Book Review: Natures Best Hope

– this review by Anne Raver originally appeared in WildflorRI, Spring 2020

Douglas W. Tallamy — Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard 

Doug Tallamy begins Nature’s Best Hope, published this year by Timber Press, by tipping his cap to the great conservationists of the 20th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, who helped launch the National Parks movement. Though, he points out, when Roosevelt stood at the Grand Canyon and said, “Leave it as it is,” 95 percent of the country hadn’t been “logged, tilled, drained, grazed, paved, or otherwise developed.”

Now, as national parks are being logged, threatened with oil extraction, invaded by non-native plants and insects, or otherwise degraded, Tallamy proposes the seemingly impossible: not just planting one’s own yard with native species to save the earth, but convincing one’s neighbors to do the same–to create a “Home Grown National Park.”

His first book, Bringing Nature Home, published in 2007, was revelatory. In simple terms, Tallamy explained how insects and other species co-evolved with plants to form very specific inter-dependencies. About 90 percent of insect herbivores depend upon one or very few plant species for reproduction, i.e., they lay their eggs on certain species’ leaves, and the caterpillars eat the leaves. These caterpillars are higher in protein than beef, so hungry birds feed thousands to their nestlings in one reproductive cycle. If the native plants aren’t there, the birds fail to thrive.

Nature’s Best Hope continues to pile on grim statistics: most land in the lower 48 states is privately owned, turfgrass covers 40 million acres, an area the size of New England. Much of the rest of the earth’s surface is covered with shopping malls, roads, and airports.

Small wonder that in North America, Tallamy writes, “8500 species of plants and animals (more than a third of our best-known species), including 432 species of birds” are at risk of extinction.

Tallamy summarizes the radical proposal of eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson: setting aside “half the earth as a human-free natural reserve to preserve biodiversity.”

OK, well, that seems impossible, especially considering a world population of 8 billion.

But, what then?

Nature’s Best Hope summarizes a great deal of new research about the risk of habitat fragmentation to many species of plants and animals and to entire ecosystems. Biological corridors connecting these fragments are key to their survival.

So is the size of a particular territory, and not just for food and shelter. Hooded warblers, Tallamy writes, need enough territory for pair bonding and additional space for members of other pair bonds–because hooded warblers dally with others, before the eggs are laid.

Scientists are also learning more about the keystone genera–oak, cherry, willow, for example–that host many species of caterpillars. Oaks in the Mid-Atlantic region, where Tallamy does much of his research, support 557 caterpillar species. Tulip poplars, by contrast, support only 21.

But planting an oak on a lawn is not enough. “Most caterpillars crawl off their host plant before molting to their pupal stage,” Tallamy writes. They either burrow into the soil or spin a cocoon in the leaf litter. That’s why a groundcover of “native pachysandra, woodland phlox, foamflower, ginger, or native shrubs,” he suggests, is key to completing the life cycle.

Nature’s Best Hope certainly deepens one’s understanding of successful strategies in one’s own yard. But the larger challenge to us is building those corridors to neighboring yards and convincing the owners to replace even part of their lawns, and some of their gumdrop yews and burning bushes with keystone species that caterpillars–egads, insects!–can eat.

Tallamy offers a few success stories: the woman who convinces her lawn-loving father to plant milkweed for the struggling monarchs; the garden clubs that make native plantings more presentable with mowed strips of grass.

But he also acknowledges the monumental challenge of shifting values.

Having replaced most of our lawn and many nonnative plants with native species on our corner lot in a small town, my husband and I have run the gamut of responses–enthusiasm, scorn, even orders from the town to remove plants too close to a stop sign.

We live with mow-and-blow crews on all sides, and neighbors who feel compelled to squirt herbicides on the dandelions and plantain in their over-fertilized rugs of turfgrass.

Tallamy acknowledges the difficulty of breaking through this glass wall of tidiness and fear of nature and tries to explain it–the need to belong, the tribal suspicion of anyone different, our love affair with exotic plants. Thomas Jefferson, he notes, could have landscaped Monticello with gorgeous native species but chose to mimic Europe’s grand landscapes with a greensward and plants from the other side of the world.

And then, of course, our ancient roots go back to the African savannah, where it was easier to see predators stalking us across the grasslands. And once the colonists made it to North America, they were terrified of the wilderness–killing most of the beasts and Native Americans, plundering the resources, and “taming” the land as they went.

So here we are. Tallamy exhorts us to work with garden clubs and plant societies, schools and municipal governments to plant public spaces with native species to serve as inspiring examples of beauty and vitality, no matter how small. Giving informative talks, writing articles, is key, as well.

He reminds the reader of practical resources, such as the National Wildlife Federation’s “Native Plant Finder (http://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder): just enter your zip code, to find the most valuable native plants for your area. And of course, the NWF will certify your garden as a wildlife habitat if you provide basic resources, such as shelter, food and water.

I think I need one of those signs to put up close to our corner. As Tallamy says, giving up is not an option.