For close to a decade I’ve been documenting the plants and the animals that can be found in our yard, a rectangular lot in the city of Northfield, Minnesota. This is not a grand project, but a small, cumulative task, providing a lot of enjoyment and many surprises. Dragonflies, butterflies, bumble bees, mining bees, orchard bees, leaf-cutter bees, great golden digger wasps, grass-carrying wasps, ichneumon wasps, braconid wasps, stoneflies, caddisflies, soldier flies, gall flies, hover flies, crane flies, tree crickets, tiger beetles, may beetles, fireflies, ground beetles, long-horned beetles, lady beetles, jumping spiders, crab spiders, orb-weaver spiders….the list goes on. Just the number and diversity of moths attracted to a light on our garage astonishes; over a single year, well over two hundred different species visited.
Last year a newly married couple moved in next door. One of the first things they did was cut down trees, tear up their yard, and put down sod. Suggesting to the young man of the house the option of perennial grasses, he quipped that he’d really prefer concrete across the entire lot. But they’d be good for insects, I added. To which he answered defiantly, meanly, I hate bugs. I stopped short of answering that I hated people who hated bugs. So the relationship with these neighbors began and withered in a single, short conversation.
This last week these same neighbors began a campaign to rid their yard of weeds and insects, hiring someone to spray herbicides. From the looks of the lawn it seems they were targeting the creeping charlie, applying something on the order of Dicamba (3,6-dichloro-2-methoxybenzoic acid) which goes by the name of Banvel, Diablo, or Vanquish. [Btw “Diablo” seems an honest name!] This was followed a few days later by a second crew, two men in gray shirts with red badges, resulting in a different bouquet of chemicals entering our house through open windows. The men sprayed along the foundation of the house and along a backyard fence, so I’m guessing round two was for insects, possibly spiders or ants. If it was for insects, the chemical would in all likelihood be one of the Pyrethroids. These insecticides kill most insects, which means they kill the beneficial insects along with the targeted pest. (Need I mention that beneficial insects far outnumber the pests probably a thousand to one?) Because insecticides are toxic at very low concentrations, runoff that reaches lake or river or wetland will take out aquatic insects as well…mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies. Many insecticides are toxic to fish as well. Beyond the inconvenience of not being able to enjoy our screened porch while the chemical smell dissipates, I found these actions deeply unsettling. Reflecting upon this immediate, literally in-our-face, spraying, I realized that they were just acting normally, that most everyone else does this to their yards as well. In fact, there’s a thriving industry built around this very habit of destroying plants and animals. A certain local yard service provider even has the gall to use the image of a Monarch butterfly in its advertisements. Perhaps they’re innocent of the knowledge that Monarch butterflies don’t visit lawns. I guarantee they’re not innocent of using herbicides to rid lawns of weeds such as milkweed, the host plant of this butterflies caterpillar.
This destruction, to my mind, is the biological equivalent to burning books. Actually it’s worse. Life can’t be reprinted, rewritten, or given back.
So why, as a culture, do we do this? Where does this deep-seated need for a monotonous expanse of green lawn come from? One thinks of the greens surrounding castles in the old country. The bazillion manicured lawns that appear in movies and television shows…and advertisements for lawn care products. From sales statistics for lawn and garden products, urban residences in the United States apply approximately ten times more chemicals per acre than the Ag industry. Certainly there are phobias involved. Some people, it would seem, think any plant that is not grass is a weed and that weeds are bad, maybe even dangerous somehow. Many people, I know from experience, think all bugs are either woodticks, disease-carrying mosquitoes, or stinging bees and that they are all bent on inflicting pain and suffering the humans. Certainly there’s a lot of ignorance involved as well. At best, it’s a kind of automaton-like habit; our parents did it and now we do it.
Wouldn’t it make more sense, both fiscally and morally, to abandon this habit of yard work? To plant wildflowers and native grasses? To grow more of our own food? To spend our time and money elsewhere?
