The Future Stewards of Our Planet
Douglas W. Tallamy
Someone recently asked me a very interesting question. If I were able to give my 10 year old self one piece of advice about conservation, what would it be?
This is a deeper question than I am used to answering, but I was surprised when the answered popped into my head immediately. I would tell my young self to not only think about preserving pristine habitats, but also consider returning nature to the many places from which we have expelled Her.
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the impacts of our rapidly-growing human footprint were obvious enough, but, like everybody else who was concerned about the loss of nature, I focused 100% on saving the bits of nature that had not yet fallen to the bulldozer. Never once did it occur to me that I could rebuild effective habitat right in my yard. I didn’t know anything about native plants vs non-native plants, or about how many caterpillars were required to support breeding birds. But I did know that little ponds supported lots of very cool creatures, because there was such a pond in what would soon become my new neighbor’s yard. I used to visit that pond nearly every day and enjoy the pollywogs, dragonflies, water-beetles, and frogs that lived there. In fact, I was there the day a bulldozer came and buried the pond, along with all my creature friends.
I mourned the loss of the pond that had been filled in to make my neighbor’s backyard, but why didn’t it occur to me that I could grab a shovel and dig a new pond in my own backyard? My parents would not have minded; in fact, they probably would have helped me. Instead, I mindlessly mowed our yard each week, as well as the yard next door that had once held my favorite toad pond. What a lost opportunity! It would be four more decades before I realized that saving the nature that remained in our world would not be enough to prevent our current biodiversity crisis. We would need to protect nature where there weren’t a lot of humans, but we would also have to restore it where there were a lot of humans; where we lived, worked, shopped, and farmed, because there were a lot of humans nearly everywhere.
And this is why I wish there had been a book like the young readers version of Nature’s Best Hope when I was 10 years old. If I had owned such a book, I could have helped fight the loss of biodiversity even as a young boy. I would have learned the critically important roles that plants play in our ecosystems and that not all plants play those roles equally. I would have learned that the plants we decorate our yards with are usually from other continents and that they do not support the animals that help run our ecosystems nearly as well as plants that evolved right here. Like most boys of my time, I really liked snakes and turtles and salamanders, but the young readers version would have taught me that it is insects that run the world, not snakes and turtles, and that it takes certain native plants to support healthy populations of those insects. Most of all, I would have learned that when you plant native plants, the birds, bees, and butterflies, as well as the reptiles and amphibians that I loved at the time, would return because there was something there to eat.
Our kids are the future stewards of planet earth. If they don’t know that; if they don’t know what good stewardship is; if they don’t love the natural world they must steward for their own good, they will be lousy stewards. We have been lousy earth stewards for far too long; we can no longer afford to destroy the natural world we depend on. It is my hope that the young reader’s version of Nature’s Best Hope will arm a new generation with the knowledge necessary to help change our adversarial relationship with nature to the collaborative one that will sustain us in the future.
cover photo credit: Douglas Tallamy and Homegrownnationalpark.org
Doug Tallamy is the T. A. Baker Professor of Agriculture in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored 106 research publications and has taught insect-related courses for 41 years. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. His book Bringing Nature Home was published by Timber Press in 2007, The Living Landscape, co-authored with Rick Darke, was published in 2014; Nature's Best Hope, a New York Times bestseller, was released in February 2020, and his latest book, The Nature of Oaks, was released in March 2021. His awards include recognition from The Garden Writer’s Association, Audubon, The National Wildlife Federation, Western Carolina University, The Garden Club of America, and The American Horticultural Association. Doug lives with his wife, Cindy, on their restored property in Oxford, PA.
“... what if each American landowner converted half of his or her yard to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than 20 million acres of what is now ecological wasteland. ”