by Lisa Novick
Minutes after students at Fair Avenue Elementary School had planted a native penstemon, the children shrieked and froze, hardly daring to breathe as they watched a hummingbird, orange-red throat glinting, flit among the purple trumpet-shaped flowers. The kids were so quiet we could hear the whir of the hummingbird’s wings.
Despite my childhood in the ornamental manicured suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange counties, I, too, had experienced brief communion with the wild. At summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, I woke to a symphony of birdsong for the first time in my life. In a Denny’s parking lot in the Mojave Desert, a crow flew overhead and I felt the downbeat of wings on air. And in the green-but-static landscape of our housing tract in Tustin, I witnessed a blizzard of painted lady butterflies sweep through like an otherworldly force.
Decades later, preparing a science lesson for my teaching credential, I learned that caterpillars of most Southern California butterfly species can eat only native plants. What’s more, the native requirement is globally true for most butterfly species. This information rocked my world. Given the extinction crisis, I felt driven to bring native plants’ support of biodiversity to a wider audience. I took the words of the Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum to heart: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”
In Los Angeles, in my role as director of outreach and K-12 education for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants, it seemed so obvious: People need to experience nature to develop a love for it, to remind them of what’s at stake in this battle for life on Earth. Native gardens are one of the best ways to inspire this emotional connection because they attract wildlife. Due to co-evolution, native plants provide the food and shelter that most species of insects and other animals literally can’t live without.
Once my students learned of the specialized relationships between native plants and animals, they were all in for indigenous plants. In fact, they were flabbergasted, if not downright outraged, to learn that most nurseries sold only ornamental plants. One elementary-school student sputtered, “I mean, what’s the point? Those plants don’t feed people and they don’t feed animals. . . .” and promptly dissolved into tears. The students got it. They understood the good a native garden can do.
I worked at breakneck pace for nearly 10 years, installing gardens, leading field trips, giving talks, and writing grant proposals during the week. On weekends, I staffed booths at environmental outreach events throughout the Los Angeles area. As far as I could tell, many Angelenos were ignorant of the nature of the region, unfamiliar with its oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, and chaparral. Quite a few believed it was an arid wasteland, which people had “improved” by replacing much of its indigenous flora with water-thirsty, non-native plants that more rightly belonged in a tropical or English garden.
Outreach events in less affluent communities proved to be the ones I preferred. There, people exhibited openness to new information, compassion that extended to the non-human world, and determination to act—three qualities that I found much less prevalent in wealthy places. For engaging people in service of environmental collective good, I found that my time was better spent in zip codes that didn’t have sky-high property values and, invariably, green-but-virtually-sterile, water-guzzling landscapes. Nevertheless, I went everywhere I could to spread the message. My breakneck pace continued . . . until my body let me know something had to give. Within a single month, I came down with double pneumonia and my back went out.
After much soul-searching, I decided that I would work fewer hours and concentrate on outreach. For as much as I loved K-12 education, outreach was where I felt I could do the most immediate good. Through outreach, I could influence the adults currently in charge, from homeowners to local officials. Someone else could take care of K-12 education for inspiring the next generation.
My decision felt like a dispiriting mistake.
At many Earth Day and other environmental fairs throughout the year, it seemed that far too many people in attendance were simply there for freebies: plastic pencil holders, balloons (more trash for landfills and the guts of wildlife), and other knickknacks often carried away in plastic bags. And then there was the strain of trying to talk above the roar (and stink) of the generators powering the inflated bouncy houses for children at the event. As I attended more and more of these fairs, I did mental calculations of the amount of carbon I’d put into the air to drive to the event (roughly one pound per mile). I wondered whether the amount of good I was doing offset the harm.
At the Descanso Gardens Rain Barrel Event, I hit my low point.
Descanso Gardens is in La Cañada Flintridge, the 17th most affluent city in the United States, according to a report by CNN Money. In 2015, the city had the highest per capita water use in all of Los Angeles County, unconscionably high during the worst drought in California’s recorded history. Sponsored by local cities and water districts, the rain-barrel event was meant to help generate change, its tag line “Learn how to conserve water while maintaining an attractive landscape during a drought.” I thought the event would be ideal for spreading the word about native plants, since they evolved to survive on rainfall. Moreover, the event was RSVP only: a self-selected group of people interested in saving on water bills, yes, but also homeowners who just might be interested in enacting positive landscape change.
I showed up with high hopes. In the exhibit hall, I was given the use of three tables directly across from the door, an optimal position for visibility and impact. On each table, I arranged a dozen native plants with photos of their flowers and a related butterfly or bird. Among the California lilac, oak, penstemon, buckwheat, sage, and other plants, there wasn’t one cactus. Behind the tables, at eye level, I placed large photos of native gardens to demonstrate their beauty and wide-ranging style. The display was colorful and inviting with succinct signage about water use and ecosystem support.
When the exhibit hall doors opened, people flooded into the room and headed straight to the display. “How beautiful!” several people said.
“These are all California native plants,” I said, handing out information packets. “They use 80 percent less water than most non-natives and support healthy functioning ecosystems.”
“Natives?” said one woman, looking at the display. “I already have cactus.”
