I destroyed somebody’s home about a week back.
Actually, I probably do that a lot without even noticing it, and when I do realize that’s what I’m doing, I stop myself.
Like the day before the homewrecking, while I was watering the dwarf Norway spruce (“needs frequent watering unless you’ve been getting ample rain,” said the tag—or something to that effect). I’d already deliberately jet-hosed off the spider-mite webs lurking between branch tips. Those mites do a ton of damage to the poor little vertically challenged spruce. Then I spotted an expansive open-work web stretching the two feet between the spruce and its viburnum neighbor.
Still in cleaning mode, I was about to hose that away too, but hesitated.
Why spray it away? It’s not in my way. It may be in the flyway, for flies and mosquitoes and gnats and such. But—not that I mean to be judgmental—who needs them?
So I desisted, and received my reward. I spotted what I took at first for a curled-up brownish leaf lodged at the web-to-spruce intersection. It hung on to the branch in most un-leafy bouncy fashion.
I looked more closely, and spied a small tank of a spider, its huge boxy body supported by the kind of legs a Star Wars monster might stomp with. When I say huge, I’m thinking like a fly caught in web as Spidey hustles forth like Godzilla incarnate. Half an inch across at least, and all deadly menace. I would show you closeup photos, but you would not thank me if they gave you nightmares. Look here if you dare.
Full of surprises
My big surprise, though, was walking out onto my deck the fateful evening and finding, as I glanced at the four pots of coneflowers stashed in the rail planter awaiting their permanent homes, a strange intrusion. Masses of small sticks protruded that weren’t there in the morning.
Now wotthehell! I muttered. Weird things have been happening on that deck lately:
The gust that yanked the umbrella out of its stand and the surrounding table and launched it on an arc all the way to the garden’s edge. I didn’t see this happen, but deduced the arc from the fact that nothing in the straight line from launch point to landing got destroyed.
Or those flourishing Asclepias tuberosa (milkweed if we’re not talking fancy), all four of them set down tidy in their pots for the night atop a milk crate after bedtime watering. When I came out the next morning, I found skeletal remains: lost and half-gone leaves, and a few stalks also halfway gone. Ain’t no caterpillar did that!
But who else would have munched off most of the leaves and left half-bare stalks standing? Have I perhaps acquired a rabbit who toughly scoffs at milkweed toxins but dines daintily enough for Emily Post?
So yes, like any gardener, I’m used to odd happenings. But these sticks ’midst the coneflowers were an anomaly of anomalies. They couldn’t have blown there at random. The coneflowers’ leaves massed so thickly they’d even made it hard for me to ensure that water got from the hose wand into their pots.
As I moved closer, I realized the sticks formed an interwoven structure. It wasn’t until I looked directly down at the plants from above that I realized the truth. Somebody of the avian persuasion had, in the course of one day, built a nest lodged tightly among the stalks and leaves. The stick edifice splayed out at the bottom, extending the underpinnings out among all four of the pots’ tops and the coneflowers’ understory. No wind would blow this nest away, unless the coneflowers, pots and all, took flight with it.
Closer to the center, the nest refined into fine intertwinings. At the very center, for the ultimate homey touch, the sticks spun into a bird-sized cup, carpeted with a soft, greeny-gold moss.
Are you thinking, awwww, how sweet?
Not I. I faced a moral dilemma. To wit: If I leave the nest there, the coneflowers are goners. They need their homes in the ground soon. They might have a fighting chance if I keep watering them, but how could I spray cold water daily over a broody bird and her babies?
It came down to a choice between the bird’s nest, or the plants’ survival. I’d like to say I thought long and carefully, but I made the calculations fast. No eggs in the nest. It might have been built on spec—you know, Joe Robin builds a love nest to lure his maybe-lady to. But this year seems choc-a-bloc with these bird guys hopping about puffing their red chests out like there’s some MAGA rally in my yard. Maybe he has so much competition that he’ll never get lucky.
However, if he does get lucky, there might be eggs here soon.
Hell, if he can build a nest in a day, he can do it again. I’m proud to say that sticks are a dime a dozen (free, in fact) all over my yard. And there’s lots of moss handy too.
The coneflowers, on the other hand: seriously at risk.
Reader, I removed the sticks. And then I moved the coneflowers to a less bird-luring location.
A moral calculus?
I could justify myself by noting that if even one teensy egg had sat in that cushy nest, I wouldn’t have hesitated a nanosecond. The nest would still be there. I’d be praying anxiously for coneflower survival, while mama bird shrieked every time I stepped on deck.
