April 3, 2022: Nature’s Best Hope (It’s You)

This service may be viewed on YouTube here: MUUC April 3 2022


 This is a true story, based on a narrative I found within Doug Tallamy’s book Nature’s Best Hope. I changed it a little, adding fictional names and some illustrations. 

Once upon a time, let’s say the year 2020, there was a man, let’s call him Ted. 

Ted lived in a lovely suburban town, in a lovely suburban house, and he liked to keep it tidy and beautiful. 

To Ted, the ideal landscape was pruned and mowed, with colors blooming throughout the seasons, always manicured and perfect. Ted considered his large immaculate lawn a sign of respectable neighborhood stewardship. He was doing his part to maintain property values, and to spare his neighbors blowing leaves and dandelion spores.

On the weekends, when he’s not gardening, Ted loves to go walking and hiking. He considers himself a real nature-lover, and being among the trees gives him deep peace of mind.

In spring 2020, however, when Ted was out walking in a local preservation area, he stopped to admire a little stream. It made a lovely little babbly sound. So he bent down to look closer. 

The water was so clear and so  . . . empty. “I don’t get it,” Ted thought to himself. “When I was kid, this stream was full of stuff – tadpoles, dragonflies, minnows, toads, turtles. Where is everything?” Ted’s stomach felt queasy. So he went home.

That afternoon, Ted’s phone rang. It was Ted’s daughter, let’s call her Penny. She doesn’t share Ted’s approach to gardening. In fact she used to lecture him about things like watershed, pollinators, and carbon sequestration, but Ted wasn’t convinced. After a while, they just agreed to disagree. Tonight Penny asked Ted if he would come babysit his grandkids, little Amanda and Teddy. 

“Why, yes, of course,” said Ted. But on the way over, he realized that he’s been babysitting a lot these days, so when he gets to Penny’s, he asked, “Penny, what’s going on? What have you been doing lately?”

“Well, Dad,” she said, “I’ve been volunteering for a group called Monarch Watch. It’s a national organization that promotes the creation and restoration of monarch habitats. We also provide the host and nectar plants needed to rebuild the butterfly populations. All over town, in parks and open spaces and yards when we’re invited, we’ve been planting sunflowers and milkweed and blue asters.

“But why?” said Ted, “Why do you need to do that?”

“Well Dad, because monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweeds, and the adult butterflies really like blue asters, but because nobody plants them anymore, the monarchs are going. In the last 10 years, monarch populations have declined 96 percent. 96 percent.”

Ted thought about the monarchs. He thought about that stream that he’d seen nearby, with no insects in it at all. And he began to wonder  . . . 

The next day Ted called Penny and asked if she might plant a few milkweeds along his back fence. “Of course!” she said, and Penny planted a whole row. 

Just a few days later, Ted called to say he’d seen an egg.

 Then the next day, he phoned to say he’d seen a monarch butterfly. And another and another and another

“I don’t think I have enough food for all the caterpillars,” Ted told Penny. “I need more milkweeds. And some blue asters for the adults!” 

Ted was hooked. The monarchs had awakened his paternal instincts, and he nurtured them as his own. They gave him great joy all summer long.  

A year later, Ted was thrilled to hear, via Monarch Watch, that monarch populations were bouncing back – in 2020 volunteers counted just 2,000 butterflies in all of California. But in 2021, they counted 250,000, a 100-fold increase in just one year. 

Then Ted realized, if he could use his property to help save the monarchs, maybe he could help other species too. He read and learned that because his lawn and all his lovely ornamental plants were not native to his area, they offered nothing, no nourishment at all, to the insects that had evolved to live there too. Ted realized, if he planted native species like milkweeds, native insects would come back, as would the birds that feed on them. 

With careful planting, Ted could help save other endangered species like the zebra swallowtail.  Or the northern cardinal. Or the Carolina chickadee.

 “Oh my!” thought Ted. There is a whole world to discover – or rather, to reintroduce – to my yard. And so he did. He took up half his lawn and planted all sorts of native groundcover, shrubbery and wildflowers. And back came the insects and back came the birds. And with all that nature came a boundless joy, which Ted shared daily with neighbors and friends, children and grandchildren. The end.


Isn’t it just great to be right, to be actually right about something? 

You know when you’re in the middle of an argument with someone, and it feels really heated, but then it turns out you were right, you did predict that thing, you were right all along, and they have to admit it, and you get to do a little victory dance, isn’t that the best?

Well . . . this week I learned again, for the millionth time, that actually it isn’t the best. Sometimes it’s even better to be wrong. 

Because being wrong is where the growth is. That’s when you get to learn something and actually get better in the process.

This week I was wrong. Again. And I’m glad about it.

I was in the recent meeting of our Green Sanctuary team. I had stopped in just to say hi, to say “how are you doing and how can I help you?” 

