By now most leaves have floated down from lofty branches and cluster in my flowerbeds and on the grass. Still hanging onto dying foliage are some oaks and, of course, American beeches with parchment colored leaves persisting through winter. In late summer and early fall, before butterfly and moth caterpillars, bees and other insect larvae have begun their winter slumber, I mulch the leaves into the lawn area to add organic matter to the soil. Now all leaf offerings are left untouched, providing a nice blanket of protection for these critters through winter. Likewise, I leave uncut the meadow plants which serve to supply habitat and food.
I wasn’t always so tuned into the inhabitants of my yard, quite the opposite. If I had to give myself an appropriate title in those days, it would have been “Queen of the Lawn”. I ruled over my domain with my trusty weaponry; bags of pesticides and fertilizers, spreaders to dispense said chemicals, lawn mower, string trimmer, rake and blower, banishing all manner of undesirables from my realm. In the fall, all plants were automatically cut back, beds raked and the leaf “debris” hauled off by the county to the landfill. The land lay neatly naked. I shiver to think about it now. Then something quite enlightening happened. An insect, a firefly, or I should say the absence of fireflies, changed my conquering ways.
It was the mid-nineties and I had just obtained a new palace. Even before I moved in, I was plotting my take over of the property. I had spotted some clover and other suspicious broad leaf plants in the lawn. No wonder, the previous owners did not adhere to a four-step, or in my case, six-step program. They said something about lawn chemicals killing their dog. I was half listening, anxious to get rolling on my new acquisition and I did.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this new home, were the windows. They were six feet high and opened out giving unobstructed views of the trees, gardens and lawn. Soft, summer evening breezes floated in along with sounds of insects singing their nocturnal lullabies. What’s more, I was treated to an astonishing display of fireflies. The twinkling of hundreds, maybe thousands of these magical insects, brightened the night sky. It felt like Christmas in June. That was the first summer.
I lived there only three years. That last summer I was lucky if I spotted ten fireflies when darkness fell. There were no more bedtime lighting shows. Even the lullabies were hushed.
A firefly inspired, blinking light came on in my head and I made the connection between my pesticide-ridden lawn and the disappearance of the fireflies. You see, fireflies live in grasses during the day, typically when I would be bombarding the lawn with chemicals. It’s at night that the males climb up the blades of grass and fly into the trees to send signals to potential mates-if they made it through my chemical onslaught. The females perch in the grasses waiting, also signaling, for that just right male-that’s if she made it through. Looking back, I wonder how many other insects, that aren’t as noticeable as glowing fireflies, fell victim and did not survive my poisons?
In the fifteen years since I stopped piling on the pesticides, there has been growing scientific evidence connecting pesticide exposure and health concerns. The EPA reports that in the United States 95 percent of lawn pesticides are possible or likely carcinogens. In Canada, over 80% of the country has enacted bans on cosmetic lawn and landscape chemicals. The film, A Chemical Reaction, tells the story of the grassroots efforts in Canada that eventually brought about a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the ban. The court decision was based on the Precautionary Principal: “When an activity could harm human health or the environment, precautions should be taken, even when there is not absolute scientific proof or consensus.”
Beyond Pesticides, a non-profit, environmental activist organization, has been working for thirty years to eliminate toxic pesticides from the environment. They have compiled a Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database. The database details common pesticide related diseases affecting the public’s health, such as, asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and several types of cancer.
With growing awareness and education, more and more resources are available enabling homeowners to ditch the synthetic chemical approach to their yards and go organic. The Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association, Organic Land Care Program (NOFA) has recently published a booklet, Introduction to Organic Lawns and Yards written by Sarah Little, Ph. D. The manual introduces the homeowner to the “concepts of ecological, sustainable and organic landscaping” covering organic lawn care, lawn alternatives, invasive plants, pest control and more.
Also check out the Safelawns Movement. Founder, Paul Tukey, is an outspoken advocate for alternatives to chemical lawn care. Tukey is the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and the companion DVD Making the Organic Lawn Care Transition. Safelawns also produced A Chemical Reaction.
With all these resources and grassroots efforts, including this blog, word is getting around. People are joining calls to action and rejecting pesticides. The ludicrous safety image portrayed by chemical companies of a frolicking dog or bouncing baby on a chemically treated lawn, are being called into question. All this is good news for the fireflies, other insects, critters and people living, working and playing in gardens and on lawns.
For me, the day that light turned on, I became a citizen of my floral and faunal community. The reins of power gladly relinquished, I have been living healthily and happily ever since with the residents of my, not so neat but very much alive, garden!
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