Everyone is worried about the next big catastrophe, a plague or a meteor from outer space. Unfortunately, the truth is far worse; we, ourselves, are the next big catastrophe. Habitat loss, climate change, poverty, starvation, extinction…all these big, global problems, start in our own backyards.
In my darker moods, as currently brought on by this reflection of nearby chemical application, it seems my labor to learn the names of the plants and animals is no more than a preparation for a kind of memorial. Let’s see how it looks. These are the names of animals observed in our yard. Imagine polished, black granite with these names chiselled in Roman caps:
ACANALONIA CONICA, ACANTHOCINUS OBSOLETUS, ACLERIS ALBICOMANA, ACLERIS NIVISELLANA, ACROLOPHUS ARCANELLA, ACRONICTA AMERICANA, ACRONICTA RETARDATA, AESHNA CANADENSIS, AESHNA INTERRUPTA, AGNORISMA BADINODIS, AGRIPHILA VULGIVAGELLUS, AGROTIS IPSILON, AGROTIS VENERABILIS, ALLAGRAPHA AEREA, ALSOPHILA POMETARIA, AMPHASIA INTERSTITIALIS, AMPHION FLORIDENSIS, AMPHIPYRA PYRAMIDOIDES, ANAGRAPHA FALCIFERA, ANATIS MALI, ANAVITRINELLA PAMPINARIA, ANTERASTRIA TERATOPHORA, ANTICLEA MULTIFERATA, APAMEA HELVA, APHOMIA TERRENELLA, APODA Y-INVERSUM, ARANEIDAE, ARCHIPS ARGYROSPILA, ARCHIPS GRISEA, ARCHIPS SEMIFERANA, ARGYROTAENIA VELUTINANA, ARRHENODES MINUTUS, ATTEVA AUREA, AUTOGRAPHA PRECATIONIS, BAILEYA DORMITANS, BALSA TRISTRIGELLA, BELLURA OBLIQUA, BIBIO FEMORATUS, BISTON BETULARIA, BOMBYCILLA CEDRORUM, BRACONIDAE, CAENURGINA ERECHTEA, CALLOPISTRIA MOLLISSIMA, CAMPAEA PERLATA, CAPSULA OBLONGA, CATHARUS GUTTATUS, CATOCALA BLANDULA, CATOCALA GRYNEA, CECIDOMYIINAE, CELIPTERA FRUSTULUM, CEPAEA NEMORALIS, CERASTIS TENEBRIFERA, CERATOMIA UNDULOSA, CERMA CERINTHA, CHAULIODES RASTRICORNIS, CHLOROCHLAMYS CHLOROLEUCARIA, CHORISTONEURA ROSACEANA, CHRYSOTEUCHIA TOPIARIUS, CICINDELA SEXGUTTATA, COPIVALERIA GROTEI, CORVUS BRACHYRHYNCHOS, CORYLUS AMERICANA, CORYPHISTA MEADII, COSMOPTERIX PULCHRIMELLA, COSTACONVEXA CENTROSTRIGARIA, CRAMBUS AGITATELLUS, CUCULLIA ASTEROIDES, CURCULIONIDAE, CYCLOPHORA PACKARDI, CYDIA LATIFERREANA, DANAUS PLEXIPPUS, DARAPSA MYRON, DEIDAMIA INSCRIPTUM, DESMIA, DOLICHOVESPULA MACULATA, EBURIA QUADRIGEMINATA, ECTROPIS CREPUSCULARIA, ELAPHRIA VERSICOLOR, ELLIDA CANIPLAGA, ELOPHILA OBLITERALIS, EMMELINA MONODACTYLA, ENNOMOS MAGNARIA, EPIBLEMA OTIOSANA, EPINOTIA