Ecosystems are massive, useful machines, made largely of biological parts. In a pragmatic and economic sense, they create or provide the raw materials for drinking water, clean air, and food. All of it. When the machines are dismantled, shrunk, or degraded with knockoff parts, they become less productive, and people are obliged to either pay for substitute services or bear the costs of doing without. Moreover, when ecosystems are more intact, they provide people with a variety of psychological benefits. When they’re not working well, people pay a cognitive price.
In much of the US, older cities and towns and established suburbs have been developed all the way to their borders, limiting the amount of wild or semi-wild land and waters to provide these ecosystem services. Green spaces are often small and isolated and are defined by plat maps and deeds, rather than by natural conditions, such as the extent of a wetland, or the full length of a stream. There are good reasons for these patterns of development, but they aren’t without consequences.
At the same time, many green spaces in populated areas are covered with exotic grasses, trees, and other plants that have little if any value for cleaning water or attracting birds and beneficial insects. In the ecosystem machine, these exotic species are ill-fitting, bargain basement replacement parts that look alright but don’t do much. The net result is that these islands of low-grade green space provide only a fraction of the ecosystem services of the wilderness they replaced.
Given the saturation of development within the borders of many of our communities, the only way to restore the community is often one space at a time. By restoring a small space to semi-wild condition, we repair a piece of the ecosystem machine and provide benefits to people. When many people do this at home and in some shared spaces, we begin to create a larger virtual wilderness, within or across the boundaries of our communities. These virtual wildernesses can be nearly invisible, as places restored to a semi-wild state don’t necessarily look semi-wild.
As an integral part of our neighborhoods, these virtual wilderness areas help to undo the problems caused by fragmented habitat, and they increase biodiversity. They provide better ecosystem services to people, contributing to water and air quality, reducing the urban heat-island effect, and making more pleasant places to live. As the number of people restoring places increases, there emerge synergistic benefits, and these ultimately extend to other people who aren’t even participating.
Individuals and communities can do a lot to build a virtual wilderness.
For parents, this is an opportunity to involve kids and create natural spaces at home, at school, or in the neighborhood. Pockets of virtual wilderness encourage kids’ interest in science and promote good mental health. Creating those spaces is an opportunity for kids to get muddy, work for their communities, learn, and feel a sense of accomplishment. Hands-on involvement also helps to raise a generation with an understanding of the practical and aesthetic value of nature, and the skills to maintain and restore it.
For those living in an n-stage suburban wasteland, where Bradford pears, English ivy, crepe myrtles, and common areas of mowed grass extend to the horizon, it may be difficult to divine what naturally grows in your area. The intrepid souls who want to rebuild patches of habitat in urban jungles face essentially the same challenge. But, there’s help in solving this problem.
The National Wildlife Federation offers a great approach to restoring habitat on manageable parcels of land, like backyards, schools, or places of worship. Through its Backyard Habitats, Schoolyard Habitats, and Sacred Grounds Habitats certification programs, NWF provides an approach to planning and accomplishing a habitat restoration project. The scope of each certification is flexible enough to accommodate essentially any budget or project size but can serve as a starting point for a long-term cycle of restoration. Relying on common needs among wildlife – food, water, places for cover, and places to raise young – the programs can be applied in any geographic location.
Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist, has distilled some of the more practical bits of the science of plant-insect interactions into the primer and how-to book, Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy explains how and why native plants, especially native trees, are essential to supporting butterflies and birds. He also offers significant advice on how to maximize the benefits of native plants, even in small spaces.
If you’re completely stumped as to what your community would look like in a wild or semi-wild state, the World Wildlife Fund defines a collection of ecoregions covering the entire planet. An ecoregion describes at a somewhat coarse geographical level the natural plant and animal communities that one would expect to find in any particular place. It’s a starting point before delving into the specific soil, light, and water conditions in a given place. To identify a spot’s ecoregion, WWF offers WildFINDER. While the application is focused on wildlife, it will correlate a place on the map to its ecoregion.
Many of the ecosystem machines are in disrepair, some of them significantly so. We can all do something to help fix them. As Edmund Burke observed,
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.
Photo Credit: Pixabay