“Only one to two percent of California natives are cacti,” I replied.
“Oh,” said the woman, declining an information packet and moving to another booth.
A man at the back of the group said, “I don’t want plants that are ugly. All native plants turn brown in the summer—just look at the hillsides.”
“Most of the brown on the hillsides consists of invasive, non-native weeds and grasses that die in our summer heat,” I said. “The green is native—oaks, laurel sumac, toyon. The native plants evolved here and store water better than most non-natives to cope with our hot dry summers.”
The man considered for a moment. “Well, I don’t want a tangled mess.”
“You don’t have to have one.” I gestured toward one of the large photos. The native garden was as neat and green as could be.
“I’ll take some information,” the man said.
“Why do you have photos of butterflies next to the plants?” a woman asked.
“Great question,” I said. “The caterpillars of each species can eat only that kind of leaf or blossom, and perhaps one or two others. Without specific native plants, most species of caterpillars starve.”
The woman stared at me for a moment, then tossed her mane of curls and said to her companions with a laugh, “I’ll eat anything when I’m hungry. If those caterpillars wanted to survive, they’d eat anything, too! They shouldn’t be so fussy!”
“They’re physically unable to eat anything else,” I countered, willing myself to stay patient. “Certain species of caterpillars co-evolved with certain plants, forming relationships with them, like monarchs with milkweed.”
“The caterpillars will adapt,” the woman said breezily. “Nature is all about adaptation.”
“Yes, but that takes a lot of time. If monarch numbers continue to crash and not enough caterpillars happen to be born able to digest other types of leaves, then monarchs will go extinct. Why don’t we just help them by planting what they need?”
“Like I said, they shouldn’t be so fussy.” The woman turned and walked away with her friends, glancing back with a laugh.
Over the next four hours, I had exchanges with about two dozen people genuinely interested in learning about landscaping with native plants. Two dozen was about eight percent of the 300 people in attendance at the Descanso event. Despite all the subsidies offered by water companies, most attendees weren’t interested in changing their landscaping or even adding a few native plants each year. People seemed more interested in the gadgets that would help them save water in the home or on their existing water-thirsty landscaping: shower timers, new-fangled irrigation systems, and 55-gallon rain barrels—technology to the rescue of the maladapted status quo.
I persisted. In every conversation, I worked in the fact that California was in a water crisis and a biodiversity crisis, and that both issues are addressed by native landscaping. I hoped that by naming the issues and presenting something positive to do in response, people might think about the bigger picture and want to help. Instead, I found that most people, after receiving the information, still wanted it to be all about them.
At this lethargic rate of consciousness-raising in a county of more than 10 million people, the urgent changes needed in the region’s culture and practices would never happen quickly enough. I understood why Rosa Parks had rejected gradualism and, beginning in the 1960s, embraced Black Power. In the face of entrenched practices that harm human beings and the biosphere, from racism to sexism to ecological destruction, many activists come to the same conclusion.
At the end of the day, a woman slowed down to glance at the display. Casually and immaculately dressed in a matching exercise outfit, with a noticeably large diamond ring on her left hand, she looked quickly from one table of plants to the next. Given her appearance, it didn’t seem as though punitive water bills would be much of a concern, so I took a different tack.
“All these plants are native; aren’t they beautiful?” I said.
“I already plant drought-tolerant,” the woman said, and started to walk away.
“Drought-tolerant isn’t always the same as native,” I called after her. “Only natives save water and support the ecosystem.”
The woman hesitated, and I grabbed a plant that looked like rosemary, along with a photograph of a butterfly nectaring on the plant’s cream-colored blossoms.
“This is California buckwheat. Its flowers are the caterpillar forage food for the square-spotted blue butterfly. It’s really important to support butterflies because caterpillars are the main food of baby birds.”
“Really,” the woman said, giving me a quizzical look.
“Yes, it takes thousands of caterpillars to feed one nest of chickadees from the time they hatch until they fledge.”
“That many?” The woman looked genuinely surprised.
I nodded. “Even with just a few native plants in your garden, you’d have more butterflies and support for birds, which is really important because bird populations in the U.S. have plummeted. Birds need all the help they can get.”
“I already put out bird seed.”
“That’s fine for the adults, but it’s not what the babies need. They need caterpillars, and most of our butterfly species have caterpillars that can eat only native plants.”
The woman stared at me for a long moment, and then looked at the buckwheat.
“Without buckwheat,” I added, “four butterfly species in Southern California disappear.”
The cold look in the woman’s eyes caught me off guard. With a wave of her diamond-ringed hand, she said, “Well, I don’t like white flowers.” And walked away.
When I returned home that evening, my husband took one look at my face and poured two glasses of wine. We drank them outside on our patio, watching finches, sparrows, and mourning doves feed on buckwheat seeds. So many birds were fluttering in the bush that the entire plant was shaking. I tried to be in the moment, tried to keep my thoughts from replaying the frustrating conversations I’d had earlier that day. But with the future of Southern California at stake, it was difficult to be Zen about it.
