Butterflies, Wildfires, Racism and Reconciliation Ecology

This morning I watched in wonder as a gorgeous two-tailed swallowtail butterfly, our largest species with a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, sipped nectar with focused concentration from the showy milkweed flowers on the creek bank below my house. Milkweed flowers that didn’t exist nineteen years ago when my late husband Richard and I bought the chunk of blighted industrial property that gave us a block of frontage on an equally blighted thread of urban creek. 

Those milkweed plants seeded themselves in as I began restoring the creek, hand-weeding the invasive, non-native plants to make space for those, like milkweed, who would contribute to the creek’s health and restoration. Now, almost two decades later, that block of creek sings with hummingbirds, swallows, bluebirds, tanagers, butterflies like the huge two-tailed swallowtail above, mayflies and caddisflies, garter snakes, and all manner of renewed life. 

What a joy it is to help revive a community! That kind of work is my way of restoring goodness to a world that sorely needs it. 

Seeing the swallowtail nectaring from the milkweed flowers this morning reminded me that we can be a positive influence. We can heal each other and this battered earth. It returned my sense of hope for our future. 

Tonight I sit in my kitchen and watch as roiling clouds of forest fire smoke boil over the valley from the Hayden Pass Fire, which started yesterday in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and today blew up into 3,000 acres. The fire in remote country at the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range, and not threatening any human settlements, although two campgrounds on the Hayden Pass road have been evacuated. 

As the smoke column from the burning forest billows upward, I’m thinking about national events of the past few weeks, from the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to more killings of black men by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, to the sniper-attack in Dallas. I’m thinking about grief and anger and when things spiral out of control, like the Hayden Pass Fire, which grew from something small and manageable into a conflagration creating its own weather over the course of one hot afternoon. 

I normally shy away from commenting on national events, mostly because I don’t feel like I have much to contribute. I’m a plant geek, not a politics geek. 

But the anger and devisiveness in this country today feel to me like the Hayden Pass Fire, a destructive force gathering strength from the very society it is consuming. I don’t want to see this country burst into flames.

Of course, the metaphor isn’t exact. Here in the arid West, forest fires–even the big catastrophic ones–also do good, recycling nutrients, opening up the forest canopy to allow new growth, fertilizing the soil with their ash, giving seeds of wildflowers, grasses and shrubs–of aspen trees–space and nutrients to grow and flourish. Wildfire can be a rejuvenating force here. 

I wonder if there is a way in which the catastrophic fires plaguing humanity these days could also somehow lead to restoration. 

I don’t want to trivialize the horror, the pain–the sheer wrongness of knowing that your life is in danger simply because of the color of your skin, your religion, and/or your gender. No one should fear for their life for any reason. Ever. 

So what do we do in a country where we have fostered the kind of hatred that makes that fear and pain a reality? Perhaps we can learn something from reconciliation ecology, a new discipline within my own field that I just learned about recently, although it turns out I have been practicing it for decades. 

Unlike restoration ecology, which aims to restore pristine natural communities by eradicating all non-native species, or preservation, which sequesters whole areas of landscape as biodiversity reserves to preserve the integrity of wild nature (Yellowstone National Park, for instance), reconciliation ecology proposes saving species by increasing biodiversity within existing and often severely modified urban and agricultural landscapes. 

How is reconciliation ecology practiced? Study the existing landscape, learn what species are there, work at making space to return native species within the framework of the existing lives, and continue to promote community heath and diversity as you do. 

Patiently and carefully making space for diversity within what already exists. That seems to me to be something we could apply to human culture too. Suppose we worked at reconciliation ecology in a way that honored all of the people who share this country. That aimed to make communities healthier by honoring and nurturing their diversity. That acknowledged what is–racism, violence, pain–and also what could be, a society that welcomes diversity as a part of community strength and health. 

The word reconcile comes from the Latin, meaning “to bring back together.” That seems like a good metaphor for the work we each need to do in this country: bring our society back together.

We’ve allowed ourselves to fragment, to draw lines between those we embrace as “us” and those “others” we don’t. That’s wrong, and contrary to what I think of as our species’ best talent. We can’t fly thousands of miles on fragile wings, we can’t dive unaided deep in the ocean, we can’t metamorphose, our very cells melting and reforming from hungry earthbound caterpillar to elegant winged butterfly; we can’t last for decades, waiting patiently in the soil for the right conditions like seeds. 

But we can love. And that, it seems to me, is what we should do now. Begin working on the reconciliation ecology of our communities, nurturing healthy diversity, with as much love as possible. 

Like the native coneflower in the photo above, who sprouted all on her own in the parkway once I created space by carefully hand-weeding invasives that had crowded the wildflowers out. This plant that botany calls Ratibida columnifera doesn’t care that she’s growing in town on formerly industrial property next to a busy street; she doesn’t care about the sunset-it column of forest fire smoke behind her. Like us, she just wants to live her life in the way she does it best, summoning native bees to pollinate her flowers, blooming in the sun even after months without rain, enlisting songbirds to consume and distribute her seeds. Living as part of the community. 

Don’t we all deserve that?