In the 21st century, there is no more “wildernesses,” but rather green pockets and parks, designated by humans for wildlife to exist. On these larger reservations you can find animals made famous by nature documentaries, creatures such as the American Bison. Bison once ranged from the Appalachians Mountains, across to the Rockies, down to the Gulf of Mexico and up to Alaska. By the millions, Bison psychically shaped the environment and were a keystone species in the American landscape. Now many scientists consider them “ecologically extinct,” so marginal on the farms and wildlife reserves humans have provided for them, that they have little effect on wider ecosystems.
Ecologically extinct is a painful classification for a species. We, humans, on the other hand are the opposite; we are now the essential ecological players on planet earth. Everything we do affects the environment and all things living in it. This power can easily be abused, overlooked or misunderstood. As an individual, it’s especially hard to grasp one’s impact on other species. As a city dweller, there are so many layers of concrete and steel between our feet that “treading softly” means nothing. I believe the adage “With great power, comes great responsibility” is very appropriate to our present day condition: socially and ecologically.
What is great power? Well socially, some would consider it to be the exertion of strength or control over others; some would say one’s class or influence. Ecologically, maybe power is a species’ position in the food web, its ability to adapt, and its effect on other organisms in their environment.
If we were to consider our ecological influence as much as our social influence, the average person with access to green space has a lot of power. Green space being lawns, gardens, parks, roofs, acres of land, or a window ceil plant box. Those spaces function as intermediary spaces for migratory species of birds, mammals and insects. Central Park these days feels like a bird zoo! There are so many species of birds concentrated in the park during the spring that one has a hard time imaging that their populations are in decline. The disturbing truth is, they have nowhere else to go. Fortunately most birds and insects can travel from back yard to back yard, unlike the American Bison, which is recovering from near extinction but no longer has a “wilderness” to support new populations.
We must rethink our landscaping and gardening practices. It is too common a practice to use green space solely for aesthetic purposes, creating impressive sprawling green lawns and planting exotic plant species to outshine the neighbors’ displays. The landscaping that has been undertaken in the last centaury has shaped our cities and towns; however, it has rarely considered the wellbeing of the local ecologies of the birds and the bees. People’s fascination with orderliness inspired the placement of hundreds of a single species trees (mono culture) in evenly spaced street boxes, roses with no pollen for pollinators and hedges cuts into agricultural shapes with no room for animals to take shelter. This relationship with the land exhibited our power over nature, and is rooted in our colonial past of disregarding original inhabitants. In New York City, original inhabitants could mean the Leni Lenape Indians, or oak trees, black bears, salt marshes, wolves, sturgeons, oysters, passenger pigeons, monarch butterflies, or milkweed.
My biases against conventional landscaping stems from this lack of consideration for other living things, and a general neglect for the possibilities of gardening practice to enhance local ecosystems. But I am no guru of beneficial relationships; I my self came to this present opinion in the last few months. I used to dabble in plant propagation and gardening as a hobby and as an extension of my artistic interest in natural aesthetics. An exotic plant (one not native to our region) didn’t mean anything to me if I planted it instead of a native plant (one that evolved to have relationships with other organisms in its environment). If it looked good, well what else could I ask for: and the answer is truly nothing… nothing because an exotic plant provides zilch for local organisms. The London Plane tree, an imported species from Europe commonly planted in New York City as a street tree supports little else besides Gray Squirrels, while native Oaks support an astounding 534 other organisms! Most of which are insects, the foundation of all food webs.
As a human I ask my self, for all I take, what can I give back? In the past, I would have said… “I recycle sometimes, I’m conscious of what I eat, during the summer I plant sunflowers.” Now, if Fish Bridge Park matures into a Nature Center, I can say: “I work with a unique community to provide shelter, food, water and sanctuary for local and migratory wildlife.” I think that’s an inspiring thing and our little sliver of land right next to the Brooklyn Bridge can become an example for all communities with access to green space who wish to give back to nature.