Guest Rant by Benjamin Vogt
It’s late July and I’ve finally seen my first monarch butterfly, but only after the Liatris ligulistylis started blooming. This is a very, very late start. In 2010 I raised 200 from egg to wing, then in 2011 a solid 150, last year only 25. This year I found 5 eggs.
I slip quietly behind some tall coreopsis, hoping the monarch won’t see or sense me. But they do, they always do. It lifts off to fly circles above me for much longer than I have the patience to wait. It’s an incredible butterfly, isn’t it? The quintessential summer insect. But it’s not just monarchs I’ve seen less of these last years – it’s all kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and wasps. Pollinating insects which provide 1 in 3 bites of food – even China has resorted to hand-pollinating large crops due to a lack of insects.
Have you seen this lack, this absence? It’s a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Folks speculate on the cause – pesticides, habitat loss, weather extremes. What’s the magic bullet? Suburban sprawl. GMO agricultural fields producing toxic pollen and taking more pesticide sprays. Tar sands and mountain top removal coal mining. Plowing up the last remaining prairies at a rate exceeding the years just prior to the Dust Bowl – in the last 5 years the size of Indiana has been converted as publicly-subsidized crop insurance guarantees a farmer’s income, even if they plow up marshes and highly erodible lands.
As gardeners we have first hand knowledge of environmental change – birds, butterflies, soil, rain. We are also the first and last line of defense. How we garden is how we see the world. Gardening is an ethical act, like shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, et cetera. We make the choices as gardeners, and we are powerful — there are tens of millions of us in North America. Gardening has become much more than an aesthetic hobby – it’s now also a protest (you front lawn converters know what I mean!).
Monarchs need milkweed – a genus that has over 100 species in the U.S. alone. A native plant. A host plant. Why would you not plant milkweed given the absence of monarchs you see? Why would you not connect the dots to other lives and plants, other hosts for skippers, and swallowtails, and fritillaries? It’s estimated that 3,000 species of flora and fauna vanish every year, due in large part to human action.
So will you follow me one step further? Choosing native plants may be a moral choice. Asking for them in nurseries is asking for change, for restoration, for healing. Native plants can connect us to our home ground in ways a non native might not be able to. Native plants help us learn about local ecology, attracting beneficial bugs, fixing soil, feeding birds – all adapted, all co-evolved with the nectar and the seeds and the taste of leaves over tens of thousands of years. In the Plains what was here before Europeans erased it? Is it ok that those species are no longer here? The prairie once acted like the Amazon rainforest – huge lungs that cleaned the hemisphere’s air and provided a wealth of life that created backup redundancies. In a monoculture of corn, soybeans, hosta, or daylily (all new norms we seem to accept as if they always existed), one pest or disease can wipe everything away in a moment – there is no redundancy, and less value to native wildlife. Nature thrives on diversity, and so do we, physically and psychologically. That’s what makes America so unique. If we plant the same things from city to city, state to state, country to country, haven’t we McDonaldized the world? What do local wildlife think about that?
I tell you honestly, I ache for the monarch butterfly. I feel that absence in my garden like I feel the absence of deceased family and friends. My heart feels weak, my body shudders. I will gather as much milkweed seed as I can this fall from my Nebraska garden – indeed as much liatris, coneflower, bluestem, sideoats grama, culver’s root, mountain mint, aster, goldenrod, and sunflower as I can. I’ll wintersow them in pots and plant out the seedlings next summer. I’ll hope, but what’s more, I’ll take a stand and believe I can make a difference – it’s time to bring ourselves back to the native landscape, to connect to our home ground, to heal, and ultimately to connect more deeply to ourselves and each other as we garden for all of us.