“There is a crack, a crack, in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Things fall apart. Sometimes they’re the little things: the doorknob to the attic, the light in the refrigerator, the timer on the clothes washer. Sometimes they’re much harder to replace: trunks that support huge canopies of beloved trees in our backyards or muscles that hold up the physical and emotional weight of our own heads.
Over the past month, all these minor and major breakdowns have come to pass on the little patch of planet my husband and I call home. Just after we discovered an irreparable crack in our old ash tree after some strong-winded storms, I began feeling a pain in the back of my head that quickly felled me for almost three weeks. Many doctors’ visits and scary hypotheses later, I’ve learned the reason: Though I try to stand straight and tall like our old tree did for so many years, bending but not breaking in the face of prevailing winds, the efforts have not been adequate. More often than not, I sink into my shoulders, especially at the computer, spending long hours leaning in the same position toward a world reduced to a 15-by-25-inch screen. Our tree swayed too much and too often; I have not swayed enough.
As I recover with the help of physical therapy and “postural reeducation” (a fancy term for breaking decades of sitting, breathing, sleeping, and lying down incorrectly), I have been feeling like Rip Van Winkle, discovering that even in the span of only a few weeks, much has changed in the garden. The long-awaited joe pye weed blooms are just about to open, while the bee balm that was barely in flower in early July has already exhausted itself into a midsummer mildewed state. The Carolina wren babies have fledged, but the goldfinch families are just getting started. The butterflies we thought would never appear are here in every color and size—tiger swallowtails, monarchs, common buckeyes, fritillaries, clouded sulphurs, red-spotted purples, American ladies, azures, and members of other species who don’t sit still long enough for me to identify them.
Among those willing to pose for my camera, I’ve noticed more wear and tear than I would have expected at this time of year. Like me and the tree, many of these creatures are a little weathered now. Yet even those with only half their wings keep going. Their lives are much shorter than ours; most adult butterflies on this continent live an average of two weeks to a month.
I’m lucky. I get to stick around longer than that, and I don’t have to worry about other animals chomping on me. But this relatively modern comfort that we take for granted is in part responsible for my own tattered state. I sit and write because I can—because I don’t have to fight for survival against predators who want to gobble me whole—and it is both a luxury and a curse.
The butterflies don’t have that choice and can’t head to the urgent care clinic for wing repairs, so they press on until they’ve exhausted themselves. Over the years, their perseverance has inspired me. The animals in the following photo essay aren’t picture-perfect, but their age and experience convey a different kind of beauty—that of creatures who don’t take life for granted or give in to setbacks. Their wings may be torn, but these butterflies are not broken. They are still flying, and still trying. They are survivors.
Postscript: This week, Humane Gardener’s #WeedsNotWeeds series is featured in the Chesapeake Conservancy’s “Trips and Tips.” Be sure to check out this great newsletter, which provides details about fun and informative nature-focused events and activities in the Chesapeake Bay region.
It seemed inevitable that soon enough in the coming months, this continent’s most captivating moth species would once again grace my outdoor spaces. And following a talk by entomologist and garden revolutionary Doug Tallamy last week, it even seemed conceivable that at some point I’d have the privilege of watching them feast on my fledgling woodland phlox.
What I didn’t realize was how quickly that would happen. Only two days after hearing Tallamy practically guarantee a visit from day-flying sphinx moths wherever Phlox divaricata is planted, one zipped past me to treat herself to the tasty spring ephemerals by our patio.
Seeing the tiny hummingbird lookalike so early in the season was magical, but her attraction to the pretty purple flowers shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Native plants are like that, beckoning their animal paparazzi before we can even get them in the ground. It’s why I’d chosen this species last fall—to provide blooms for early pollinators and spring salve for my own winter-sore eyes.
What took me aback, though, was the specificity of the visit. This wasn’t just any pollinator; it was exactly what Tallamy had predicted, and on the very native plant he had shown us in his presentation to Maryland’s Howard County Master Gardeners. It was as if he’d made a pit stop at my home and conspired with the moths to orchestrate the whole event.
