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Field Notes: Getting grounded again

Field Notes: Getting grounded again

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This last week of April brings inducements to look up.

Audubon Day (this Monday) and National Arbor Day (Friday) are especially grounded, heartening calls to lift the mind and spirit outdoors, because they’re also rooted in the Earth at our feet. They raise hopes higher, through serving what is low.

After all, if you want native bird life around, keeping the skeeter-count low and your joy-count high, it’s a no-brainer to provide the living, breathing, life-rich, sponge-like, natural groundscape that these ancient birds evolved among.

Humus and leaf litter, pine straw and bark, rotting logs and nut shells and compost provide the worms and insects that songbirds (along with useful tree toads, turtles and skinks) need.

A short-clipped chemical lawn, even with some heaped islands of “dyed and dried,” weirdly perfumed mystery-mulch trucked-in from afar, allows few native local organisms to survive and contribute to tree health or a bird supper. It also rarely permits the survival of firefly larvae, lacewings, bees, cicadas or the cocoons of the native butterflies and moths whose populations are now in freefall.

These organisms also need multi-level native shrub understories that offer the blooms, winter seeds, berries, leaf litter and shelter among which they evolved.

Atop all this, everything benefits from well-rooted, high-soaring, peewee-conducive tree canopy overhead, for the protective nesting habitat whose depletion, across our continent, is imperiling numerous native species and affecting climate and water tables.

In turn, these trees and understory shrubs benefit not only from the bird friends and pollinators they attract, but the same soil conditions these native birds and helpful insects need: a ground floor rich with water-holding microbes and organic matter, intelligent with structuring, resilient fungi and diverse native plant species.

Common ground

These low-level improvements raise the standard of living, water table and water quality, human fitness and mood so easily and quickly in any locale, it’s a marvel that soil and ecosystem restoration aren’t high priorities across every public budget, health care system, school, faith community and political platform.

It’s not costly or difficult to start a worm bin with supper scraps, bark bits and leaves. Using that rich soil to grow a few cups of acorns into little oaks, or maple keys into shade tree saplings, or a plot of wildflowers instead of lawn, is not rocket science. It’s plain earth science, part of a biosphere in which every species is supposed to benefit the common good — not destroy it.

The magic of these humble, earthy transformations also generates joy. It’s the sort of sturdy high that is grounded, sane and sustainable, not a Crazytown high that sends a person’s patriot fervor off to smash a Capitol building, flog police with flag poles and execute lawmakers as a way to serve Jesus.

Changing our human lives on Earth, from extractive destruction and deranged heights to realism and regenerative goodwill, right here where we dwell, can bring people back to a bipartisan common ground that’s easily lost in cyberspace.

Coming down from conspiracy-site escapes and Armageddon cop-outs that train the brain in “Why try?” may seem like a low, after exciting cultic cyberwars. But outside, on some frank terra firma full of leaf-shade and sunshine, odors of scrub-pine sap and a hot mint patch and good soil, it’s hard to maintain unhinged and untethered divisions.

Ground floor

Next month’s column will feature some on-the-ground, regenerative changes for the good that people are making in Southwest Virginia. For now, here are some ways you yourself could start, right where you are.

Restore soil quality. Hedge clippings, leaves, pine needles, kitchen scraps, twigs, nut shells — pile a mix onto some newspaper atop some turf, stake it down with rocks or logs. Within weeks you’ll have a place to grow trees and native plants.

Grow shade. Native trees are a great local solution to climate problems, air pollution, water shortages, noise, depleted soil, habitat loss and human depression. Head to the Arbor Day Foundation website ( for tips.

Grow blooms. Untreated wildflower seed mixes are a quick, uplifting, surprise-filled route to joy, delivering to your door fresh giddy bright flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds each summer day. Our declining pollinators need these blooms.

Provide a water source for wildlife and birds. Most native creeks, in urban or suburban settings, have been piped underground. Wildlife and insects often find little to drink. If you assume that a birdbath will breed mosquitoes, start maintaining one and realize that birds (and a natural landscape) in fact greatly reduce the mosquito count.

Birdbath contents disappear quickly. Tossing the dregs to replace with fresh water each day is, moreover, a handy discipline that benefits the human brain, reminding us that we too are made of lowly water and soil, are here to serve “the least of these,” and can use our grounded position to lift up the whole.

If you want native bird life around, keeping the skeeter-count low and your joy-count high, it's a no-brainer to provide the living, breathing, life-rich, sponge-like, natural groundscape that these ancient birds evolved among.

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