Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Restoration

If you're like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the past several weeks surfing the internet for news of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. I have friends and relatives in Houston (all were flooded out with varying severity, but all are okay) and friends in the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and in Florida (all okay so far).  

Part of my obsession with the news is concern about those in harm's way, and part is the kind of horrified fascination we humans are subject to when seeing a catastrophe unfold as we watch. I grieve for the people killed and injured, and for those whose homes and lives have been devastated.

I grieve equally for the longer-term catastrophe of global climate change. For those millions of species and uncountable individuals with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for so much, from the oxygen we breathe to the beauty that succors our souls. These lives have also taken a huge hit from the two hurricanes: the trees in the forests on St. Barts stripped bare; the bats and lizards that once sheltered in those trees, the birds and butterflies. The fish and rays in the shallows as whole bays are sucked dry, then catastrophically flooded by passing storms. The corals, the sharks, the alligators and manatees, the mangroves whose roots buffer storm surges and shelter so many other lives… 

We can't know if global climate change is specifically responsible for this first-ever incident of two Category 4 hurricanes hitting the US mainland within a short time. (Irma was a Cat 5 when it hit the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but had lessened to a Cat 4 when it hit Key West.) As this article in the LA Times explains, we can say that warming air temperatures and the resultant warming of oceans caused by global climate change makes stronger hurricanes more likely.

So whether or not each storm was a direct result of global climate change, two catastrophic storms coming so close together are a picture of what the future looks like: more extreme weather events, and fewer "normal" periods of stable weather. More intense rainfall and flooding in some places and longer droughts in others; more catastrophic tornadoes, winds, cyclones; more severe winter storms where I live, and warmer and drier winters elsewhere.  

And of course, more wildfires like the ones burning across the West and coloring my dawn runs (top photo) and sunsets. Whole landscapes will change as species move or die out in response to global climate change. That alone feels unbearably sad.

Forest-fire-smoke tinted sunset over Cody

Grief is paralyzing, something I know well after losing Richard to brain cancer nearly six years ago (glioblastoma, the same kind that Senator McCain is dealing with). Sometimes you just have to go with it and let the waves wash over you. But if you stay down too long, you may never surface again.

My remedy for long-term grief of that sort that could very well drown a person is to do something. Not just anything at random, something that is a direct counter to the cause of the grief. 

Writing is one of my grief therapies. Habitat restoration is the other, specifically returning healthy communities of native species to degraded land. I've restored songbird and butterfly habitat to the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, restored healthy mountain prairie on a blighted former industrial parcel, nursed a thread of urban creek that had become a waste-dump ditch back to life as a cleanser of urban runoff and feeder trout stream. 

That creek before restoration…

And after.

In the face of global climate change, restoration offers hope. It feels like something tangible I can do to heal at least my small corner of the earth. 

So I am grateful that I have this house to bring back to life, its formerly sterile lawn-and-shade-tree yard to re-wild, and that I have the opportunity to work in Yellowstone National Park as a radical weeder, helping to restore the ecosystems of the place often called America's Serengheti for its awe-inspiring wildlife, large and small. 

I'm headed back to Yellowstone later this week for one last weeding stint, and to celebrate my 61st birthday in a landscape that holds my heart. When I get home, the last set of replacement windows will be in the garage waiting their turn to make my house more energy-efficient and sustainable. (Retrofitting my house to use less energy is part of my restoration effort to combat global climate change.) A new shipment of native and heritage plants will be awaiting planting as I continue to transform lawn into habitat that welcomes songbirds and pollinators. 

Purple sage (Salvia pachyphilla), beloved of butterflies, thriving in the rock garden that replaces part of my front lawn.

And I will return to work writing the new version of Bless the Birds, my memoir celebrating love and life. 

Yesterday I took a break from writing and obsessing over hurricane news, and began laying out the borders for a sitting patio and paths in the part of my back yard that won't be disturbed by the giant forklift when the largest window unit is installed later this month.