He hadn’t, of course, and that’s the point of the powerful message he’s been sending to the gardening public for nearly a decade, first through his 2007 book, Bringing Nature Home, and now through The Living Landscape, coauthored with Rick Darke. Nature evolved over millennia to create this and many other specialized relationships, he argues, so our role is to restore and nurture these plant and animal communities if we’re going to save enough biodiversity for a livable planet.
In the case of woodland phlox, it spreads readily from seed, but not unless it’s pollinated. And because of its narrow corolla, only an especially long proboscis can accomplish the task. “I’ve watched many bees land on those flowers and try to get their tongues into it, but they can’t do it,” Tallamy said. “It’s too small a hole.”
It’s just right for the snowberry clearwing moth he captured in his photo, though, and for the closely related hummingbird clearwing moth I captured in mine. And while the phlox may need these adult moths more than they need the phlox—clearwings dine on the nectar of other flowering species—the interdependencies don’t stop there. Clearwing moth caterpillars, like most other insects, rely completely on a limited palette of plants to survive.
In fact, 90 percent of the insects who eat plants are specialists, meaning they have evolved in concert with only a few plant lineages. That has critical implications for our terrestrial bird species, 96 percent of whom rely on insects, spiders, and other arthropods to feed their young.
“This is news to a lot of people,” said Tallamy. “It’s news to the people who write ‘landscape for birds’ books. You can read those books, and they’ll all tell you how to put plants that make seeds and berries in your yard. And that’s good to make seeds and berries. But if you don’t have the plants to make the insects, you don’t even have the birds to make the seeds and berries for later on in the season. So we need to put the plants that are making insects in our yards as well.”
Over the past half-century, as we’ve sprayed and chopped and mowed down those life-sustaining flora, we’ve inflicted incalculable losses on the fauna who depend on them. In just 40 years, bird numbers have dropped by 50 percent. More than 230 bird species are on a watch list for possible extinction. As of last winter, monarch butterfly numbers were down by 96.4 percent of their population size in 1976. Some other species of butterflies and bees are either on their way to extinction or thought to be already gone, their declines so precipitous that even the White House is intervening. Our frogs are in trouble, our watersheds suffocating from decades of uncontrolled runoff from crops and lawns.
As bleak as it sounds, the trend is not inevitable. Collectively, one homeowner at a time, we can start to reconnect whatever fragmented habitats are left. Each time we choose a new plant for our yards, Tallamy advised, we should ask: How are we saving our pollinators? How are we sequestering carbon and repairing the damage done by chopping down so many of our forests? How are we contributing to the food web that starts with the insect specialists?
“This is the single most important thing you can do to stop the steady drain of species from our neighborhoods,” Tallamy said. ” … We need to raise the bar about what we’ve asked our landscapes to do. In the past we’ve asked them to be pretty. We’re good at that. But these days we’re going to have to ask them to support life. Because if we build lifeless landscapes at home, we’re going to lose the biodiversity that runs our ecosystems.”
In our own garden, this challenge has meant inserting native plants into the lifeless lawn my husband and I were faced with when we moved in 15 years ago—just 2.25 acres of the 45 million and counting that are covered over in unsustainable turfgrass across the U.S. It has meant removing invasives that take over habitat while encouraging natives that pop up on their own—the milkweed, the sassafras, the oaks, the hickories, the boneset, the violets, the sumacs, the black walnuts, the common evening primrose—to bloom where they’re planted. And it has meant learning to celebrate the holes in the leaves and the beetles on the flowers and the messy little webs and tents that signal the presence of our forgotten baby insects.
I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always understood the interactions at play. My nurturing of the entire lifecycle of day-flying sphinx moths was only broadly intentional, in that I knew native landscaping would at least help someone crawling or flying or hopping through my garden. I just didn’t always know whom. But as I would come to learn long after planting our coral honeysuckle more than a decade ago, the vine isn’t just a nectar and fruiting plant for pollinators and birds; it also feeds the caterpillars of the snowberry clearwing moth and the spring azure butterfly. Even the leaves we’ve left undisturbed below those vines—out of a sense that tiny creatures might take cover and feed there—have a role to play, sheltering pupae during the long winters.