VERTUMNANA, ERANNIS TILIARIA, ERISTALINAE, ETHMIA ZELLERIELLA, EUCOSMA DORSISIGNATANA, EUCOSMA TOCULLIONANA, EUDRYAS GRATA, EULITHIS GRACILINEATA, EUPHYIA INTERMEDIATA, EUPITHECIA MISERULATA, EUPLEXIA BENESIMILIS, EUPOGONIUS TOMENTOSUS, EUPSILIA MORRISONI, EUPSILIA VINULENTA, EUSARCA CONFUSARIA, EUTRAPELA CLEMATARIA, EUXOA VELLERIPENNIS, FELTIA HERILIS, FELTIA JACULIFERA, FORFICULA AURICULARIA, GALGULA PARTITA, GASTERUPTION, GEINA PERISCELIDACTYLUS, GLUPHISIA SEPTENTRIONIS, GLYPHONYX, GRAPHOCEPHALA COCCINEA, HABROSYNE SCRIPTA, HAEMATOPIS GRATARIA, HELICOVERPA ZEA, HELLINSIA KELLICOTTII, HERPETOGRAMMA ABDOMINALIS, HERPETOGRAMMA PERTEXTALIS, HESPERUS APICIALIS, HETEROCAMPA BIUNDATA, HETEROPHLEPS TRIGUTTARIA, HOMOPHOBERIA APICOSA, HORISME INTESTINATA, HOSHIHANANOMIA OCTOPUNCTATA, HYLES LINEATA, HYPAGYRTIS UNIPUNCTATA, HYPENA DECEPTALIS, HYPENA MADEFACTALIS, HYPENA SCABRA, HYPOPREPIA FUCOSA, HYPSOPYGIA OLINALIS, ICHNEUMONIDAE, IDIA AEMULA, IDIA AMERICALIS, IDIA LUBRICALIS, ISOPERLA BILINEATA, ISTURGIA DISLOCARIA, LACINIPOLIA RENIGERA, LASCORIA AMBIGUALIS, LEBIA FUSCATA, LEONURUS CARDIACA, LETHOCERUS AMERICANUS, LEUCONYCTA DIPHTEROIDES, LEUCOSPIS AFFINIS, LIBELLULA QUADRIMACULATA, LIRIS, LITHOPHANE ANTENNATA, LYGROPIA RIVULALIS, LYTTA AENEA, MACARIA AEMULATARIA, MACARIA TRANSITARIA, MACHIMIA TENTORIFERELLA, MACRONOCTUA ONUSTA, MALACOSOMA AMERICANUM, MALIATTHA SYNOCHITIS, MEGACHILE, MEGANOLA MINUSCULA, METANEMA INATOMARIA, MICROCRAMBUS ELEGANS, MICROMUS POSTICUS, MICROPEZIDAE, MORRISONIA CONFUSA, MORRISONIA EVICTA, MYCETOPHILA, MYTHIMNA UNIPUNCTA, NABIS, NADATA GIBBOSA, NEMATOCAMPA RESISTARIA, NEOPYROCHROA FEMORALIS, NEOXABEA BIPUNCTATA, NEPHELODES MINIANS, NICROPHORUS ORBICOLLIS, NOCTUA PRONUBA, NOMOPHILA NEARCTICA, OCHROPLEURA IMPLECTA, ODONTOMYIA, OECANTHUS FULTONI, OLETHREUTES FASCIATANA, OLETHREUTINAE, OPEROPHTERA BRUCEATA, OPHIONINAE, OREOTHLYPIS PEREGRINA, ORGYIA LEUCOSTIGMA, ORTHONAMA OBSTIPATA, ORTHOSIA HIBISCI, OSMIA LIGNARIA, OSTRINIA NUBILALIS, OTHOCALLIS SIBERICA, PALEACRITA VERNATA, PALPITA MAGNIFERALIS, PALTHIS ANGULALIS, PAPAIPEMA FURCATA, PAPILIO GLAUCUS, PARALLELIA BISTRIARIS, PARAPOYNX BADIUSALIS, PASIPHILA RECTANGULATA, PASSERINA CYANEA, PEDIASIA TRISECTA, PERIDROMA SAUCIA, PERO HONESTARIA, PHALAENOPHANA PYRAMUSALIS, PHALAENOSTOLA METONALIS, PHEOSIA RIMOSA, PHIGALIA STRIGATARIA, PHIGALIA