Words are very important. Advertising agencies know this quite well, and toil in search of the perfect, most evocative term, the one that carries most impact. Politicians also do this. Words like “leaf damage”, “blemish”, “weed”, and “pest” carry a heavy stigma, whether they deserve it or not. I struggle to find better ways to express certain ideas, words that convey a deeper truth, one that often escapes those unaware of the interconnectivity of all life. Sometimes it is possible to come up with a better term; other times the alternative is cumbersome or confusing. I invite all of you to bring your suggestions. Here are a few examples:
Certain so-called “weeds” have a place in the native plants garden and should be welcome. If you Google “broadleaf weeds”, you will find thousands of entries; most of them calling them a problem and providing instructions on how to get rid of them. I have talked about their presence in lawns in “Lawn for Pollinators. Grass Companions“. Some, especially the native ones, are beneficial to pollinators and, perhaps, we would be more inclined to accept their presence in lawns if we called them “grass companions”.
Last week, I heard a conservation biologist lament: ‘We have to change the name of butterfly weed. No farmer is willing to plant anything by the name of “weed” near their fields, even if he is interested in helping pollinators.’
“Leaf damage” or “blemishes” in the foliage. I love some of the Dutch floral paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. They are realistic to the point of including partially eaten leaves and even a caterpillar or two. I wish I could find a good term for leaf damage. We know that these signs of insect activity are a good thing. They tell us that the ecosystem is healthy; the plants are providing food for insects, which, in turn, maintain the entire food web. But what terms can we use to replace the ones with such bad connotations? I talk about “signs of feeding insects” or “signs of insect life”. We could even call them “signs of ecosystem services” and we would be describing their role in the biological community more accurately. I haven’t come up with better ones. Have you?
Caterpillars, wood borers, leaf beetles—when are they “pests”? If they only do a moderate amount of damage, shouldn’t we call them something else? Once again, I am at a loss for words, but depending on the circumstances, I may find a word or phrase that emphasizes their role as part of the food chain and de-emphasizes the damage to plants (“bird food”?). At this point, it is good to remember that most native herbivores seldom cause serious damage. It is the introduced non-natives that can destroy plants and entire forests. They can bring species to the brink of extinction. They do deserve the name of pests, don’t you think?
“Native” is a perfectly good word; in fact it is part of the name of this blog for good reasons. However, all organisms are native somewhere and non-native elsewhere. What we really mean is that they are an integral part of the ecosystem; that they have coevolved with the other components of the community. The word “native” has given rise to all sorts of misunderstandings. Sometimes the recommendation to use natives is interpreted as nostalgia for the past or, worse yet, as xenophobia. It is also confused with national status by those not well informed who fail to see that political frontiers are irrelevant; it is the ecosystems that matter. So, I use words as “community member”, “ecosystem member” and “coevolved organisms” whenever possible.
“Bare spots” on the ground are, to me, “bee habitat”. If they have some moisture, they can be “butterfly rest stops”.
A large expanse of manicured lawn is, according to Doug Tallamy, a “wasted opportunity”.
I think that these words are not embellishments of the truth. On the contrary, they depict the truth more accurately than their counterparts.
Can you think of other examples?
And here is a term that captures the imagination: “Homegrown National Park“. It is the name that Doug Tallamy wants to give to our urban and suburban gardens, 20 million acres of them, if they were turned into native plants and wildlife gardens. It would be the largest national park, available to all of us by just stepping out of our houses.
A few sights of our Homegrown National Park above and right.
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