By our Guest Blog writer: Henry Brighouse
I enter my postcode into Google Maps and select the satellite view. From High altitude I navigate my way down to the familiar details of rooftop and garden. There is a strange feeling I have arrived at the centre of the universe. Maybe you have the same feeling about your home too. Living on a spherical planet, there could be some truth in this. Being at the centre also implies connectedness.
What connects us to our personal universe? Family, friends, the internet, mobile phone, television, car, workplace, hobbies…? Maybe all of these and more. But there is something fundamental that connects everything, and that is the natural world.
We are after all a product of nature, and however many hi-tech time-and-distance-defying gadgets we attach to ourselves, our mortal bodies still respond like clockwork to the ancient cycles and rhythms of nature, daily, lunar, and seasonal. Our basic needs too, of fresh air and sunlight, clean water, nourishing food, and shelter, remain basically the same as those of our cave-dwelling ancestors.
As the stress of modern life increases technology seems to offer a way out, but perhaps what we are really looking for is to find a way in. This may explain the mounting wave of interest in all things pertaining to yoga and meditation. Ancient traditions tell us that the human brain can be cultured to resonate with nature’s fundamental algorithm because we are essentially one with it, and that to do so is inherently relaxing and fulfilling.
Modern science also echoes this viewpoint, telling us that not only is there one unified field that connects everything but also that the hard wiring of our human brain, some one hundred trillion synapse connections (1000 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy) just needs to be stress-free and properly connected to release our full potential. The hardware of the cosmic computer is resting on our shoulders.
Like the ancient songlines that revealed the ‘internet’ of the earth to the Australian aboriginal people, science reveals that we are all participants in the living matrix that sustains us, the natural world, and that we have an important part to play in its maintenance. So, if staring into a mobile phone screen can remove us from reality, a garden is a place where we can start to reconnect with the real world and open a dialogue with nature.
This can happen in surprising ways:
Near neighbours and friends of ours have built a swift box and fixed it on the gable end of their house. They also placed recordings of swift song in the box to attract visitors. Sure enough the swifts descended from their high altitude travels to investigate. Next year they will surely nest there. One neighbour recently greeted me with excitement. That morning she had had a rat, a squirrel and a pigeon all feeding from the same bowl. Well, we could talk about the wisdom of attracting one or two of these particular visitors to the garden, but yes, great! A friend nearby is very into soil quality. He is experimenting with compost for which he has bought a microscope to study the health of its microbe and fungi populations for plant growth. In his tiny garden, comprising a small brick raised bed, this year he grew a collection of herbs and the most spectacular stand of celery plants. Another friend is passionate about having bee and butterfly-friendly plants year-round – crocuses, hellebores, asters, lavender, budleja, fennel, penstemon, ivy….The garden buzzes with insect life which otherwise would not be there. A little down the road there is a house with three Siamese cats that cast a lordly eye on passers-by from their fence top perches. However, the presence of these elegant but natural predators is somewhat offset by a tree in the front garden that is festooned with bird-feeders. Another neighbour and friend has a pond that backs onto a wood. He travels hundreds of miles a week, but when time and weather allow he takes great pleasure in sitting out, watching the dragon flies hovering over the water in summer – or the progress of the hatching frog spawn in Spring, and the fish that emerge from the gloomy depths to feed. There is always something we can do in the garden to participate in the daily dramas of the natural world.
The landscape is continuously changing. Towns are expanding into the countryside and much of our agricultural land is off-limits to wildlife. We also have some quarter of a million miles of roads slicing through the landscape. Whilst our wildlife gets pushed further and further to the margins, our humble garden, however modest, can become an important wildlife refuge. And when we add our garden to all its neighbouring gardens we create important wildlife corridors.
Two expressions give an essential insight into nature. One is ‘biodiversity’, and the other is ‘ecological balance’. In other words, nature, in its almost infinitely diversity, is able at the same time to maintain a natural balance that enables this diversity to continue through time. Through complex feedback loops nature continuously adjusts and re-adjusts the balance. We humans always imagine that we will remain at the centre of the equation. Like good health, we presume it will always be there, that is, until it isn’t.
Diversity is important because everything is related to everything else. If you take a piece out of the puzzle it becomes something else. Man-made interference with this diversity can have unintended consequences. Chemical agricultural sprays are drastically reducing bee and other pollinating insect populations. Without the pollinators many crops cannot grow. In parts of America bee hives have to be transported thousands of miles to do the job of pollinating. In some parts of China, pollinating apple trees now has to be done by hand.
When the last wolf was shot in Yellowstone USA, all the trees started to die. Without the wolves, the deer population that would graze on the tree bark exploded. A nibble here and a nibble there rapidly became a bark-stripping operation which the trees could not withstand. This has had huge knock-on effects for the rest of the environment.
Just bringing to our awareness the fact that everything is interdependent in nature can help to cultivate a nature-friendly attitude, and this is the basis of the nature-friendly garden. Encouraging wildlife to the garden is helpful for nature as a whole. There are bee-friendly plants throughout the year. There are nesting boxes and feeders for bird life. There are piles of leaves in sheltered corners for hedgehogs. There are indigenous species of plants, there is the life in the soil……There is always something we can do to make a contribution and be richly rewarded for it at the same time.
Many people want a maintenance-free garden. They may also want a garden for children, for outdoor socializing, for a workshop or office, for pets to run about in, for vegetable growing, for colour. However, whatever use we may have for our garden, there is still room for wildlife. Engaging with nature in our garden can be highly therapeutic too.
There are so many options for the nature-friendly garden that you need to consult an authoritative yet easily understandable source. I would recommend one book produced by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the country’s largest conservation charity:
RSPB GARDENING FOR WILDLIFE,
A Complete Guide to Nature-Friendly Gardening : by Adrian Thomas.
The book is easy for quick reference whatever you want to attract to your garden and whatever size of garden it is, from rolling acres to a window box. It has an excellent index and an insightful ‘myth-busting’ section at the beginning to show you that your garden can also be the perfect place for wildlife with just a little knowledge and very few changes. It gives you the top 400 plants for wildlife, how to harmonise family space with wildlife, making ponds…. Everything you need to know you should be able to find in this book. If you didn’t get it for Christmas, maybe you can get it to support the one new year’s resolution you actually keep – to make, or improve, a Nature Friendly Garden in 2018!