I’m selling a portion of my father’s 20 acres, although it is technically mine now, my father having deeded it to me last week.  With a signature, I have become the owner of my mystical childhood home, even if I have been entrusted to manage it so as to support my father in his decline.  Still, there are parts that will never sell, that no one would want for they are wetlands, and no one wants to own one despite all of the current hew and cry over saving them. Just try to find a buyer for a five acre palustrine wetland. No takers here.

The buyers who approached me want a dry section of Douglas fir forest for a beautiful new house. As I walked the piece last night, I saw not a home site but all of the things that I’ve been trained to look for as a biologist. I found woodland strawberries, yellow wood violets, vanilla leaf, and service berry. There were several varieties of sedges, and miterwort. To my surprise, I discovered a tall red maple that had escaped from cultivation years before and become a leggy specimen wending its way up through the taller trees. Out of an old rotting stump a healthy hemlock sapling grew – not many of these left here. I listened to the rain fall with a soft patter on the wet leaves, long before I could feel it on my face.

I was in despair over the loss of these living things. I had wanted to keep them all for myself although I am dedicated to generating income for my father who suffers more greatly now from dementia. Several of the herbaceous species are indeed quite rare on the other 18 acres which have been heavily disturbed over the years and grow mostly weedy species. My father, a product of a generation who saw the leveling of forests as progress, likes clearing out new places and recently took out a lush patch of woods with trillium and a few other plants now rare to nonexistent elsewhere on the property. It pains me to see this happen. I often feel, as I once did with my career, that I serve other masters besides myself, and if I gave up this habitat for whatever the cost, I would somehow be happier.

How do I educate people about what I can see that so few others do? What if we spent less energy pondering the larger issues of global warming too difficult to see and too complex to grasp, and looked at the ground beneath our feet? Visual connections have greater impact, I believe, for a species such as ours. Care for what you can see and the notion spreads out to other good causes, maybe even an appreciation of the natural world and a cultivation of the habits of good land stewardship.  What if I asked the buyers to walk with me over their new acreage and introduce them to plants they’d likely never see otherwise? Would it induce them not to level the entire lot before building? Might they consider saving as much native woodland and soil as possible?

We are creatures of habitat and devote our days to faithfully recreating the environments with which we are familiar. Planning departments foster a cloned approach to everything, as do builders and road engineers and a host of others with no training or interest in science. Thus, we believe that to build a house we must first clear the lot of every last scrap of vegetation to make room for the heavy equipment that compacts the soil and destroys the roots of the trees left standing. With the house securely built, we recreate our vision of the ideal landscape in the European fashion by hauling in dirt and planting lawns surrounded by non-native species which may or may not survive with the aid of regular gardeners and the judicious application of chemicals. No native plants survive; instead, an enlightened few may restock a few selected favorites from local nurseries.

Here’s my approach: find a place to put the house. Clear only enough room for the access and the home and perhaps a patch of yard. If you want sunny spaces, buy land on ridgetops; don’t level a forest to create a beach.  Protect trees with fencing; identify and protect uncommon plant populations, forbs in particular; discourage soil removal. Minimize the footprint. Watch the contractors and enforce care in using heavy equipment and minimizing trash. Keep the places where the trilliums grow, and maintain habitat for ground nesting birds.

It matters, believe me, it really does. Here in Western Washington where plant diversity is not so great, there are comparatively common species now seldom seen because of ground disturbance. Even my father’s activties are enough to wipe out entire populations of rhizomatous (root spreading) plants that won’t come back without an adjacent source.  Instead, random land clearing creates zones suitable for the weedier species such as trumpet vine, dewberry, and a host of non-natives like Himalayan blackberry. To have biodiversity, we have to minimize disturbance, and we have to do it on our own land. Assuming that a few government parks and reserves will suffice is not enough. Those are mere life rafts in a churning sea of destruction. Everybody has to be in on this.

I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to approach these people and show them what I know of this place. Perhaps they’ll politely decline, or politely take me up on it and humour me with nods and smiles until I get off their land and let them do as they please. Yet it might do me good to acknowledge my own beliefs once in a while, as conveniently as I subjugate them to the needs of others. It could make a difference, if only to me.

A Loss of No Small Magnitude

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