I shared my worries with my husband as I sipped my wine. It wasn’t only the event that caused my unease. It was my growing belief that plenty of public officials across the Los Angeles region were simply greenwashing. Environmental plans had implementation dates so far in the future they were meaningless. By then, conveniently, the officials would already be termed out of office, at which time new officials would have to make new plans, with new implementation dates . . . and nothing at all would get done. Nonprofits were doing the heavy lifting, their staff and volunteers working themselves to the bone on shoestring budgets. The toll could be seen in suicide—yes, suicide—and severe cases of burnout. How much longer would people be sacrificial lambs for misdirected profit structures? For leadership’s refusal to implement sane environmental and socio-economic policies?
I knew that my hopes were a problem. I knew why I felt so emotionally depleted after outreach events. I wished I could just put out the information and not care whether city officials or community members acted on any of it. But I did care, I would always care, because getting through matters. I wondered: would our civilization and biosphere have to hit the proverbial wall for people to change the way they landscape? Would our taps need to run dry? Would our gardens need to be devoid of birdsong, and butterflies a thing of the past?
Neither my husband nor I could answer those questions.
In a conversation with a colleague not long after the Descanso Gardens disappointment, I mentioned how I was struggling with people’s apathetic response to the water and biodiversity crises. I wished I could be like the environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben, whose work on climate change has been unflagging for decades. How was he able to persist without becoming despondent? It was my luck that my colleague knew McKibben personally. She told me that he pours his energies into conveying the information, undeterred by people who don’t want to be part of the solution. McKibben just moves on to the next person who might be more receptive and constructive. It was all about gathering allies and momentum to create a tipping point.
Ah. So how do we create a tipping point for native landscaping? How do we make it the norm rather than the exception? I thought long and hard about this. It seems to me that we’ve got to portray it not as optional but as essential for combating loss of biodiversity. Because it is. We also need to make it clear that combating loss of biodiversity is as urgent as combating climate change. Because it is. This information can’t be shared only at fairs or in a short science unit in school. It must be broadcast far and wide to everyone through public service announcements and social media campaigns. And those campaigns will work only if they’re supported by the actual, in-the-ground transformation of our built landscapes, using the same tools that have been successful for other issues from seat belts to solar energy: Substantive government leadership. Rebates and tax incentives. Community organizing. Coordinated efforts between (well-funded) nonprofit organizations. Subsidies for retooling and retraining.
While we’re at it, let’s subsidize the ornamental horticulture industry to make the shift to growing native species. Let’s help it customize its products to each eco-region and retrain people working in the industry, from growers to retailers to designers to lawn maintenance professionals. And let’s think about charging people for the true cost of water. Not just what it costs the water company to deliver it, but what it costs the ecosystem(s) from which it is taken. Much like the true cost of gasoline should be about fifteen dollars per gallon, when all the health and environmental effects are factored in, the true cost of tap water should be much higher. Of course we need to provide water inexpensively for minimum basic needs. Not everyone can afford to pay water bills like the residents of La Cañada. But above those basic needs we’ve got to factor in the environmental degradation of distant river systems, depletion of aquifers, and harm to wildlife.
Education and the arts are also essential for creating this tipping point. I want to see compulsory education in the environmental sciences about local ecosystems, so that children grow up understanding the nature of where they live. And I want to live in a country with broad support for the arts. Sometimes, only art can spark the emotional response so necessary for reimagining our relationship with nature, for living with more demonstrated compassion for the natural world.
Life on Earth is at stake.
At the end of 2018, I left my job with the Theodore Payne Foundation. My husband was offered a research fellowship in France and we jumped at the chance. I’d done important and necessary work in Los Angeles, but I was beyond burned out. Still, I felt guilty—as though needing a break were somehow a personal deficiency—but a friend who worked for a water district set me straight.
“Lisa, you lasted almost twelve years,” she said. “Twelve years! People who do outreach for us usually last two.”
And now, to use the eco-writer Paul Kingsnorth’s apt description, I am a “recovering” environmentalist. Here in France, I’ve been learning to let go of my despair and anger at people’s inaction, and to focus on what I love: the natural world, and the pleasure of writing stories to inspire people to honor it. Long walks with my dogs in the nearby forest are helping me recover. Seeing wild boar and soaring swifts, along with learning the relationships between French butterfly species and native plants, have reenergized me, so much so that I joined a local community group to help educate people about native plants. The work has been slowed by the pandemic, but the isolation has meant that I actually welcome the time I’ll be able to interact with the public again. And when I do, I will try to abandon hope. Hope, after all, is what got me into trouble before. It’s better just to do the work. This is the way I must start over, so I can persist.
And yet, I believe it’s possible to hold a certain kind of hope: a far-in-the-future hope that the positive things people are currently doing will, centuries from now, help the biosphere recover without fully undergoing a sixth mass extinction. It doesn’t matter that I won’t live to see it.
I hope others do.
Lisa Novick is an environmentalist and writer based in France. Her recent work has appeared in The Hopper magazine, Plants & Poetry, Wild Roof Journal, The Write Launch, and Sky Island Journal. She was a member of the Biodiversity Expert Council and Urban Ecosystems Working Group of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and co-founded Landscape Integrity Films and Education. (www.lisanovick.com)
Photo courtesy of author