Spending time with nature leads to clear understanding of connectivity of all forms of life
Picture the gardener’s hand passing a flower cutting over the fence to a neighbor who, grateful for the gift, puts it in the ground. The plant thrives and migrates to another yard.
In Life in the Garden, Penelope Lively sees this as “ a unifying, bonding experience … Neighboring gardening usually involves exchange of cuttings or divisions. Sometimes you can see, looking at a line of front gardens, where someone’s flourishing pink or Michaelmas daisy has made its way along the street, handed on to go forth and multiply.”
There is no chance of my native plants migrating down the row of screened lanais on my second floor condo, but I do exchange cuttings with my neighbor, Gloria. She is a gardening fanatic who has filled up her place with flowers, herbs, ferns — even a small tree. Connectivity in the neighborhood is to be treasured.
For Alexander von Humboldt, the globe was his neighborhood. In 1802, he and Aime Bonpland, a French botanist, explored ecosystems at different altitudes in the Andes in South America. Botany was Humboldt’s first love.
In Ecuador on Chimborazo Volcano, he came across a moss similar to one he had known growing up in his native Prussia. Could plants growing at certain altitudes on one continent be related to those on other continents thriving under similar conditions? Then seeing how the Americas and Africa fit together like pieces in a puzzle, he theorized that those continents had once been part of one huge land mass.
In an April 2018 talk in Sarasota, Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, said, “Humboldt was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them … We would do well to accept and work with this concept of connectivity if we are to preserve this beautiful planet, accepting all species as viable sources of life, not subject to our whims, greed or ignorance.”
American naturalist John Muir did not limit himself to this planet or even to our solar system. In 1869, on his tramps through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, he saw the relationships among plants, animals and whole ecosystems. He wrote in his journal, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken to everything else in the Universe.”
Most of us are planted in one spot, which we consider “our” universe. My condo backs up to parkland, a natural area of moss-laden pines, scrub oaks, saw palmetto, vines, grasses and wildflowers. It is like living in a tree house. I am privy to the goings on in a nearby eagle’s nest, the hooting of owls at night, bobwhites calling by day, flyovers by shorebirds, dragonflies swarming after heavy rains, butterflies drifting past. One evening, the great horned owl flew by at eye level, like some dark apparition.
Dawn brings out rabbits foraging in the grasses. A gopher tortoise eats his greens at midday, and all day long squirrels arabesque through the pines. Sometimes these touches of “wildness” encroach on the well-tended lawn on my side of the fence.
The Florida peninsula has been a consuming interest since childhood, but it was not until 2001 that I started traipsing about seriously. At first I focused on pristine still lives, but a spider would peek out from under a flower petal, “ruining” my photo.
Butterflies nectaring on beggar ticks and scrub oaks with scrub jays were acceptable to the public, but a prickly pear cactus loaded with beetles? It took me — and them — a while to understand connectivity in a landscape. My mindset evolved from still lives to landscapes, from individual animals and plants to ecosystems, from discrete to inclusive. And a basic understanding of what belonged where.
As I saw changes — fewer frogs and toads, for example — it became even more urgent to include all wildlife in my photos. Spiders, slugs, dung beetles, rats, bats and snakes all had their proper place in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “web of God.”
In his essay on nature, Emerson saw “… the unity in variety which meets us everywhere … A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.”
So often in Florida, the whole — biodiversity — goes by the wayside when a homebuilder scrapes clean a lot. Muir’s “thousand cords” have been severed. When the house is finished, the builder installs turf and a tree. That does not do it. So it is up to us to retain little oases of green growing things to support wildlife.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor works on a larger scale to “make connections, showing that connecting, protecting, and restoring corridors of conserved land and waters are essential for the survival of Florida’s wildlife.”
Only lately have we started living apart from nature. Many Americans get their nature “fix” on the Discovery Channel. When visiting parks, they will drive through with windows closed, air conditioning on.
Often when I am botanizing along a roadside, people stop to ask if I am in trouble, so unusual is it to see someone on foot. For many Americans, a walk is exercise to be measured, an organized event such as a field trip, or a goal such as hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Before we get into the great outdoors, we equip, outfit and insulate ourselves as if for battle, with bug spray, sunblock, GPS and cellphone.
In the center of Florida, the land is broken up into parcels of ranches, citrus groves and utility easements all bounded by fences. It is impossible to explore except on roads.
In other places in the world, people have always walked to get someplace, to see each other, to lay in provisions. Paths trod by many generations of different peoples connect them to each other and the land, perhaps because of the fact that they can walk the countryside without being fenced out.
“Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place,” writes British naturalist Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot. “Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense and by extension, they relate people.” He quotes Thomas Clark’s prose poem, In Praise of Walking: “Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering.”
Nature persists in connecting people in a myriad of ways such as the change of seasons. Thousands flock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee to take in the coming of spring wildflowers. The blooming of the cherry blossoms is a much anticipated event in Washington D.C. In Japan, where these trees are native, families congregate for hours in parks to take in the beauty of the fragile short-lived blossoms, which have also been celebrated in paintings over thousands of years. During the fall in the U.S., people travel to enjoy the changing colors of the foliage.
Penelope Lively writes about how generations of women in her family are linked by their passion for gardening. “… Garden begets garden, as in my family, where descendants of my grandmother’s aquilegias and primroses fetch up in her great-great-granddaughter’s rather small plot.”
Gardening was very much a part of their lives for my grandparents, all “off the boat” from the old country. They brought with them not cuttings or seeds, but the desire to work the land, whether it be on a farm or alongside the stretch of railroad track my grandmother planted out with her fellow church members.
The act of planting, no matter how small the plot, brings us closer to nature. Planting native flowers, shrubs and trees will bring us into contact with our fellow creatures.
So does the act of eating. Observing the harvest at Thanksgiving, families and friends congregate in celebration of the interconnectedness of all life.
John Muir’s thousand cords persist. With vigilance and care, they will remain unbroken.