Monday, August 15, 2011


IN BIRDLAND, WE HAVE A RESPITE FROM THE HEAT, but not the drought. I'm jealous of the rain that  Champaign had the other day, where it “poured.” I can hear my grandmother's voice complaining that “rain on pavement never did anybody any good.” Here we haven't had a drop for weeks and the yard is dusty. The flowers that have it in them to bloom anyway are shy, with spare, small blossoms, their leaves drooping.  Ghost Lilies tentatively emerge, half their usual height, the flowers smaller, tighter, only weakly fragrant. Shrubs show signs of stress. But at least it's been cool the past few days, the humidity rising up to the sky to fall as rain far away.

 This morning I went down to visit my aunts and they invited me to pick peaches. My little peach trees are all barren this year. We had a cold snap when they bloomed, and I didn't see any bees. My pear tree only has a handful of fruit.  I was surprised that my aunts' tree had peaches. Their tree has always offered an abundance of sweet, plump peaches every year, occasionally taking a year off to rest. A spring gale broke off the best half of their tree, and when I went out to survey the damage, I didn't see any peaches set on, but it fooled me. Instead of a wheelbarrow, we used a couple of grocery bags for our harvest, filling each about halfway. My Aunt Kate shook the heck out of the tree, while I tried to pick up the peaches before Ursula got them. They look just like her rubber ball, and she thought she had hit the jackpot.

The sad little harvest, while better than the nothing I thought we would get, reminded about the workshop I went to in Ames, Iowa last week. It was called “Conserving beneficial insects with native plants,” and offered by Iowa State University. The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Schulte, introduced me to a new way of thinking about our place in nature called, “Ecosystem Services.” Scientists have been using this model for awhile, but it was new to me. At first the term put me off. It sounded kind of corporate to me, like an economic term, rather than one describing nature, as if ecosystems were just put here to benefit human society, and isn't that attitude how our ecosystems got to be such a mess in the first place? But as she spoke, and showed her slides, I began to understand that acknowledging the goods and services that seem to come “free” from nature might help us acknowledge that we'd better take care of the sources of these services. For example, the bean fields outside my window are pollinated by wild pollinators. They come, as if by magic, and we harvest the beans without a thought for these seemingly “free” services. However, I know in some places farmers pay beekeepers to park hives in their orchards. Here, at least, is an acknowledgment that pollination services are worth money. What if we had to pay bees, or even hire people to pollinate the beans in our fields? Our wild pollinators do it for the pollen and the nectar, but if we don't protect their habitat, how will we attract them to our fields? Another speaker, Dr. Mary Harris, said, “It's a tough life out there for pollinators.”

What can we do to help reestablish populations of wild pollinators? We can provide diversity of native plants in our gardens, roadsides and yards. Even on our farms, according to Dr. Harris, “diversity of crops themselves can help pollinators." We can think about the needs of the pollinators. What do bees need? They need floral resources for food—pollen and nectar, throughout the season. That's how a diversity of plants can help. They need nesting spaces—undisturbed soil, wood, even hollow stems, like those left over from Day Lilies after they've bloomed, can provide shelter. Really, they just need nature. In my own yard I can encourage wild Asters and Black-Eyed-Susans that come up in my yard, banking some of the ecosystem services (pollination services, yes, but also more selfish ones. I can pick some of those flowers for my table, saving $5-$10 to fill each vase. I get spiritual benefits, too—stopping for a moment to smell, or appreciate the colors in the sun). In our yards and in our farms, even in our roadsides we can consider diversity of plant life, which supports diversity of pollinators. As we viewed slides of diversified farms, I began to imagine our own grass waterway—the lovely, green, well-clipped road through the fields built to preserve the soil—as a prairie waterway, or a bee road, hosting myriad native plants and pollinators. Imagine.

Diversify Beauty; Imagine Peace; Blessed Be.

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