(The bricks are a gift of my neighbor, who has a spare stack of about 200. He saw me lining paths in my front yard with bricks and offered his to me. His yard is a tidy lawn and shade trees, his politics are the opposite of mine; no matter, we trade building materials, cookies, and snow shoveling in winter.)

Next summer, I'll sit on that patio in the shade of the big spruce tree, and watch butterflies and native bees visit the wildflowers in the native meadow I'll plant when window-replacement is finished. 

Restoration heals. Lives, buildings, whole landscapes. Our bodies, spirits, our communities, our wildlands. Our planet. 

We can all find ways to help restore what is broken, to bridge divides, to heal the losses. We must. Working together, we can accomplish miracles. 

Weather and Wildflowers

California is withering in a historic drought, parts of the southern Plains are experiencing catastrophic flooding, and here in southern Colorado, we’re unusually soggy from four weeks of successive snow and rain storms.

The peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range tonight, looking more like March than late May….

It’s been so relentlessly wet that we’e received what would normally be half a year of precipitation just in May. The little creek that runs past my house rose two-and-a-half feet one night last week; its voice changing from a chuckle to a thrashing roar.

Here in the normally relentlessly sunny and dry high desert, we always long for moisture. But too much at once is at least as nerve-wracking and damaging as too little, as those flooded out of their homes in Oklahoma and Texas can attest.

Today, spring returned. The sun stayed out for hours instead of minutes, the temperature rose from 34 degrees at dawn to 65 in the late afternoon, and the air felt promising instead of raw and damp. The peaks emerged from the clouds, soft white with new snow.

So after I spent much of the afternoon hauling sodden trash and debris-dams out of the creek and pulling more cheatgrass and other invasive weeds from its banks, I treated myself to a walk around my yard to see the wildflowers springing up in the native mountain prairie I’m restoring on my formerly industrial site. Join me for a look!

The street-side prairie is a sea of bobbing Lewis flax flowers (Linum lewisii). Their sky-blue blossoms only open for one day, and close as soon as the day heats up—heat has not a problem here lately.

At the base of the boulders that hold the bike/wheelchair path that cuts across the slope above that prairie, a very happy blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) sprouts flower heads just about ready to burst into bloom.

In the rock garden, the Uintah penstemon (Penstemon uintahensis), is only about five inches tall, but this alpine native makes up for its diminutive size by producing an abundance of flowers in eye-popping shade of blue-violet. The little plants bloomed right through our last two snowstorms.

On the creek bank on the south side of the house, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) sprouts have pushed their fleshy stems and leaves up through the soil, with tight-fisted buds at the top of each stalk.

Atop that bank, an evening primrose (I think a whitestem, but I’m not entirely sure) opens flowers each evening, scenting the air with a faint trace of lemon-flower sweetness to entice evening-flying sphinx moths as pollinators. (I hope the moths survived the storms.)

The wildflower I’m most excited about isn’t even in bloom yet. All that’s visible now is a scattering of tiny reddish plants, most no taller than two or three inches, in the patch of prairie on the north side of the house. When I saw them, I grinned and did a little tap dance right there–carefully avoiding smashing any plants….

These are whole leaf Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), one of the most difficult to grow—and spectacular—of our native wildflowers. The seeds only sprout where their roots can find one of their partners, either blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), the characteristic bunch grass of our mountain prairies, or one of the species of native sagebrush (the genus Artemisia).

When Indian paintbrush appear, their presence says the natural community is restoring itself, beginning the process of returning the soil and the land to health. In the midst of so much bad news—destructive drought and flooding, oil spills, shootings, wars, earthquakes—here are tiny signs of hope.

Earthwork: Habitat Gardening at Home and Away

It’s spring, and I’ve been on the road giving talks and workshops about gardening as a way to restore the earth and our connection to this glorious blue planet.

Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden. Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden.