Some people admire the wild beauty my husband and I have gradually tried to restore on our property, replete with incongruous-looking species like viburnum and milkweed and invasive Bradford pear seedlings emerging side by side. Those who can tolerate the concept of a landscape in transition have even asked us to help them in their own gardens. But the truth is that we’ve had little to do with the most wondrous things happening here. Nature swept in and made it largely by herself. All we needed to do was learn when to get out of the way and give her a fighting chance.
I once asked my husband if he’d like to move The Thinker to a more conspicuous spot. Should we set him atop the stone wall, I wondered, so we could admire his deep thoughts up close? Or what about in the meadow, where he’d rise above the blooms and keep sage watch over the bumblebees?
“I like him where he is,” Will replied, and despite the lack of explanation, his answer made sense in a way I couldn’t yet name.
Neither of us knew how The Thinker had spent his life before taking his perch in a grove of sassafras trees that leads to our backyard. And theories still vary about the manner in which he was rescued from his ignoble beginnings. Will remembers finding him on our property 15 years ago, among the discarded golf balls and plastic toys and deteriorating plant containers left behind by the previous homeowners. I remember Will finding him in the dumpster at our last apartment.
Whatever his origin story, The Thinker now rests on the base of a long-gone broken birdbath, surveying the evolving landscape and, in my mind anyway, quietly pondering the larger meaning of habitat destruction and unchecked human existence.
He’s not an original, of course. But unlike his dozens of monumental counterparts gracing public spaces around the world, our little Thinker doesn’t tower above us. We put him on a pedestal, to be sure, but it stands less than two feet tall. Even among the small trees by our patio, he looks like a fallible being stopping to rest in a forest of giant sequoias.
Recently I tried to enter a similar state of peaceful contemplation, sitting in the front yard with my camera to capture the early-emerging mourning cloak butterfly who’d been basking near an elm tree for days. He wasn’t cooperating, flitting into view every 20 minutes or so but not nearby enough for his closeup. Whenever I followed his lead, he’d vanish over the roof, decamping into the backyard.
Eventually my mind wandered. What was the name again of that little tree a few feet away that I’d planted last year? How tall would it get? Did I put it in too much shade? And who could help me figure out how to chase butterflies? Would one of my photographer friends have any tips? What kind of lens should I use?
Somewhere in between Googling tree identification sites, texting my friends, and losing track of my original mission, I felt a tickle on my knee. I moved my head slightly to see what it was—just in time to watch the object of my affection flying off.
Though I never managed to capture more than the indistinguishable backside of the one who got away, he gave me something better than a photo op: a reminder that it’s all too easy to let our impatience and endless search for distraction overshadow the interesting treasures right in front of our noses—or on our knees or at our feet.
This mindless neglect of the natural world in favor of our machines is a well-documented cultural epidemic. It’s also a private struggle for many of us who sense in some primal way that the prevailing, cubicle-filled lifestyle of flashing screens, recycled air, piped-in white noise, and endless instant messaging was designed more for robots than for living beings. We are animals, too, after all, and in our quest to dominate the planet we’ve somehow forgotten that we are a part of that planet. We’ve lost our senses in more ways than one.
I’ve spent the past four months trying to gain some of those senses back. As my mind emerges from a corporate office-induced fog that was two decades in the making, the plants and animals I’ve missed over the long winter months have been emerging alongside me. So has a deeper understanding of what I need to do to help them. The ability to consider their needs more carefully—and to see the bluebird peeking out of her house and the garter snake moving through the grass and the bee entering the small hole of her nest—was always there, just as it is in all of us. But cultivating that ability to its deserved fullest is a process of unlearning the false imperatives of a modern world that stifles imagination.
I now understand why Will wanted to keep The Thinker in his dappled shade, nestled in the disturbed landscape we are slowly restoring for wildlife. Our stoic statue is more of an inspiration there among the trees than he would be if he were looking down at us from a lofty seat on high. When we ponder him pondering his surroundings, we see what he sees—the potential of the trees and the soil and the circling birds. His presence is a reminder that though we are just small specks on this planet, we are not helpless or alone. And that we have an obligation to ensure our fellow creatures never feel that way either.
