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Selected Podpieces


There was a time when I could go to any garden center – yea, even unto a big box store – and wander through the aisles as if through a wonderland of vegetative possibility. The stunning colors, the surprising shapes of blossoms and leaves, everything was subject to my phytophilia. If it was in a pot and would grow in the ground, I brought it home and planted it.

But a decade or two ago I fell under the sway of the Native Plant Fanatics. I started to pay attention to the birthplace of a plant, first to what continent it originated on, then to which side of the Rockies it grew on out in nature. As I learned more about native plants, I came to agree that in natives is the preservation of the world, and I began to eschew hybrids and cultivars. I would grow only plants native to New England, or to those milder hardiness zones south of here that are on their inexorable way north.

But as I began to support gardens that would only support critters, I began to dislike gardens that wouldn’t. I stopped admiring blue ball hydrangeas. I started scoffing at japanese maples and lilies of the valley. A well-tended yard replete with mulch and Alberta spruce and a short, bright green lawn was enough to make me grimace and sneer.

Unfortunately, this attitude extended in time to the ungardened woods and fields I like to hang around in. Strolling along woodland paths, I can’t help seeing the burning bush, the bittersweet, the English ivy, the Japanese honeysuckle that’s happily spreading through the understory, obliterating the blueberries and bayberries. When I gaze at the little bits of undeveloped land around me I have a hard time seeing beyond its breakdowns and losses.

It makes me feel anxious and sad.

I am a person who tends to look on the glum side of things. I threw up my hands about the future of mankind long before I ever heard of climate change. I believed Anne and Paul Ehrlich’s warnings about overpopulation and still do, even though the specifics of their predictions were a bit off. Of course I separate my recyclables from my trash, I carry reusable shopping bags, I fill my thermos with tap water, I buy groceries from the outer circle of Shaw’s; but I don’t believe that any of it will do any good. It’s too late, it’s our fate, human beings are not very far descended from small tribes that were forever fighting off the competition. As soon as we get hungry, ethics and long-range planning are out the window.

Trying to save nature by gardening with native plants is about as useful as straining plastic pellets out of the ocean with a slotted spoon. Planting ragweed and partridge pea will not make the world safe for the long-gone bobwhite families that used to scuttle across the sandy track down to the pond. With my encouragement, with all our encouragement, even with a unanimous Paris Native Plant Accord, the plants of the world are not going to go home to their birthplaces and start serving supper to the creatures that evolved with them.

And yet.

In among the mass of almost all-native perennials in my back yard is one specimen of Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, the only survivor of the three I bought at a plant sale a couple of years ago. It has yet to bloom, but this year it’s tall enough that it stands up above the goldenrod’s swelling buds. Though some gardeners think it’s ugly, I happen to like the looks of Common milkweed; the strong, succulent-like leaves make a nice architectural statement against the waving stalks of switchgrass and the foamy heads of boneset nearby. And I look forward to the day when its spent flowers will form those big fat pods that loom large in my memories of grade school art class. Glued to a cardboard circle and spray-painted gold, they make a neat seasonal decoration to take home to your mom.

One day this summer, as mid July was easing into late July, I was walking around my yard staring at plants when I noticed a tiny hole in one of those milkweed leaves. I took off my spectacles and leaned in close. There, next to a hole the size of the small o on my computer keyboard, was a white and yellow and black-striped line the size of the numeral one on the screen of my Android phone. It was the first instar of a Monarch caterpillar.

Of all the milkweeds in all the backyards in all the world, she flies into mine.

How on earth did the mother monarch find my milkweed? I know, I know – a combination of light sensors and chemoreceptors and weather. But in this neighborhood of oaks and pines and Leyland cypress, of chemically-treated Kentucky bluegrass and mophead hydrangeas and Knockout roses, where did the mom monarch come from? and how did she manage to find the one set of leaves in the neighborhood that would feed her tiny offspring?

In fact, my single milkweed plant seems to have been the last, best hope for Monarch egg-laying. Over the next couple of days, I saw holes and tiny diners on three more leaves. Since female monarchs tend to lay only one egg per plant, I assume that either one desperate butterfly had to use the same plant multiple times, or several butterfly moms had managed to find the only available plant in the neighborhood.

So what is my point?

I have no point to make. But I will tell you this. I can’t decrease the surplus human population, I can’t change the gardening habits of mankind, I can’t stop the alien bittersweet from glowing orange in the autumn woods. Growing milkweed in my yard isn’t going to save the world, and it won’t save the Monarch butterfly. But rather than make a spray-painted seasonal decoration out of any big fat pod that might develop from my milkweed’s flowers, I’ll save its seeds and grow more milkweed in my yard.

To use Mary Oliver’s words, What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
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