Last week’s talk was in Fort Collins, Colorado, with passionate plantswoman and naturalistic garden designer Lauren Springer Ogden. We spoke to an audience of over 200 people as part of a City of Fort Collins Utilities series, me on designing for habitat and a healthy home landscape, and Lauren on her favorite plants for pollinators and wildlife.

It was the third talk I’ve given this spring on restoration gardening, and each time, the crowd has been larger than I expected and eager for knowledge about how to garden in ways that can heal this battered earth, and restore our relationship with nature.

I think we hunger for reconnection, for something positive we can do that gives back to the planet that gives us so much–air, water, food, the basic materials of our lives, plus beauty, awe and wonder. Habitat gardening is one powerful way to give back, providing homes and food for the “little guys” who help preserve healthy ecosystems–pollinators and songbirds–and also providing us with the delight of seeing those lives on a daily basis.

Sphinx moth, a key summer pollinator here and a fascinating diurnal insect, aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon for a meal of nectar, its hollow straw of a tongue already hanging out and ready. One of those “little guys”: a white-lined sphinx moth aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon, its hollow straw of a tongue ready to sip nectar!

Which is why I spend the time and energy to travel and teach, even when I’d rather stay home and work on my own landscape.

I made it home Thursday evening, and then spent Friday getting started on the next presentation–my keynote at the Chaffee County Home & Garden Show next Saturday. This weekend I finally had time for my own earth work, nurturing my reclaimed former industrial yard and the adjacent block of urban creek.

Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to murmur--and to revive the mayfly larvae. Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to revive the mayfly larvae.

Which, by the way, is running again. I hear its murmuring voice from my front deck, a lovely sound after four weeks of unusually hot and dry weather.

Yesterday I wore myself out laying the first part of my future outdoor dining patio in a flat spot on the slope between my two buildings where the two-story garage/studio casts shade on spring and summer evenings.

I had already spent time loosening the construction-compacted ground with a mattock, hauling out rocks and sifting the gravel-sized fragments from the sand, and leveling the area. My friends Tony and Maggie had helped me carry and roughly set the first flagstone.

The dining patio in progress, about a third completed.... The dining patio in progress, about a third completed….

As I worked yesterday, I heard Richard’s voice in my mind. He taught me how to design and build a flagstone patio; a project that was his final sculpture, his last chance to get his hands on the rocks he so loved.

Today I was too sore to pick up either mattock or flagstone, so I planted the heirloom tomato seedlings I grew indoors (thanks to Renee’s Seeds), nestling them carefully in the soil of the big stock tank on my side deck. I’m sure it’s a bit of a shock to be outside in the bright sun and moving air after a comfy childhood indoors, but they’ll adapt, and their walls-o-water will keep them cozy as they do.

Each red "teepee" insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant. Each red “teepee” insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant.

I also spent time hand-watering my rock garden to compensate for the spring snows that didn’t come, and admiring the spots of color from the spreading phlox, species tulips, daffodils, and native golden-smoke, all of which little sweat bees and other native pollinators are eagerly attending to.


I purely love this life, drought or no, and I am honored to be part of the movement to restore nature in our yards and gardens. It’s a powerful way for us to express our gratitude to this amazing planet–our nurturing orb and the only home our species has ever known.

Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden. Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden.

Gardening (and living) As If We Belong

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida. Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida.

As the weather turns from winter storms to balmy days and frosty nights, I’ve been thinking about spring and the habitat-gardening workshops I’ll be teaching in a few weeks.

Teaching is a great opportunity to stop to reflect about why I’m passionate about my subject. Not just about plants, which I love with an absorption and sense of kinship I don’t always have for my own species, or about the communities our green and rooted kin weave across the surface of this extraordinary living earth. I also think seriously about why I engage in the sometimes-misunderstood, physically hard, and often-lengthy work of restoring nature in urban places.