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” —Albert Camus
It took me a long time to appreciate the beauty of subtraction. As a new gardener years ago, I always yearned for more. More flowers, more color, more lushness, more everything.
As with so many outsized cravings, this lust for proliferation resulted in an imbalance in my yard. Focusing on all the colorful things I could readily see in summer, I often neglected the subtler but perhaps even more significant elements of creating a dynamic wildlife garden: the leaves of host plants for insect specialists, the tree snags for cavity-nesting birds, the seed heads that provide sustenance when temperatures drop, the brush piles and leaf litter where countless creatures take shelter and breed.
These things weren’t banished from my spaces; they just weren’t high enough on my list of priorities for me to even notice, much less encourage.
While I age along with the property, I have gained new appreciation for the reminders issued by nature during these dark days. In winter we can view the world without distraction, observing as if with X-ray vision the bones of our surroundings. Shedding their extravagant petticoats of summer, the trees reveal the structure of their limbs, and we see through them. Letting go of their rough exteriors, the milkweed pods spill out fluffy promises, and in them we see the shape of things past and the shape of things to come.
Even though it feels like all of nature is retreating, it’s still there. The birds’ struggle to find seeds and insects becomes my struggle. The deer lying in the yard quietly grooming her front paws at dusk isn’t that different from my dog who used to do the same—or from me, for that matter. We all need a safe space and a little sustenance to get us through the day.
These things are obscured from view in the height of summer. Though the leaves are deeply missed now, their absence also gives us a chance for new perspective. Recently I saw in a new, wintry light even more wonders of the season when the Maryland Native Plant Society and the Calvert Nature Society convened a group of sun-starved hikers in search of anything green or interesting at Ward Farm Recreation and Nature Park. Here’s a taste of what we found.
Nature’s candy: Rose bushes near a pond were difficult to identify, so we did what any self-respecting plant lovers would do: We ate them. The hips were somewhat sweet, but the flavor still did not reveal its species.
Why is it called Christmas fern? Though green is scarce in Maryland’s winter palette, we saw a number of these draped along sloping, moist edges and over tree roots. Its name apparently derives from its evergreen nature that makes it available for Christmas decorations. But I prefer the explanation of our hike leader Karyn Molines, chief of Calvert County’s Natural Resources Division and a board member of MNPS: The leaves turn up at the ends like the feet of little Christmas stockings.
A gourmet spread for butterflies: Long after my own patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) spilled its seedy guts to the winds, a few plants in a tree-ringed space of the park were still spreading hope for new life that will support monarch caterpillars and other animals next summer.
Peeling back the layers: A river birch (Betula nigra) growing near a pond punctured the gray landscape with rusty beauty. This swamp-loving species provides food for many animals, including ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and mourning cloak caterpillars. Deer are fans of the leaves and twigs, and other species drink the tree’s sap.
Spiraling into control? In deeming 2015 the Year of the Vine, the Maryland Native Plant Society wants to counteract tree stranglers like the Japanese honeysuckle that made its home here. Instead of planting nonnatives, we should celebrate our own, non-strangling coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), and even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) for their beauty and high wildlife value. Fascinating plants, many vines actually grow toward shade, Molines observed, because they’re looking for trees and structures to climb. In so doing, they conserve energy for producing big leaves instead of trunks. “How can I find someone else to do my work for me,” Molines asked, channeling a vine, “so I can spend all my time eating and having sex?”
What’s in a Name? Here was what we’d come for: a peek at anything green amid the gray and brown landscape. True to its name, spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of few natives that holds its color throughout the winter. Listed as endangered or vulnerable in several northern states and Canada, this little beauty sends up dangling, delicate white flowers in early summer.
