Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

01.10.13

This book review is by Saving Birds Thru Habitat Executive Director Kay Charter.

 

Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, demonstrates the importance of native plants to healthy, viable terrestrial ecosystems.  I learned about this book last fall, when I emailed Dr. Tallamy and asked permission to quote an article he had written about the relationship between native plants and insects.  He not only granted permission, he generously sent me a disk with the pre-pub galleys of his book and I’ve been anxiously awaiting it since.  It was well worth the wait.

The good professor says in his first sentence, “Occasionally we encounter a concept so obvious and intuitive that we have never thought to articulate it, so close to our noses that we could not see it, so entangled with our everyday experiences that we did not recognize it.”  The concept is that because there is too little space left for the wildlife we care about and love to watch, we must make our yards friendlier to the birds, frogs, butterflies and other wild creatures with which we share this planet.  With roughly forty million acres of land in American yards, his is a compelling argument. 

Tallamy appeals to the gardener in all of us to do just that.  Although he says that Bringing Nature Home is not a “how-to” book, in a way, it is precisely that.  While he does not attempt to instruct us on how to landscape, he takes us step by important step through the crucial reasoning around why we should – indeed, why we who care about wildlife must – return as much of our personal property to native plants as possible.  We must do that because native plants do (in spite of the above-mentioned biologist’s doubt) support the insects upon which those same birds, frogs, butterflies (and all the rest of us for that matter) depend.

Dr. Tallamy discovered the importance of that link when he and his wife purchased 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania.  The land, previously farmed, was filled with alien plants such as autumn olive, multiflora rose, Bradford pears and others.  He told me in a recent interview that the vegetation was so dense, they had to cut trails through it in order to get inside of it.  One day, he took a walk through the trails to look for insects and found virtually none except on the few natives struggling to survive under the stranglehold of invasives.  It was a defining moment for him and he began to present programs to educate the general public about his discovery.  The pamphlet he made up to hand out at these presentations ultimately grew into the book. 

Those birders among us who still support the idea that autumn olive is good for birds will gain insight from the following,  “…the foliage of autumn olive is inedible for almost all native insect herbivores.  A field rich in goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, boneset, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, and dozens of other productive perennials supplies copious amounts of insect biomass for birds to rear their young.  After it has been invaded by autumn or Russian olive, that same field is virtually sterile.”

Filled with beautiful photographs of insects, plants, birds and hard data presented in an easy to read style, Bringing Nature Home will persuade all of us to take a look at what is in our own yards with an eye to how we, too, can make a difference.  It has already changed me; I will not be so quick to kill a hornworm on our tomato plants after reading it.