The answer is always the same. Because I love the work. Because nothing else is as satisfying as seeing the meanders and the baby trout return to a formerly channelized urban creek, or scarlet indian paintbrush freckling a lively native mountain grassland seeded where before was a sterile turfgrass lawn, or the monarchs flutter in to a patch of newly established native milkweed, or the kids standing in awe, mouths open, as the first hummingbird they have ever seen hovers to drink nectar from the wildflower patch planted next to their city edible garden….

Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along "my" block of urban creek. Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along “my” block of urban creek.

Because nature restored is a glorious, confounding, exuberant community of interrelated lives who together express the unique story of each place. Because watching life weave a healthy existence is a source of continuing inspiration, education and flat-out wonder.

Because this earth is my home. Because, while my people may have arrived on this continent a mere century or two ago, I belong here in this high-desert valley in the shadow of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

I eat food my hands have grown in this gritty soil; its minerals structure my cells. Airborne molecules of the volatile organic compounds our native big sagebrush wafts onto the air bubble through my blood with each breath I inhale; the sight of aspen clones painting whole mountainsides in brilliant gold and the resonant calls sandhill cranes winging high overhead infuse my soul.

L'il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee's Garden Seeds!) L’il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee’s Garden Seeds!)

Because, as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes, I work at living here as if our children’s future mattered–the harvester ant children, the infant whitestem evening primrose, the young greenback cutthroat trout and larval mayflies, the monarch caterpillars, the baby sagebrush, the downy sandhill cranes all gangly legs and beaks, and the children of my human community.

I garden to restore habitat and healthy nature because all our children matter, because they are all part of our future.

Because it is my way of taking care of this land. I teach habitat gardening and restoration of nature to others because our lives, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual do depend on it.

Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house. Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house.

And because I want others to feel the joy and awe, and the deep sense of satisfaction and belonging that I do when I see the earth restored. Because it is an antidote for the paralysis and despair that come when we’re faced with seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. Because my hope for and faith in the future rests on all of us on this glorious, animate blue planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Because when we garden as if we and the generations to come belong, we live as if we do, too. And we all benefit.

(Revised version of a piece first published in Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, a national blog-zine I contribute a column to each month.)

What’s Ahead in 2015: Earth Work

Sphinx moth pollinating native penstemon flowers in a park reclaimed from an abandoned industrial site. Sphinx moth pollinating native penstemon flowers in a park reclaimed from an abandoned industrial site.

What’s ahead for me in 2015? More earth work, more loving the world as best I can. Living my belief that we humans can make a positive contribution to this battered planet. Spreading that message through word and intellect, as well as sweat and singing muscles: writing, teaching, and landscape restoration work.

As I envision the year’s work, I hold my four resolutions close: live generously, write more, laugh often and love much. My intention, my heart’s aim is for all of my work to express each resolution.

Writing, I often say, is my way of loving the world. I think of the memoir I’m revising now, Bless the Birds, as a gift of love. It’s a story about how any of us can become the sort of people able to walk life’s most difficult passages with grace. Not perfectly, mind you, but with as much love and generosity as we humans are capable of–and we are capable of a lot of both if we make the effort.

The book I imagine writing after Bless the Birds is even more directly related to my belief that healing the earth heals we humans in the doing. Pieces of the story have lived in my head in various forms for decades. I think I finally see a way to weave the disparate threads into a coherent narrative, and I even have a title: Earth Work: Lessons From Restoring the Land No One Wanted.

The land no one wanted, restored and blooming. The land no one wanted, restored and blooming.

Writing is not the only way I live generously and express my love for this planet and all of the lives on it, human, domestic, and wild. I think of my teaching as another way of sharing the wisdom I’ve gathered from the community of the land (nature) and from doing my best to live with heart outstretched as if it were my hand.