Or if I had known it for a bluebird’s nest, with or without eggs, I’d have left it and let the coneflowers take their chances.
But I don’t feel good about my decision. This was somebody’s home.
And when I stop to think about it, I recall that homes—for wild creatures and humans alike—have been disappearing at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years.
Some of that we can blame on climate change: the ominous rise of seawaters, the devastation wreaked by more frequent and more violent rampages by wind, water, and fire. Bangladesh could sit largely underwater in far too few years. California could go up in smoke, and Wyoming, you could be next. Ultimately, those disasters stem from over a century of human impact on the environment, not deliberate but as a side effect (an “externality,” as the economists phrase it) of increasingly breakneck industrialization and burning of fossil fuels.
In the shorter term, though, deliberate human action has caused massive habitat loss for thousands of species, sometimes including Homo not-so-sapiens. Many of us shuddered at the reports last year of the accelerated setting of fires Amazonia to clear land for farming or cattle grazing. (You can see a NASA report based on satellite images tracking the past two decades of Amazon forest destruction, with some vivid maps, here.) Here in the US, the destruction of natural (diverse) forests, meadows, and wetlands has augmented the effect of invasive species to put hundreds of our indigenous species of birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, trees and other plants at risk of extinction.
There may not be a lot I can do about all of those problems day to day, but I can (and should) put more care into making my own garden into a better habitat for other species. You’ll be hearing more about those efforts in future posts. (Mice, ants, and earwigs, if you are listening: this does not mean I will stop trying to drive you out of the house!)
Homes for all?
While I tinker on my own home, the issue of human homes has been weighing on my mind. Having volunteered in the past at a local survival center, I am keenly aware that homelessness among those of our own species is scandalously prevalent.
The numbers aren’t hard to find, although I suspect they understate the problem. The federal government uses a standardized approach in tallying the homeless. Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development coordinates locally organized counts of people without homes who are in shelters on one January night. Every other year, those who are unsheltered get counted too.
In 2020, the official tally found 580,466 people homeless in this country, nearly a fifth of them children. Over 200 thousand people had no shelter. In January.
If the numbers are a bit hard to see in perspective, think of it this way. If you imagine you had a clear field, you could put all these men, women, and children in Miami (FL) or Raleigh (NC) or Omaha (NE). You’d still have more than a hundred thousand of them left over. You could put them in Atlanta (GA) or Sacramento (CA), but over sixty thousand still would have nowhere to go. If you put them all in Baltimore (MD) or Minneapolis (MN), there would be enough homes left for only a few thousand others. Those however are the 2020 numbers. By this year, the increased numbers might top even those cities off.
And this doesn’t begin to capture the predicament of the ten million Americans living on the brink: in poverty and spending more than half their income on housing, or doubled up, due to poverty, in housing with people with whom their relationships may be precarious.
Hitting close to home
The issue has become visceral for me in recent weeks.
My sister has been ill for some months now, with a stomach disorder that has plagued her since childhood. It gets dangerous when she is under severe stress. She needs calm, stability, and security. Her stress levels ramped sky-high, what with losing a large part of her medical insurance during the pandemic and butting heads with the work-from-home bureaucracies for months on end; struggling with dirt-level poverty, bills piling up, meds unaffordable, dog getting sick, car dying—you name it. The mounting stress had her so sick that she lost about 50 pounds in two months.
Just as she was beginning to regain some health and strength, the owners of the little house she’s been renting decided to sell the property it sits on—land, big house, little house, everything. Before she moved in a year and a half ago, she told the owners she needed a place where she could stay put for at least 3 to 5 years. Their response: We’d never sell this. The real estate market in the area has now gone stratospheric. They’ve been living 200 miles away and like it where they are now. So they’re selling.
At first they said they’d wait till next spring. Then they said they wanted her out by September. Then in mid-June they told her she had to be out by July 15.
She’s been packing all day and vomiting every night since, and often spends half the night doubled up in pain.
The owners have every right to sell my sister’s home. Or do they? Legally, yes. Morally? You tell me.
I had every right to remove that bird’s nest. Or did I? I’m not so sure.
And now, your turn:
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- What have you tried in order to make your garden into a good home for more animals and plants?
- In your area, what are the biggest challenges to maintaining and expand habitats for native species?
- Do you know of any local community efforts to provide homes for those without any? Any ideas on the best ways to go about this?
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