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Field Notes: The butterfly effect

Field Notes: The butterfly effect

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”When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything else in the universe.”

— John Muir

It may feel like the world is coming apart at the seams.

Heat, fires, drought, deforestation and dust. Vanishing aquifers and wildlife, beneficial insects and entire food chains. Broken alliances, imploding democracies, exploding tempers.

At a time of so much seam-unraveling, blessed be the seamsters, hand-extenders and hinge-keepers among people and other species. Why not join them?

Patching together

Rick and Deb Barrow are two hummingbird devotees in the Riner area. Their love of this one species connected them like threads across time, two states and various humans, to many other interrelated species.

“The first stitching came from an evening at our former home, the Poconos, Pennsylvania,” Rick said. “We were visiting friends on their front porch that was festooned with more hanging hummingbird feeders than we’d ever seen in one place.”

The Barrows were “hooked.” They began hanging their own sugar-water feeders for these hungry, whirring fliers, whose need to load up the cals is almost constant during daylight hours.

These hummingbird buddies, the trees and thickets they need for resting and nesting safely, native plants and topsoil were among the Barrows’ top concerns when moving to Virginia.

They landed in a place with nearly an acre of “lush lawn.” But after life in a diverse, vertical, songbird-friendly habitat, “grass seemed strange to us,” Rick said. So did the lack of hummingbirds.

“We wanted specifically to grow butterfly attractors and pollinator-friendly space,” Rick said, so they got to work.

Along with tree care and ivy-pulling, “we made major improvements to the garden area and added a composting container. In the fall we spread fallen leaf debris on our lawn. We kept our cats inside watching birds through windows.”

After all, the hummingbirds are now regulars, along with other songbirds, butterflies and bees.

They’ll fly away

At this season of mid-September, the Barrows are seeing several hungry fliers come by, packing in much-needed fuel by which to make perilous, lean journeys south for the winter.

The heroic long solo migrations of hummingbirds, other songbirds, monarchs and certain other butterflies, to wintering habitat in Florida, Mexico or Central America, are themselves important ancient stitches in this biosphere. You can help.

Much of the habitat, water, native plant and insect food sources these creatures evolved with, along flight routes and at both ends, has been razed, poisoned or replaced by lawns, developments, high-speed freeways or monoculture crops at best.

You could help them, even today, by putting out water dishes and overripe fruit dangled from trees, plus a seed feeder for hungry birds, and also putting out the all-night floodlight (Off! Many species navigate by starlight).

For next year, you can start gathering native wildflower, tree and shrub seeds, leaf litter and ideas for converting any food-desert lawn to food-filled, shady, colorful pollinator habitat that can sustain life.

Conversion experience

Jeff and Patty Goggin of Bedford use compost, untreated pollinator-friendly plants and National Wildlife Federation tips, to sew their colorful patch of yard to the quilt of planetary life.

Lisa Hughes in Crockett wrote me that her family is gradually converting their grassland to native pollinator and bird-friendly habitat.

Randy Newberry of Bland is gradually converting pasture segments to biodiverse natives.

“I mow entirely too much of my property,” he wrote me, “and I wanted to create some areas for beneficial insects. I hadn’t seen a honey bee or a monarch butterfly all year, and it seems that bumblebees are the only creatures left to do all the work. It’s more worrisome than Covid 19! These guys need more habitat.”

Emi Uribe of Roanoke city thought so, too. Initially, she “chopped out the front yard and replaced it with flowers so I wouldn’t have to wrestle the lawn mower up steep steps,” she wrote me, and sent photos.

“The front is now entirely flowers and herbs and bushes. It looks healthier than it did when it was grass, and I’ve noticed more birds and butterflies, [and] the bees really like the mint I planted by the road.”

Encouraged by nature’s rapid response, she began chopping out backyard grass for a veggie garden.

“Then, I wanted flowers to encourage bees to come help out the veggies,” so untreated wildflower mixes went in. “The chickens I got this spring to eat the bugs that eat my vegetables, and also for chicken manure to turn into compost.”

Thus she and these other species sewed her patch of biosphere together again, reconnecting it to the whole world — and to her little boy’s future.

“I know it makes the earth happier,” she figured, “and it makes me happier, too.”

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