In the year ahead, I’ll be teaching more workshops on habitat gardening, a way to heal the earth right at home, mitigate global climate change, and re-connect ourselves to the balm and joy of nature. I’m also re-starting my Write & Retreat workshops with a week in the incredible landscapes of northwest Wyoming, the home of my heart and my fieldwork as a plant scientist.

Earth work: teaching in Durango last spring Earth work: teaching in Durango last spring

And I’ve got some exciting plans for habitat restoration work ahead too.

All of which come under the heading of earth work: living generously with love for this world, and following my heart’s belief that healing earth is healing for we people too.

Earth work. It’s my way honoring the gift that is this life, our daily existence on an extraordinary blue planet, a community of species that makes up the only home we humans have ever known.


For those who are not on my email list, take a look at my latest eNewsletter. Click here for the Write & Retreat: Yellowstone Country brochure. (If want to join the list, send your name and email to my assistant, Sienna Bryant. I promise not to be annoying. Thanks!)

Sacred datura, one of the flowers Georgia O'Keeffe painted, recolonizing its native land. Sacred datura, one of the wildflowers Georgia O’Keeffe painted, re-colonizing its home.

Winter Bird Feeders: DIY Junco Stars

American Bushtits feeding on seedheads in a native rubber rabbitbush shrub. American Bushtits feeding on seed heads in a native rubber rabbitbush shrub. (Look closely and you’ll see four of them–two of the tiny birds are inside the bush, two are on top. They live in flocks and chatter while they feed, so I often hear them before I see them.)

I don’t generally put out bird feeders. I prefer to provide natural food by planting species native to my area that offer food and habitat throughout the year.

People like bird feeders because they attract large concentrations of birds and bring them close where we can watch them. Those attributes create problems for the birds though.

Concentrating birds in one place spreads disease, and the noise of their feeding flocks attracts bird predators, from free-roaming cats to speedy and agile bird hawks like Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Bringing the birds closer to the house increases the likelihood of collisions with windows. Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology estimates that bird-window collisions kill as many as 100 million birds a year, mostly small songbirds of the sort attracted to feeders.

Still, winter is a tough time for birds, especially during storms. That’s when I hang out my “junco stars,” fat and nutrition-laden wood cutouts aimed at feeding juncos, chickadees, and other small seed-eating birds that shelter in the native shrubs along the creek below my house.

Junco picking bits of nut and fruit from a star in a snowstorm. Junco picking bits of nut and fruit from a star in a snowstorm.

The stars are small enough that only one bird at a time can perch on them, which reduces crowding issues. I hang them away from windows, and I don’t leave them up when the weather improves, so they don’t attract predators.

Junco stars easy to make for yourself with particle board, wire or twine, a drill and a jig- or band saw. Start with a 3/4-inch thick sheet of unfinished MDF or particle board, and trace a simple five-pointed star on the flat surface of the board. (You can use any shape you want as long as it has “arms” where the birds can perch.)

Use the saw to carefully cut out the shape. Sand off any rough spots, drill a hole for twine or wire to hang up the star in the top point, and you’re ready to “load” the star with food.

Stars waiting for a base layer of peanut butter and then a coat of nuts and dried fruits. Well-used stars waiting for a base layer of peanut butter and then a coat of nuts and dried fruits.

I slather them with fresh-ground organic peanut butter as a base layer. (Fresh-ground peanut butter has no additives that might hurt the birds; if it’s organic, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include pesticides either.)

After coating with chopped nuts and dried fruits.... Coating with chopped nuts and dried fruits….

Then I roll or press the stars into a mix of chopped organic raisins, cranberries, and pecans. (You can use any fruits or nuts you want, but again, make sure they’re only fruit and nuts without additives. Research shows that fruits high in anti-oxidants are best for birds, just as they’re best for us.)

When the stars thoroughly coated, I hang them in a place that’s sheltered, near natural perches and out of reach of the mule deer in my neighborhood so they don’t get the food before the birds do. Then I watch to see who comes to feed at my stars!