I knew that they were planning a spring book read, I knew it had something to do with planting native plants, and I knew they had scheduled the book discussion for an upcoming Monday, which is my day off. 

So I was sure . . . I was not going to read this book. No way. I am not a gardener. I do not care about plants. It is not my thing, and you can’t make it my thing. No.

But then Liz Foulser did something surprising. 

She just handed me the book.

You know how when people hand things to you, you just take them? Fliers, coupons, stuff you do not want, when people hand you stuff, you take it, for no good reason. So Liz handed me the book and I took it. Ug.

A week later, the Green Sanctuary team sent out an email. If you run out of time to read the book, they said, just watch this clip on YouTube, the author lays it all out there in an hour. You can get up to speed on the topic and come to the discussion. 

So I sat down in front of youtube and followed the link. The talk was an hour and a half, so I set to play at double speed. Which was amusing. 

But within minutes I was hooked. Just like that guy Ted in our story today. 

Turns out, like Ted, I was wrong about native plants.

I was very wrong. 

Is there a little dance for that?

Doug Tallamy is an entomologist, a professor at the University of Delaware, and the author of this book, among others. He fills his highly engaging YouTube talk with lots and lots of photos so   . . .right at the start, you get pulled in. Pulled in to the story of the acorn beetle. 

It’s a weird looking bug with a very long nose, which it turns out is actually its mouth. It uses that thing, whatever it is, to dig a hole way deep into an acorn and lay its egg there. Then the acorn falls from the tree and that egg becomes a larva that crawls out of the hole and digs its way underground, where it then becomes a pupa.

Cool, right?

What I had never really thought about before, though is how that particular bug evolved here in North America, over the course of thousands of generations, to dig its weird nose/mouth thing into that specific kind of acorn. 

What I had never really thought about before is how specific it all is. If you plant a certain plant, you naturally get the insect that comes with that plants, the one that evolved to eat that plant and that plant only. Then you get the birds that evolved to eat that particular insect and that insect only. And so on and so on and so on.

That’s what nature is. It’s millions and millions of very particular relationships between species because they evolved together, they evolved to be dependent on one another. When you get one, you get that other. If you don’t have the one, you don’t have the other.

That’s how ecosystems work. 

But then the humans came. And they brought plants and they keeping bringing in plants that aren’t from here. Plants that evolved on some other continent, in totally other conditions. And our insects, the ones who live here, now have nothing to eat. And then the birds, the ones that evolved here, now have nothing to eat. 

The average yard in Melrose is now something like 70 or 80 or even 90 percent non-native plants. Even our forests, parks, or local tree stands are now full of non-native plants. 

So that’s why, when you go for a walk in the woods and you look down in the leaves or in the little streams like in the story, you don’t generally see a lot of tadpoles or dragonflies or earthworms or toads or frogs or turtles or birds. Many of them are just gone. 

Do you remember? Do you remember when it was different? I sure do. Now I have always always been a city person, not much a nature person. But I remember very clearly being a kid in a backyard. YOu’d pick up a rock and there would be bugs everywhere. And when I was a kid, I loved bugs. I loved rolly-pollys and earthworms and ants. I could watch them all day. And remember what it was like to catch a frog? Or watch a garden snake slither through your yard. Remember what that was like?

These days, it’s different. Have you noticed?

I have, and I’m not a great noticer. But in the last few years, when I walk in the woods or sit in my backyard, even I have noticed, it’s pretty plain. there is just so much Less . . . Life. Less life of all kinds. Everywhere. 

So now you want the numbers. How much have we lost, you ask. Well, when it comes to insects, scientists don’t really know. 

Yes, over the last centuries they have managed to identify and name over a million species of insects, but now they estimate that there are – -or perhaps were — millions more than that. Perhaps the one million insect species we know of may only constitute 20 percent of the diversity that was there, until recently.

And how many have been lost? How much of the population has gone? We don’t know. Just a generation ago, we weren’t counting en masse. We didn’t anticipate losing them, so we didn’t count them beforehand.

We have guesses. A 2017 German study found that flying insects there had decreased by as much as 82 percent in the last 27 years. Other studies have reported estimates of 50 to 80 percent losses.

So as a result of the insects going, the birds are going. Based on a paper in the journal Science, the Washington Post reported in 2019 that North America had lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. 3 billion, with a b. Doug Tallamy,says, “Let me remind you how big a billion is. A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years.” 

That’s a huge difference. Now imagine each of those seconds is a bird. 93 years worth of bird-seconds. That’s a lot of birds.

I guess I used to think that birds ate seeds. By putting out a bird feeder with seeds in it, I was helping them, right? But now I know that to raise their young, most birds depend on caterpillars, which are bigger and more nutrionally dense than seeds. Birds need caterpillars, specific caterpillars whose specific chemistry the birds have evolved to depend on. 