TITEA, PHILODROMIDAE, PHOBERIA ATOMARIS, PHRYGANEIDAE, PHYLLODESMA AMERICANA, PHYLLOPHAGA, PHYMATODES AEREUS, PIMPLINAE, PLAGIOMIMICUS PITYOCHROMUS, PLAGODIS PHLOGOSARIA, PLATYPOLIA MACTATA, PLATYPTILIA CARDUIDACTYLUS, PLEUROPRUCHA INSULSARIA, PLUTELLA XYLOSTELLA, POECILE ATRICAPILLUS, PONOMETIA ERASTRIOIDES, PRENOLEPIS IMPARIS, PROCHOERODES LINEOLA, PROTEOTERAS AESCULANA, PROTODELTOTE MUSCOSULA, PSAPHIDA ELECTILIS, PSEUDEUSTROTIA CARNEOLA, PSEUDEXENTERA MALI, PSEUDOHERMONASSA BICARNEA, PYRAUSTA BICOLORALIS, PYRRHARCTIA ISABELLA, REDUVIUS PERSONATUS, REGULUS SATRAPA, RHAGOLETIS SUAVIS, SAPERDA VESTITA, SCARITES, SCIOTA VETUSTELLA, SCOPARIA BIPLAGIALIS, SCOPULA LIMBOUNDATA, SETOPHAGA CORONATA, SETOPHAGA PALMARUM, SETOPHAGA PENSYLVANICA, SETOPHAGA STRIATA, SITTA CAROLINENSIS, SPARGALOMA SEXPUNCTATA, SPARGANOTHIS PULCHERRIMANA, SPERANZA PUSTULARIA, SPERANZA SUBCESSARIA, SPHECOMYIELLA VALIDA, SPILOSOMA VIRGINICA, SPIZELLA PASSERINA, SPODOPTERA ORNITHOGALLI, STEATODA BOREALIS, SUNIRA BICOLORAGO, SYMPETRUM OBTRUSUM, SYMPETRUM VICINUM, SYNCHLORA AERATA, SYNDEMIS AFFLICTANA, SYRPHIDAE, TEGENARIA DOMESTICA, TETRACIS CACHEXIATA, TIBICEN CANICULARIS, TORTRICIDAE, TOSALE OVIPLAGALIS, TRICHOPLUSIA NI, UDEA RUBIGALIS, ULMUS AMERICANA, UROLA NIVALIS, VANESSA ATALANTA, VESPULA MACULIFRONS, VITULA EDMANDSII, XANTHORHOE FERRUGATA, XANTHORHOE LACUSTRATA, XESTIA DOLOSA, XESTIA SMITHII, XYLESTHIA PRUNIRAMIELLA, YPONOMEUTA, YPSOLOPHA DENTELLA, ZALE GALBANATA, ZANCLOGNATHA JACCHUSALIS, ZELUS LURIDUS, ZONOTRICHIA ALBICOLLIS
While by and large the chemical approach to lawn work continues unabated, there does seem to be an increase in more natural, insect friendly approaches. All I have to do is look to the other side of our property. These neighbors have no lawn whatsoever, just flower beds and rock gardens and unmown ground cover. It’s beautiful. More and more homes around town have mini prairie patches in their front yards. And there are increasing numbers of vegetable gardens and chicken coops. Our yard falls somewhere in between, with about a third of the area in grass that is mowed with a hand mower. There’s room for improvement. I can see now that it needs to be even more insect friendly, provide even more of a refuge. Maybe a rain garden. A border of thistle. Something that aids the natural world, rather than subtracts from it.