A junco star hanging by my workshop A junco star hanging by my workshop

Living Generously: Pollinator Hotel for the “Little Guys”

One of my New Year resolutions is to “live generously.” Which to me means not just being generous with other humans, but doing my best to live in a way that is generous to “all my relations,” as my Indian friends say, the multitudes of other beings with whom we share this glorious blue planet.

My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow.... My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow….

One way to be generous is to provide welcoming habitat right around home. Hence my work to restoring the native bunchgrass prairie on the former industrial site where I live, instead of planting a lawn and rose bushes. (Lawns require too much water, chemicals, and grooming; rose bushes are simply deer candy.)

Pollinator "hotel" or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator. Pollinator “hotel” or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator.

So when my friends Maggie and Tony Niemann gave me a handmade pollinator hotel for Christmas, I was thrilled. I’ve always wanted to try one of these artistic ways to provide nest-burrows for the little critters that pollinate my flowers, eat pest insects, and generally make my yard a healthier place.

What is a pollinator hotel? This one is a box about the size and shape of a bluebird box, but instead of a front with a hole appropriately sized for a bluebird and a cavity inside, it has no front, and the cavity is filled with tubes of various sizes, made of various different materials.

A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood--nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star! A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood–nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star!

(Since Tony and Maggie are artistic, it also has cool tin star decorations, both on the front and on the sides. And even its own tin roof up top.)

So there you have it: one way to live generously and welcome some of the littlest of our relations here on earth is to build them a hotel. This one will get hung up on the east wall of the garage, near the restored willow thicket along the creek, where it’ll get morning sun, but not hot afternoon sun. (Thanks, Maggie and Tony.)

Happy New Year to the little guys, and to us all!

Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower. (By pollinating the flower, it ensures seeds that will feed the goldfinches, juncos and other seed-eating songbirds. So housing pollinators also feeds songbirds, an example of natural generosity.)

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

Plant Therapy, or Working with Wildflowers

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress. My front and side yard “wildscapes,” mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

I exhausted myself this weekend engaging in plant therapy. That’s a good thing.

I worked on all three of my personal urban habitat restoration projects: Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park at the other end of my block; Ditch Creek; and my own yard, formerly a dump site which I am returning to high-desert prairie dotted with wildflowers and native shrubs.

Pulling tumbleweed and kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat Pulling tumbleweed and Kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat

Whenever I’m worn down emotionally or the level in my creative well ebbs, I head outside and tend my wild “gardens.” Working with plants–especially the wildflowers, grasses and shrubs native to this very place–restores my spirits and my balance.

A growing body of research confirms that simply being out-of-doors is healthy. Physical effects of what researchers call “nature exposure” include lowered blood pressure and heart rate and increased cardiovascular health, plus improved ability to heal and less pain.

Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show its crimson color. Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show crimson. Just the color makes me smile!

Time outdoors, in the more natural the setting the better, also helps increase our ability to concentrate and focus, and thus to learn. (Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that time in nature can be as therapeutic for kids with ADHD as popular behavioral medications–without the side effects.)

And as anyone who has ever gone out for a long walk and come back having solved a problem or feeling like a weight has been lifted from their soul can testify, time in nature improves our emotional and spiritual well-being.

Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York) Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York)

I’m in the midst of an intense and draining revision of my memoir, Bless the Birds. By the end of each week, I feel like the story has taken all I have, and then some.

Hence my need to get outside on the weekends and immerse myself in plant therapy. Give me a piece of ground that needs love, and a source of native plant seeds and seedlings (thanks, Ellen, for the latest batch!), and I’m good.

Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park. Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park.

Yesterday, working with a small but enthusiastic crew on fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, I was thrilled to yank out a patch of tumbleweed and discover the first Indian Paintbrush to seed itself into the park, once the junky vacant lot and now a demonstration garden for restoring pollinator and songbird habitat, and saving water.