Appreciating the architecture of winter: As we stood between a pond and an open meadow, one hiker suggested the idea of planting invasives alongside natives to demonstrate the difference. Molines had a different idea. “This is really what winter looks like in Maryland,” she said. “I’d rather get people used to what things look like.” Many people want year-round color, but what appears to be most alive to our eyes may not be servicing the critical needs of the creatures around us. Nonnative plants generally don’t provide the food and shelter our animal friends need. The more attuned we are to their specialized habitats—and the more accustomed we get to “what things looks like”—the more life we will ultimately sustain.
One day on a stroll through the Sonoran desert, I happened upon the continent’s smallest butterfly, an animal described by professional photographers as “notoriously difficult to find.” Wing to wing, he was the size of my thumbnail, his glittering color pattern discernible only through a zoom lens. At half an inch or less, his species is, in fact, in a tie with several others for the title of smallest butterfly in the world.
My sighting would be more impressive if I could tell you that the Western pygmy blue was on my bucket list for years. That I trekked thousands of miles to spend cold nights and hot days dodging thorns and camping in the shade of a palo verde tree. That I carried just enough water in my pack to keep me alive until I found him.
But the truth is more mundane: To meet this common but rarely seen animal, I did nothing more heroic than heading out the front door for a walk.
Yes, it was a little hot at midday in the suburbs of Scottsdale, where my husband and I were visiting his parents for Thanksgiving. And sure, I did get a thorn stuck, somewhat inexplicably, inside my bra. At some point, the air even got so dry that a contact lens fell apart in my eyeball.
But that was the extent of my hardship on our Arizona vacation. To put it mildly, I don’t have the physical constitution of an extreme explorer. I get cold easily. My name means “full of grace,” but my body does everything in its power to defy the concept. My eyesight is so bad and weird the doctor told me I’m a fascinating subject for her research. I get cranky when I haven’t slept enough, and unfamiliar places tend to make me sneeze, especially while traveling.
So how did I get lucky enough to see an animal rarely spotted even by seasoned enthusiasts in hot pursuit of her kind? And why is a species whose status is described as “demonstrably secure” frustratingly hard to find?
As it turns out, the Western pygmy blue is simply overlooked by human eyes because of his size. He is so small and flies so low that he’s all too easy to pass by. In truth, I almost did the same; my camera can take the credit for catching the first glimpse of him, as I zoomed in on desert marigolds gracing the late-season landscape.
While I hadn’t set out on this trip to find the Western pygmy blue—and had never even heard of the species before—there were a few much larger animals I’d been determined to meet. It wasn’t our first visit to this otherworldly place where desert meets suburbia, but this time would be different. This time, in the land of Mars-like terrain and large backyard mammalian species, I’d put down my work, get up earlier, and never again miss the party with variations on the same theme: “Three bobcats [four javelinas; two roadrunners; a coyote] just walked by the window; too bad you were still [in bed; on your phone; insert other lame non-present behaviors here]!”
Knowing my goals for the trip, my mother-in-law, Loreen, planned numerous outings at times and to places most conducive to sightings, including the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area to find javelinas and the patio of the Tonto Bar & Grill to see coyotes visiting the adjacent golf course. And see javelinas and coyotes we did, though not always in the places we expected; as we left the restaurant, one young javelina was enjoying himself right on the front lawns of local residents.
And isn’t that how it often is? The treasures come when you’re not really looking, and often when you’re closest to home. They come when you’re willing to walk more slowly, see more deeply, and feel more acutely the rhythms of nature in your own backyard. They come when you embrace the idea that little lives matter—are in fact critical—to every other life on the planet. They come when an entire community invests in the notion of maintaining habitat not just for humans but for all animals living in their sphere.
Ninety-nine percent of the planet’s known animal species, the Western pygmy blue included, are smaller than the average bumblebee. To see this tiny butterfly and her fellow native Arizona species up close, I flew to Arizona. But once there, just as here, I had only to step outside the door, where a world of beauty—and small but significant wonders—awaited.*
[As an expression of my gratitude for all creatures during this week of giving thanks, I’d like to celebrate a groundhog who helped heal my heart. This essay was originally published in 2010.]