If and when all these complex ecosystems fail, and it’s no doubt already starting, you can imagine what happens to humankind. A planet without plants and animals is not a planet that can sustain humans. 

But here then, finally, is the good news. You can plant those plants. The ones upon whom all the other diversity depends. YOu can plant them today, and within weeks or months, you will see the bugs come back, and the birds. And even the chipmunks and squirrels and beavers and toads and snakes and all of it. That can happen. People are doing it. 

And here’s even better news. You don’t have to plant all the plants, just some of them. It turns out that some plant species are just powerhouses when it comes to the insect and bird life they support. While non-native plants support exactly zero species of native insects and birds, some native plants can support hundreds of species.

Tallamy calls them Keystone plants. And number one is the mighty oak. A single oak tree can support 436 different species of caterpillars. 436! Plant one oak tree in your yard — and think of the diversity you’re saving! Next in line for trees are native species like cherry, plum, cottonwood, box elder, and some maples and some pines — each of which can support more than 200 species of caterpillar.

And if you don’t have space for a tree, how about a bush? Blueberry and willow shrubs can each sustain 200 caterpillars and up to 14 species of pollen specialist bees.

What about flowers? If you want flowers in your yard, plant asters, sunflowers, goldenrod, black-eyed susans. You’ll be supporting hundreds of kinds of caterpillars plus up to 50 different species of pollinator bees. 

Doug Tallamy has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to create all sorts of online resources to connect people across the country with the native plant species most needed in their areas. If you just google National Wildlife Federation and “native plant finder” you will find them.

And if you don’t have a backyard or a front yard or even a porch, there’s still plenty you can do. Cities, towns, counties, utilities and corporations own millions of acres of plantable land. You can have an impact on what they plant. 

For example, we know that the city of Melrose still plants street trees that are not native. Mostly Callary pear trees, which do not sustain any caterpillars or bees on this continent. True, some birds can eat the fruit, but then they carry the seeds to local forests where the Callary pear then grows and multiplies and even sprouts thorns, crowding out other trees that could actually help while not supporting any wildlife. 

So if you’re a voter or a taxpayer or a customer, you can request that we plant our world differently. And  . . . .you can also always walk through conservation land with a pocket full of seeds. If they are seeds for native plants, how are you hurting anything? And you could be helping.

Would you like some of those seeds? I happen to have a few thousand right here.

Remember I told you about the book discussion I didn’t want to go? Well ten people showed up or was it 12? One of them mentioned someone named Walter Kittredge, who I looked up afterward. Turns out, Walter just retired from a 45-year career as a field botanist and the head curator at Grey Herbarium at Harvard University. 

Walter lives in North Reading, about 15 minutes from here, on property next to a lake that he inherited from his grandparents. That’s where he is now giving all his time and expertise over to people who want to learn how to plant native.

From his backyard, Walter runs Oak Haven Sanctuary, where he rescues and nurtures and sells on or gives away hundreds of native plants every year. He welcomes groups and volunteers, kids, anyone who wants to spend some time learning and potting, or just walking around his beautiful land. Walter will even come to your house and give you a private consultation, telling you what you have and what native plants you could add where. I heard his fee for that is something like $50. Can you believe it?

I asked Walter for seeds we could bless and give away today, right here in worship. And he gave me these. 

(Susanne reaches for seeds)

Believe it or not, Walter says, that in this little clump are 1000s of seeds, for 3 dozen different species of native plants. There’s beautiful blue aster, yellow goldenrod, pink milkweed, purple gentian. And just one fingertip width is all you need to fill up this whole container here with seedlings.

If you come up here during the postlude or after worship, you can take a fingertip full or a pinch of seeds and put it in an envelope here, and I’ve printed out some instructions from Walter to you. And his contact info is there too, if you should want to go potting or walking or talking with him, or picking up some native plants. I recommend it.

And I recommend this book and/or the Tallamy presentation which is linked in both the Midweek Update and the worship reminder I sent you this morning. 

The bad news is  . . . that our world is in trouble. The good news is . . . there is something, many things actually, that we can all do about it. Things that are not difficult or costly or time consuming. And the seeds are right in our hands.

Now that we know better, we can do better. We can plant differently. And we can talk to our brothers and sisters, our cousins and parents and children, as in today’s story. Talk to them about the butterflies. Ask them about their memories of rollie-pollies and toads and chipmunks. Ask them what they’ve noticed lately, and what they’d like to do about it.

Let’s end with a prayer. 

Spirit of Life, mystery and miracle of our existence,

bless us yet again with your abundance

bless our broken hearts

bless our broken gardens

bless these seeds 

bless our good intentions

bless our righteous actions.

And give us courage.