(Thanks to Bev, Billy, Bonnie and Louise for the help weeding, digging and separating plants, and trimming the big cottonwood tree.)

Walking home along Ditch Creek and picking up trash along the way, I smiled as I heard the distinctive “Zee-zee-zee” calls of a flock of Cedar Waxwings gorging on chokecherries in a small tree that Richard and I planted 17 years ago as a tiny sapling. That chokecherry is now about ten feet tall and loaded with fruit, hence the waxwings feeding.

The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left. The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left.

Today I worked in my own yard. I planted some native perennials I bought on sale at a local nursery (planting in my “soil” is good physical exercise, involving wielding a mattock to hack out the rocks) and pulled weeds from my fledgling mountain prairie.

As I worked, I noticed wildflowers I hadn’t realized were still blooming and heard hummingbirds chatter as they sipped flower-nectar to fuel up for their long flight south.

Desert Four O'clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the "hellstrip" between the sidewalk and street. Desert Four O’clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the “hellstrip” between the sidewalk and street.

Neighbors stopped to chat and admire the yard. A flock of Canada Geese flew overhead in a ragged V, honking back and forth.

By the time I finished, and cleaned up my tools and me, I was worn out. But I was smiling. Restoring my patch of earth restores me too.

Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie. Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie.

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat."

Hometown Habitat

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat." Calliope hummingbird perched in my own “hometown habitat.”

I spent the weekend working with Catherine Zimmerman and Rick Patterson, the visionary filmmakers behind the Hometown Habitat film project.

Hometown Habitat aims to tell the story of people all around the country who are using native plants to reweave the community of nature, healing the places where we live, work, and play by restoring habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators and songbirds, those little guys who run the world, to paraphrase EO Wilson.

Why care about native plants and landscaping?

Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn't a native plant, but the others are). Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn’t a native plant, but the others are).

Because as Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home points out, native plants are the ones that sustain native insects (monarch butterflies, for instance, have vanished from huge swaths of the Midwest because industrial agriculture has eliminated their food source, native milkweeds).

Without native insects, we will have many fewer pollinators and drastically fewer songbirds, since songbirds need insects to feed their young. Fewer pollinators means less food for us to eat; fewer songbirds means a true silent spring, no morning chorus of birdsong at all.

A world without birdsong and butterflies is not a world I want to pass on.

The mission of the Habitat Hero project. The mission of the Habitat Hero project.

Restoring habitat at home is also the message of Be A Habitat Hero, the project I’ve been working with. So last week, the Hometown Habitat crew drove to Colorado to film Habitat Hero gardens and their passionate gardeners along the Front Range from Fort Collins to the Pueblo area, and even to Salida.

Me in my film studio living room. Me on film in my living room. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

Hence my weekend in film, which included having my living room turned into a studio complete with lights and cables snaking every which where to connect with the camera and sound equipment. (I was so mesmerized by the hour-long setup process that I didn’t even think to take a picture.)

The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek. The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek.

Yesterday morning, Catherine and Rick followed me along “my” block of Salida’s Ditch Creek while I spent a sweaty hour yanking out invasive weeds and talking about the native plants Richard and I nurtured along the creek, plants that have restored a vibrant natural community in the midst of busy streets and asphalt parking lots.

In the afternoon, they set up at Salida High School to film the Wildscape workshop I taught, co-sponsored by GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the Habitat Hero project. Catherine and Rick even followed us back to the creek for the field trip.

I felt like a film star when it was all over, assuming film stars end their days hot, sweaty and exhausted, with no voice left!

Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

I don’t expect a big part in the final film: I know that to find the story, you shoot hours of film from which you extract maybe two minutes. I am simply honored to participate in an inspiring chronicle of a grassroots native plant movement (pun intended) that is contributing to the beauty and health of our landscapes, urban and wild, and to our own wellness.

Which brings me back to the why we should care question. As I was writing this post, I thought about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of a young Black man who was just beginning to find his way in life.

