Thursday, April 30, 2020

Nature's Best Hope by Douglas W. Tallamy

[...] maintaining our lawns in their prestigious, weed-free states has become quite a toxic undertaking (Wargo et al. 2003). All this matters: 40 percent of the chemicals used by the lawn-care industry are banned in other countries because they are carcinogens. Scientists are not guessing about this: Seventy-five studies have documented the connection between lawn pesticides and lymphoma, for example. These same studies show that pets and children are most at risk of contracting cancer, because they spend a lot of time rolling around in the grass. 

~from p. 48 of Advance Reader Copy, Nature's Best Hope

Nature's Best Hope is a book about home ecology. Subtitled, "A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard," it is about how each individual can contribute to a healthy wildlife population (including insects and birds), which in turn keeps humans from dying off.

Author Douglas W. Tallamy starts out by giving a little historical perspective and talking about things that have helped protect portions of our world. Unfortunately, some of those federal initiatives have been damaged during the Trump administration, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The current administration has also used waivers to get around laws that protect endangered animals. So, there is already a tiny bit about this book that's dated but my fingers are crossed that these protections will eventually be restored.

At any rate, the book isn't about what the government can do but how any individual can make changes to his or her yard (or add plants to a balcony, if that's what's available to you) to help restore the insects and animals that have been dying off at a shocking rate. See also my review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which is mentioned in Nature's Best Hope. Both authors talk about the dramatic loss of life on the planet, why it's happening, and how it will eventually impact us, but Nature's Best Hope particularly focuses on the insect and bird life that can easily brought back with a little help by planting native plants (not exotics from other countries, even if they're commonly available and ubiquitous in your area) and even plants that we consider weeds, like milkweed for butterflies and goldenrod (which the author says is not the sneeze-inducing plant you think it is; that would be ragweed), planting oak, willow, or other trees that are attractive to insects, and keeping the grass portion of your lawn smaller. He even talks about how to deal with a Homeowner's Association (HOA) to convince them that your type of yard plantings are not only acceptable but desirable.

I have two problems with this book but I think it's worth reading, so let me tell you what I didn't like. About halfway into the book, I realized that what I really needed was not a detailed description of why chunks of land don't maintain as much wildlife as large areas that are uninterrupted by roads and cities. I've read that, before. I didn't need to read about how many bees there are in the world and how huge their contribution. I've read a Timber Press book about that specifically. I've read about the dramatic loss of insects and birds, so I don't need a reminder. What I really wanted from this book was a practical guide to choosing native plants for my area. And, in fact, the author said that would just be too much and blew off the concept by listing a website where you can look it up yourself and saying if you can't figure it out you can hire someone. No, that's not what I need and while I found the book educational, I doubt it's what others need for the author's idea to come to fruition. It might be a huge labor, but a book with suggested plantings, how and where to plant them (whether they like wet or dry feet/sunlight or shade, etc.), and suggested arrangements to make them attractive is what I believe people really need. A practical guide, in other words, rather than a text about nature and why you should plant in a particular fashion.

The other problem I have is that the author is a professor and the book reads like it was written by a person who is so accustomed to using the terminology of his field that it didn't occur to him that a wider audience would get lost in the weeds, so to speak (pun intended). In other words, I'm about to repeat something I've been saying for at least a decade: If your book has terminology that isn't readily understandable from the context, write a glossary. So many books could easily be made less frustrating and more readable with the simple addition of a glossary. I know the Internet makes looking things up simpler than it used to be but that's no excuse. Books should be understood without having to constantly look things up.

Having said that, I love reading about and learning about nature and I enjoyed Nature's Best Hope.

Recommended - While I think it would require some additional research to get any real benefit from the ideas in Nature's Best Hope and it's slightly dry, I enjoyed the learning experience. Do I think it's practically applicable with help from local nurseries or landscapers? Possibly. I haven't found the people at the local nurseries all that helpful, even when I'm just looking for a particular plant that I've bought from them in the past, so I have a feeling it would be difficult to get much information from them about how to plant native plants. Would they even consider ordering or planting flowering plants that most people consider weeds? I can't say. I will say that I did not leave this book thinking, "I know exactly what to do." I left it knowing what's the right thing to do, but not quite how to go about it, in other words. I think if Tallamy wrote a companion book with suggested plants for each state, diagrams to show how to plant them together, and color illustrations or photographs of how they look, that would be practical and useful. Nature's Best Hope is otherwise informative reading but probably not enough to compel any but the most determined or moneyed to alter their landscapes, much less start a movement as I believe the author intended.

And, for a laugh: I think this suggestion will go down like a lead brick in a time of pandemic and toilet paper shortages, but it made me chuckle for that reason:

I should note that the author mentions most bees do not sting so attracting them isn't likely to get you stung or killed. It's a good idea. Just funny timing.

I received a copy of Nature's Best Hope for review from Timber Press. Many thanks!

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