My dog died during the second week of June, the kindest month, on a table in the vet’s office when she could no longer stand without leaning against walls. On her final ride I could not restrain myself from violating the personal space she normally required, this animal who had always doled out love in short bursts and on her own terms but otherwise demanded a wide perimeter. All I could do was wrap my arms around her sedated, shaking body and hope she knew what I meant.
No one is ever prepared for the emptiness that lies ahead, the split-second moments of forgetting that conjure silhouettes of a dead pet in all her favorite spots. As I would soon come to realize, most of those flashes of wishful thinking would haunt me in the one place Mattiebo and I wanted to be together more than any other: the garden.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that her departure left gaping holes in my life. One was under the deck, where on warm days my wiry pixie dog liked to drum up dramatic dust storms, making her bed in the soft dirt. It was an ongoing project, made more complicated by my husband’s repeated insistence on filling the hole back up again, as he feigned annoyance and predicted the far-fetched calamities that would soon befall us if the dog dug too deeply and disturbed the structural integrity of the deck stairs.
Mattiebo and I liked to feign annoyance back, though we were secretly grateful for his attentiveness, since it wasn’t in our nature to properly care about things like the house falling down around us. She was too busy raising her worshipping nose to the winds and defending our borders. I was too busy ensuring the peppers were planted far enough apart and the sunflower seeds were sprouting.
Periodically our goals clashed, Mattie’s and mine, and she would take her job of scaring school buses and delivery trucks so seriously that she trampled my new plants while running up and down the fenceline and barking ferociously. But the flowers were forgiving and bounced back. And the schoolchildren rode their bikes by on the weekends and laughed.
After she died, I took stock of the evidence of her life and found that I could hardly bear to be in the garden we had cultivated together. Once a source of solace, it became a place of longing. Planted firmly in the tall, drooping grasses were my memories of Mattie peeking out of them, her bandit face topped by what looked like a green Medusa wig. Squirrel sightings seemed odd without the little bright flash in tow—a white-tailed deer appendage of a behind and belly on an otherwise black-and-tan mongrel.
My husband didn’t take it upon himself to fill the holes anymore; they sat for a long while, empty and hopeful, a tribute to an industrious dog with her own inner life. My attempts at gardening grew half-hearted, less a passion than a laborious effort to try to regain something that was gone for good. With my companion missing, I had no one to chat with about the baby worms and the just-waking bees and the kind of day that was in store for us, no one to share the joy of a raccoon sighting or a mysterious crosswind holding the promise of a much needed rain. I had no reason to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and sink my knees and hands into the dirt. In short, the outdoors felt less like a sanctuary of abundance than a reminder of all I had lost.
A year and a half has passed. The metaphorical holes still unfilled, I am a more haphazard gardener, forcing myself into a routine out of habit and obligation and a hope that one day it will help me heal from the death of not only my dog but my cat eight months later. Recently I got my first sign that, as winter approached, it was time for that healing to begin. Going out for a run, my husband saw a woodchuck in the back garden and called me to the window. Munching in the grasses, our unexpected guest appeared to be stocking up, letting his mouth be his guide across the space in zig-zags and circles.
Here was a creature who loved my garden as much as Mattie and I once had. We watched his gentle meanderings until the appearance of a feral cat—and the subsequent noises I issued in an attempt to prevent a fight—sent him scurrying toward a wall made of stacked railroad ties, behind a rhododendron surrounded in summer by ostrich ferns. It’s a place I know well: Cool and dark, the soil enriched for years by pine needles and fallen leaves, it once provided a safety zone where Mattiebo could see and not be seen, keeping watch on her small herd from a distance. Back then a shallow pit in the earth sculpted to conform to a hot mutt’s belly, the area has taken on new dimensions in the shape of a small mound with a carefully crafted entryway, still hidden by vegetation and sheltered enough from the elements for peaceful hibernation.
In that protected spot just beyond our comfortable reach, where she clawed out a sanctuary of her own, one of the holes left behind by my beloved friend has finally been filled.
This essay originally appeared in All Animals magazine, a publication of The Humane Society of the United States.