In view of Michael Brown’s death and our collective responsibility to all young Black men and in fact to young ones everywhere, why care about native plants and nature?

Because the health of our environment is inseparable from our individual and collective health–physical, mental and spiritual. Because to create a just and generous society takes each of us working in our own way.

Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek. Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek.

My way is to heal nature in my own neighborhood, with the aim that its beauty and wellness will ripple outward to make this whole world a nurturing and welcoming place. For all.

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red')

First Wildflowers!

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red') ‘Poncha Pass Red’ sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Poncha Pass Red’)

The first wildflowers are beginning to bloom on my formerly junked-out industrial property, a miracle to my eyes. First place goes to neon-bright sulfur-flower buckwheat, a mat-forming evergreen in dry grasslands where big sagebrush grows. Its tiny blossoms opened Friday afternoon.

This particular plant comes from High Country Gardens, but its origins are very local. The lovely red color of its seeds caught the eye of HCG founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman, who spotted the parent plants on Poncha Pass, half an hour southwest of where I live.

Salman collected them, grew the plants in his own garden, and then built up enough stock to release them to the trade. These native buckwheats are perfectly happy with my coarse, rocky soil; their brilliant sulphur-yellow flowers draw bees and butterflies as if out of the very air.

Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)--the plant is still small, but it's quite aromatic. Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)–the plant is still small, but it’s quite aromatic.

I planted them three weeks ago near the patch of big sagebrush I’m growing just off the northeast corner of the house. This afternoon, a small native bee zipped around the buckwheat flowers like a northern harrier deliberately quartering a grassland, flying low in a rectangular pattern around the plant, its turns quick and tight as a fighter jet. (It flew way too fast for me to shoot a photo.)

The bee was being territorial, letting me know that those eye-catching yellow flowers and their treasure of nectar and pollen belong to it, not me. I got a kick out of the little insect’s pugnaciousness–it was about the size of a ladybug, but very determined to guard its flowers.

It wasn’t an accident that the sulphur-flower buckwheats ended up next to the big sagebrush. They look great together, their colors and shapes complimentary, and just as important to me, they’re part of the same natural community in the wild. In restoring habitat on my difficult formerly industrial lot, I’m deliberately recreating garden “vignettes” that mimic native habitat.

The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up. The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up.

The big sagebrush grow at one edge of the native dryland meadow I seeded in last fall, near wire-thin sprigs of Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum [Oryzopsis] hymenoides), seedling Lewis flax (Linum lewisii), and tiny sprouts of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), plus other wildflowers and native grasses in their community.

The meadow plants are still tiny, but in another year or so, I look forward to being able to sit out and smell the turpentine-and-orange-blossom fragrance of the big sagebrush, and watch a hovering, fluttering and buzzing community of pollinators dart from wildflower to wildflower on what previously was an informal industrial dump site.

Species number two to bloom in my personal ecological restoration project opened this afternoon. Along with big sagebrush, this wildflower says “home” to me. Its pale purple blossoms with the faint scent of licorice rise from wet meadows and streamside grasslands like violet mist in late spring and early summer.

Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, blooms along Ditch Creek by my new house. My second wildflower to bloom: Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, along Ditch Creek by my new house.

Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis) was a favorite of Richard’s too. A clump we planted just up the creek by Terraphilia, the big house, became a symbol of our efforts to restore this formerly degraded property. Now, thanks to Gary Ludwig, who specializes in propagating local native and heritage plants at Pleasant Avenue Nursery in Buena Vista, I have a new clump blooming along the creek where I can see it from the front deck of Creek House.

That single iris blossom floating on its slender stalk above the green thread of sedges and grasses along the creek reminds me of Richard. I wish he were here to see this last chunk of what he liked to call our “decaying industrial empire” come to life. His smile would bloom along with the Rocky Mountain iris.

Richard Cabe happily examining a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte. Richard Cabe happily immersed in a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte.