Our Bay: This Week's Take:
I have a green dream …

For The Capital, August 30, 2008

Zora Latham is the director of the Chesapeake Ecology Center

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. - Oscar Wilde

I see contoured knolls and swales and rain gardens abound, planted with lush native vegetation. I see rainscaping, to reduce polluted runoff, becoming commonplace.

On weekend mornings, I hear birds singing, instead of the incessant drone of landscape assault weapons - that is, mowers, blowers and weed whackers. I see beautiful landscapes full of native plants, which require little or no fertilizer and pesticides, or watering other than what nature provides - in other words, healthy landscapes that don't need to be maintained on life support.

I dream that one day we'll say in the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay: "What falls on site, stays on site."

What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream be for our environment today? One thing Dr. King would likely say, as others have said: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

I have many green dreams, shared by many dreamers of a beautiful, healthy and sustainable environment. Our dreams are often inspired by what's lacking, or in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: "Our shortcomings are our eyes with which we see the ideal." We each are the windows through which we see the world. As Henry David Thoreau said: "It's not always what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

More and more dreamers are living the dream. Many of us recycle and compost. With the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuel, there is a growing awareness of energy consumption and conservation measures. We are beginning to build green buildings nationwide, more of us are working in green-collar jobs and some are telecommuting more and driving less. Some of us are even changing our diets to include more plant-based meals, understanding the personal health impacts and environmental impacts of our meat-centered diets.

Opportunities abound, but our vision is often blurred. We don't know what we don't know.

For example, we tend to be unaware of plants' ability to filter out pollution from the environment - not only air pollution, but equally importantly, water pollution. Abundant, healthy plant life is essential to our individual health and the health of our planet.

As my brother, biologist Claude Lathan, would say: "Plants are the inverse to animal life. They take our waste product, carbon dioxide, and give us oxygen; they filter and clean the air and water of excess nutrients and pollution, utilizing it to their benefit; they are stationary and we are mobile; and so on."

For some, "It is better to look good than to feel good," a statement by Fernando Lamas, made famous by Billy Crystal's imitation of Mr. Lamas. It is very likely that we devote more aesthetic attention to our landscapes and their contents than we do to any other set of objects in nature, or for that matter, the art world.

Despite this, however, our understanding of the impacts of our landscaping practices is woefully lacking. Our landscapes should be more than just plots of land that looks pretty - they should look good, but should also be healthy for earth's environmental sake. You would not want a body racked with disease and a miserable existence, as long as you looked good. The same can be said of our non-sustainable landscaping practices.

New garden aesthetic

Landscaping is largely practiced through imitation; however, a new garden aesthetic is growing in this country, and it brings changes for the better. Conservation landscaping - using native plants, removing invasive plants, conserving water, eliminating or reducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, shaping the ground for better infiltration and to control erosion, and enhancing aesthetics and wildlife habitat - can have a different look than that which most city and suburban gardeners have come to accept. The differences can be subtle to dramatic, depending on the choices.

By rainscaping with rain gardens, green roofs, rain barrels and permeable pavement - to reduce stormwater runoff - we can improve water quality and the health of humans and wildlife. Planting sites more densely in layers of differing heights, results in better water retention, greater air and water quality benefits and increased wildlife habitat.

We can choose to create yards that are not only visually appealing but are also healthier and more interesting to use.

Reducing turf grass is a simple way to make your yard more ecologically sound. People are beginning to recognize and accept that yards need not look like putting greens and that a well-landscaped yard can include a diversity of native herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees, creating even more visual interest. This also ensures more seasonal interest and less damage from pests and diseases, while providing habitat for essential pollinators.

Knowledge of plants native to the locale can help members of the community nurture a "sense of place" and a feeling of belonging to a vibrant and beautiful watershed.

Perhaps in our gardens we can discover fresh ways to bring our aesthetics and our ethics about the land into meaningful alignment. It is as good a place as any to create the dream of a beautiful, healthy and sustainable environment, where what falls on site, stays on site.

Zora Lathan is director of the Chesapeake Ecology Center, which hosts its annual open house and native plant sale from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 6. The center is located on the grounds of the Adams Academy, 245 Clay St. in Annapolis. Visit www.chesapeakeecologycenter.org.

(Revised August 2008)