Ok, first of all, I really, really like Sara Stein. She is a science writer, and began as a children’s science writer when her children were small. As her children aged, so did her target audience, until she was writing accessible and personable popular science books for adults. I’ve only read one of her children’s books, The evolution book, which I acquired and first read when I was ten. I went on reading and rereading for years, until I actually cited the book for a major college paper (for which I got a really good grade). Anyone who can respect the mind of a ten year old that much wins my respect in return. Aside from the more specific reasons I think you should read Noah’s garden, the book makes a clear and interesting introduction to certain aspects of ecology.
Sara Stein died two years before I set out to try to talk to her. Ultimately, biology claims us all. Having become familiar with her writing, and with some of her work between the writing, I can say we lost a great woman.
So, on to this book that I think everyone should read. The title is fairly self-explanatory. The Biblical Noah, of course, is our archetypal conservationist; the rising tide drowns the animals, except for the breeding stock preserved aboard the Ark. The Ark is not a permanent solution, but as a temporary refuge it makes the difference between the end of everything and the possibility of survival. During our current flood of ecological destruction, where are our arks? There are parks, of course, and zoos, but no one boat can float breeding stock for all the animals and plants there are; no dozen arks can. We need lots of arks. We need big ones and little ones, country ones and city ones, desert ones and forest ones and prairie ones. We need professional arks and we need amateur arks. So if Noah had a garden-ark, rather than a boat-ark, a garden plot planted to ride the metaphorical sea, what would it be like?
Read this book; find out.
I should say that you may have encountered the idea of the wildlife garden already. Landscaping for wildlife is getting kind of popular, and the principle has its organized advocates. Among the largest and most organized is the Certified Wildlife Habitat Program, run by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and its affiliates. Some affiliates use the older name, Backyard Habitat program, and there are other, similar, programs run by people like the Audubon Society. Basically, you fill out a form listing all the ways your yard is friendly to wildlife, send in a small fee, and get a sign for your yard stating that it is certified habitat. Walk around a suburban neighborhood and you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing one of these signs. The yard behind the sign will usually be a glorious riot of shrubs, flowers, and decorative grasses attended by happy bugs and happier birds.
The thing is, though, when I interviewed the former head of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program, he said that the thing that first really inspired him to get involved with backyard ecology was reading this book by Sara Stein.
The organizations do a definite public service by popularizing the idea of restoration landscaping. Their advice is generally simple and flexible—you don’t need to do a lot of research to get started, so more people will go ahead and get started. But Ms. Stein went further. She went deeper. Ecology, as my thesis adviser likes to say, is not rocket science; you can send a rocket to the moon and back with a single equation, but there’s nothing that simple in ecology. Floating a workable garden-ark ultimately requires engaging with that complexity, and Ms. Stein does. In this book, Ms. Stein provides a lot of interesting information and ideas, but even she cannot provide a simple and complete set of instructions, a kind of ark-in-a-kit. There’s no way to avoid the process of discovery she went through. Instead, she provides herself as a role-model for that process.
And, if you’re not ready to build a whole ark, maybe Noah’s garden will inspire you to let at least some of your lawn grow long. After all, some kinds of lightening bugs need long grass to grow up in. They eat slugs there. More long grass means fewer slugs and more wonderful little beetles that glow. I used to be really good at catching them when I was little, before I started needing glasses.
An example; “Imagine me,” says Sara Stein, on page 107, “in the grip of conversion, reading the radical literature of ecology.” After reading up on aphids (she tells us that they are “polymorphous, polyphagous, viviparous, parthenogenic parasites of plants,” before helpfully explaining what all these words mean), she discovers that while aphids damage plants we like, and hence might be considered bad, and certain ants protect aphids and hence might also be considered bad, aphid ants also drive away any competing plant pests and accidentally protect the larvae of certain aphid-eating wasps—and so might be considered good (and, of course, if aphid ants are good, then so are the aphids that support them…). It’s not that Ms. Stein runs herself into paralysis in little intellectual circles of run-on sentences like mine. It’s that she ultimately concludes that even a garden is beyond our capacity to sort into good and bad. We can’t play favorites among organisms without getting way over our heads and probably making things worse. What we can do is be gardeners of a whole ecosystem. What we can do is maintain and guard the integrity of the ark.
Near the end of the book Ms. Stein asks if all of this will really work; will the animals whose habitat was destroyed by development come back if we plant the world that can contain them? I’ve been asking the same question (remember I mentioned having a thesis adviser?), and almost twenty years after the publication of Noah’s garden, I am in a position to answer with a definite maybe. There are still no clear-cut answers, still no way out of detailed research and educated guesses and discovery, no blue-prints for an ark-garden. But Ms. Stein’s answer to her own question still appears to be the right one:
Perhaps wild turkeys can return; perhaps they can’t. But when each of us, alone and in community, on acreage and in small back yards, for reasons of ecology, economy, or style has done all that can be done to restore the abundance of the land, many other animals will surely rejoin us.
Then it will work. Then there will be plenty. Then we will have reason for thanksgiving.
Stein, S. (1993). Noah’s garden: Restoring the ecology of our own back yards. Houghton Mifflin: New York, NY