1999

“Life is just a party, and parties aren’t meant to last.” ~ Prince, “1999”

Hepatica in the woods

It’s that time of year again, time to hurry up and see the spring ephemeral wildflowers before they’re gone. Every year at this time I’m reminded about how we place so much importance on things that aren’t here for very long. Think about rainbows. Warblers during spring migration. The cherry blossoms in Washington and Tokyo. Hepatica rising from the leaf litter in the woods.

We have festivals to celebrate these things — well, except for the rainbows (as far as I know). We eagerly anticipate them and cherish memories about them when they’re no longer present. If warblers were here all year long like blue jays, would we appreciate them as much? If you could look out your window and see a rainbow every day, how long would it take for you to start taking it for granted?

My opening quote from Prince’s song “1999” popped into my head recently as I was admiring a vast swath of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) on one of my walks. I’ve read that those flowers only bloom for three days.

This party on the forest floor definitely doesn’t last long!

One of the earliest hoverflies to show up each year is this narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus), and they’re plentiful wherever I find spring beauties. Notice the five pink anthers on the flowers, as well as the pink lines that serve as nectar guides that…well, guide pollinators to the nectar, of course.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another spring flower that has a very brief bloom time, but it leaves behind its hand-sized, deeply-lobed leaves as a welcome consolation prize for us. In the photo below, you can see the single flower stem standing in front of the leaf. At night or on a cold day, that big leaf wraps itself around the flower like a protective emerald blanket. Even when I’m out on a cold day, I can enjoy seeing these because I know there’s a beautiful flower inside those tightly curled leaves.

Bloodroot leaf waving at me

And here’s a bloodroot flower blooming, with the leaf gently curving around it.

The back of the bloodroot leaf is yet another interesting part of this plant.

Speaking of leaves, take a look at the speckled ones of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen the flowers of this plant, but I get lots of enjoyment from the leaves all by themselves.

If you’re like me when you think of the word ephemeral, you think of things like those I’ve just written about. But what about our lives? Aren’t we also ephemeral relative to the grand scheme of things? You and I are just here for the blink of an eye, at least in terms of the age of our universe. We do often hear people say that “life is short,” but I don’t think that phrase really captures what I’m thinking of. Considering our lives as ephemeral in this way is reassuring to me, as someone who tends to take everything too seriously and think too much about things that really don’t matter in the end.

Greater bee fly feeding on a bloodroot flower — check out that proboscis!!

This line of thinking leads me to considering nonconformity, and what it means in a social species like homo sapiens. A couple years ago I wrote an article about nonconformity and how it feels when you don’t fit the mold of what your society expects you to be. I included a quote from an author who said humans are basically just monkeys in clothes, and who cares if the other monkeys judge you? That quote has been in my mind lately as I look out over the beautiful yellow flowers dotting my front lawn, knowing that most of my “perfect lawn” neighbors probably think I should be using chemicals to kill them. I know dandelions are aggressive non-native flowers here, but I really think they’re beautiful on the green grass, and they help the early pollinating insects when there’s not much else for them to feed on yet.

This is NOT my yard…but so what if it was?

So yeah, I’m a monkey and I’m only going to be here for the blink of an eye. So why not just do what I think is right, and enjoy the party? Let the other monkeys judge me if they must.

As we celebrate Earth Day this week, I hope you find time to go out and appreciate the ephemeral beauty of spring wildflowers or migrating warblers in their breeding plumages.

Cape May warbler at Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio

Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes

I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water.  I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!

My first year native bed July 16 2018 - blog
Year one – July 16, 2018 – Monarda barely visible

Garden year 2 on July 22 2019 v2 - blog
Year two – July 22, 2019 – an explosion of Monarda!

And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them.  I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.

But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.

Overgrown weeds by Keturah Stickann on Flickr - blog
This is NOT the look we’re going for!      (Photo courtesy of Keturah Stickann)

It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.

I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.

Sterile lawn in front of traditional house - Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels
This lawn doesn’t support any life…it’s sterile and depressing. (Photo by Milly Eaton via Pexels)

Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.

By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations.  But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.

Shrubby st. john's wort Kim Clair Smith
Shrubby St. John’s Wort in my garden

These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.”  As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.

As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors.  Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.

Fork-tailed bush katydid on purple coneflower Kim Clair Smith
Fork-tailed bush katydid, a good food source for birds in my garden

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice.  I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed in my garden

Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.

Eastern calligrapher fly Kim Clair Smith
Eastern calligrapher fly in my garden —  great little pollinators!

So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust.  Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.

I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it.  Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.

I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.

I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:

REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES

This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.

So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.