the actions of modern human control or manipulation.
Wilderness “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” (Wilderness Act, Sec 2c).
No, I’m not tearing down the house or turning off the electricity, but while we don’t manage a true wilderness, the elements of true wilderness can still inspire us. What we get in return for leaving nature alone goes beyond the beauty we experience when we lightly pass through. It includes ecosystem services that yield cleaner air and water, preserve genetic diversity, and sustain natural systems on which human health depends.
Among the latter is carbon sequestration. A recent article in Forbes magazine called attention to a study that concluded, “protecting wildlife and restoring their populations around the world could supercharge ecosystem carbon sinks and thereby significantly enhance carbon capture and storage.”
None of the nine wildlife populations studied (marine fishes, whales, sharks, gray wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, African forest elephants, and American bison) has any relevancy to a piece of property in southeast Pennsylvania, no matter how ambitious its owners. And, in any case, carbon sequestration is the ultimate unseen thing, invisible until its dramatic consequences reveal themselves in houses swept away by rising tides or reduced to ashes by increasingly intense wildfires.
Still, the study reveals a broader truth. Preservation and restoration of wildlife matter, and the contribution that nature makes to our wellbeing happens largely out of sight.
So I’m sad that I missed some of the flowers of early spring. But I feel gratified to know that the natural communities we’re promoting at Puddock Hill persist with or without me.
This native white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) decided to spend the day sleeping on our screen door in the desert:
The native palo verde trees we planted in the desert garden began to bloom in mid-April:
Cimarron or blue range sage (Leucophyllum zygophyllum) is native to Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert but grows well in the Coachella Valley, in pots at our house:
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