Riverwoods Preservation Council

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Canoe on DesPlaines River


 Living in Harmony with Mother Nature

  January - February, 2008



(photograph of the Des Plaines River courtesy of Sue Auerbach; photographs of the Cedar Waxwing and White-tailed Deer below, courtesy of Ho Min Lim)

“It isn’t nice to fool Mother Nature!”
Do you remember the margarine ad with that tag line? In the ad, Mother Nature responded with an unpleasant surprise.
In real life, we find that Mother Nature often responds in the same way.
The challenge is to work in harmony with Mother Nature, to avoid unpleasant surprises and their consequences.

We create imbalance by the choices we make.
As we settled this country, we transformed it in many ways. We eliminated predators, creating a safer environment for ourselves and for other species. The deer population began increasing. At first we were overjoyed, as sightings of the beautiful creatures became less rare. Soon we were surrounded by plentiful populations. Our natural environment appeared to be enhanced. We were experiencing nature right in our own backyards.

But then we noticed that many plants, especially the native plants on which the smaller deer population had long fed, were decreasing in numbers. Looking more closely, we saw that wildlife that relied on those plants for food and habitat were also decreasing. The problem was cyclical - fewer native plants meant fewer pollinating honey bees and butterflies, which meant fewer native plants. Saplings were also vanishing, jeopardizing future generations of trees. Development reduced woodlands and other open space. Less undeveloped space led to decreased numbers of hawks and owls that relied on natural areas for habitat.

We were being left with fewer types of plants and wildlife, and fewer numbers. We were creating an environment in which only plants not favored by deer could survive and propagate. With the best of intentions, we had created an unbalanced environment.

In nature, the law of unintended consequences prevails.
When European settlers came to America, they brought with them not only their cultures and traditions, but herbs as well. One such herb was garlic mustard, planted to use as seasoning. It not only thrived here, but exploded in our woodland environment and now, with no predators, it crowds out our more fragile native wildflowers.

Gypsy MothThe gypsy moth was introduced into the U.S. in an attempt to start an American silk industry. A few moths escaped their Massachusetts test facility, and began spreading across the U.S. Their new American environment was perfect – many trees and few predators. They now have ravaged a major part of this country, killing many millions of trees in the process.
(photography courtesy of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. www.forestryimages.org)
Common BuckthornBuckthorn is another European import. It provides excellent screening, requires little attention and remains green for an extended period. Unfortunately, the plant is invasive. It’s berries are loved by birds, which distribute the seed widely. The plant creates dense shade and changes the character of the soil, inhibiting growth of native plants.
(photograph courtesy of John M. Randall)

Cedar WaxwingWe create imbalance by our wildlife preferences.
We love some animals, despise others, and don’t think about many.
Deer and birds are our favorites. There is something about them that we find appealing. Is it the deer’s big brown eyes, or their gracefulness, that appeals to us? Is it the bird’s musical calls or mastery of flight that we can’t resist? Who can say? We just know we love them.

At the other end of the spectrum are those creepy crawly things. Snakes and bugs and all those cold-blooded creatures that creep and slither on the ground. Most of us do not find them at all appealing. And then there are the rodents. Who likes loves rats and mice.?

Chipmunks tend to appeal to those whose sidewalks haven’t been threatened by the chipmunks’ vast network of subterranean burrows. And most of us don’t think much about frogs and salamanders and all the other critters we rarely see. But nature doesn’t play favorites. All that wildlife is out there trying to survive. Often they must compete with us humans just for space to live. Many species require other species for food or recycled nesting places and burrows. When we favor one over the other – directly by feeding and indirectly by removing a predator – we create an imbalance that nature may have difficulty restoring.

White Tailed DeerWhy don’t preservationists just let nature take its course?
The answer is simple. We’ve changed nature’s course, sometimes intentionally and sometimes innocently. We’ve introduced invasive plants such as garlic mustard and buckthorn, whose populations have exploded. We’ve imported damaging insects such as the gypsy moth and the Asian long-horned beetle, which have destroyed hundreds of millions of trees. We’ve eliminated animal habitat by transforming the prairie and forests into cultivated turf grass landscapes. We’ve created overpopulations of some species by eliminating their natural predators. We’ve spewed pollutants into the air and water. We’ve applied toxic fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides to our land. We’ve radically changed our natural environment. Can we really expect nature to take over and right itself against such an onslaught?

So now what?
Let’s remember that nature is all around us, and that we don’t own it. We are simply a part of it. We influence it, and it influences us. So let’s care for it. A healthy environment yields healthier inhabitants … including us.

LeafHabitat, habitat, habitat! Preserve all that you can. That low wet spot in your yard may look swampy to you but that’s exactly where the blue-spotted salamander needs to go through his tadpole phase.

LeafGo native. Non-native geraniums and tulips are gorgeous, and you can have them. Just don’t forget to plant some natives, such as anise hyssop, which is loved by bees, milkweed, which nurtures butterflies, and cardinal flower and columbine, which attract hummingbirds. And plant durable native grasses, such as prairie dropseed and Indian grass.

LeafEliminate invasives.
Garlic mustard and buckthorn, among others, are rapidly spreading throughout Riverwoods.

LeafPlant trees. Mature trees are declining because of natural aging, construction damage and other factors. Saplings are rare because of overbrowsing by deer. Help rejuvenate the woods by planting natives such as white oak, burr oak, shagbark hickory, blue beech and ironwood trees.

LeafBecome a pesticide-free zone. Many garden chemicals are toxic to insects. The dead insects may be eaten by owls and hawks. What do you think happens to birds fed a diet laced with poison? What do you think happens when we have no raptors to control rodents and overpopulated rabbits? And do you want to be exposed to those chemicals yourself?

LeafIn all your activities, walk gently upon the land. Your commitment is essential if we are to preserve this extraordinary natural heritage of Riverwoods.

This is the original complete version of the article printed in the Village Voice.

© Riverwoods Preservation Council- - Page last updated: December 2009