Half Earth, Healed Earth

E.O. Wilson, leading myrmecologist (new word for me! ant biologist), wrote a book called Half Earth a few years ago which I recently listened to on my commute. I've been on an audio-book kick this year, and have checked a number of must-reads off my list (including the likes of Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights, as well as non-fiction books like my new favorite, Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer about moss, plants, bryology (another new word: moss biology) and indigenous plant wisdom).

Half Earth gave me much to ponder. Wilson argues that in order to keep the earth habitable, and to not destroy ecosystems as we know them worldwide, we need to set aside half of the land on earth in large chunks as nature preserves. His deep understanding of ecosystems boiled down to this: they are infinitely more complicated than we will ever be able to understand, and therefore we need to let ecosystems do their thing, managing only the most obvious things like invasive species. He thinks we should build on the current nature preserve model, just adding critical pieces of land in wide swaths.

I think this is a fabulous idea and I wish him luck. But waiting around for our governments to get around to it is a deflating prospect. Therefore I propose an alternative parallel practice that we citizens can undertake immediately to move in this direction. Each one of us who owns or manages a piece of land should return half of it to native plants. If each farmer let half of their acreage return to nature, if each lawn-managing homeowner planted half their lawn in native grasses and wildflowers (around the edges, in the shady spots, in the always-too-wet-and-the-lawnmower-gets-stuck spot), we could move a great distance toward a half-earth-natural model. And it may even help us rebound from the insect apocalypse we are in the midst of.

Jeremy and I are currently in the process of turning our three acre patch of ground from an overgrown cedar patch into a productive orchard and garden. To do this we are cutting down cedars and planting pears, pawpaws, figs, elderberries, mulberries, muscadines, and we will be adding more variety every year. We are leaving nice big oaks and hickories here and there. The garden spots are permanent raised beds that we enrich with organic matter every year, the paths covered with wood chips. I'm also researching edible, perennial native plants that we can cultivate, and want to add mushroom cultivation as well.

We are nowhere near completion. There's still detritus from 40 years of careless human habitation in this spot to clean up, more cedars to clear and turn into fence posts, lumber, or raised bed borders. More plants and trees to budget for and get established. And we only have evenings and weekends to pursue this dream. But however long it takes, we follow the same path: grow food while mimicking nature in its diversity, complexity, and beauty. We'll get there someday on our land, and maybe by then society at large will have wizened up and made leaps toward devoting half the earth to natural ecosystems that make our continued existence possible.


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