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Beauty is where you find it.
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
October 28, 1999
Santa Ana winds are a wonderful thing. Giving a certain character to autumn in Southern California, this local phenomenon sweeps down out of the desert and clears the air for a while. The sunsets during this time are truly magnificent, compliments of the photochemical smog setting just above the horizon. Warm days, and crystal clear nights, it doesn't get any better than this.
While hanging out with a friend on one of these days, in the middle of the work week no less, we were captivated by her garden. Discussing an over abundance of bamboo, Mary spotted a small blue butterfly. Barely able to contain herself she explained to me how this species was native to the region, preferring to live near the lagoons, and was becoming increasingly rare. Time for a focus shift.
Up to this point we had been looking at the garden as a whole, an exercise of the aesthetic, but as we shifted our eyes to deal with the minute, an entire world became obvious to us. As if by magic we discovered a multitude of butterflies, of varying species. The fact that we hadn't noticed this abundance up until now was because we too were to caught up in anthropocentric musings about how a garden should look instead of just enjoying the garden.
As analogies go, this is as good as any to describe societies relationship to the environment. Always looking at the big picture, one of our own design, we are constantly trying to improve on nature without really seeing it. This lack of vision has turned our species into very shortsighted one. Perhaps that is why we need side walks, to keep us from stumbling over the species that share the planet with us.
Here in coastal North County we can see how hillsides are being carved into developable acreage. After scraping away native vegetation, the top soil is mined and the earth moved in such a way to guarantee profitability. Biodiversity is not even an issue. People may make happy talk with plans of wildlife corridors and the importance of protecting percentages of open space. Always distinguishing native habitat as something separate from the human community, both suffer from lack of integration. Nature versus society is a very expensive war.
Agriculture, where it still exists, is now the practice of lining everything up in straight sterile rows. Miles of agriculture regulated to a dwindling number of species, all of which are genetically engineered, and dependent on technology, is in no way sustainable. Where our coastal communities once fed themselves, now it is no longer possible. To make matters worse even cropland is seen as unprofitable and converted to subdivisions and stripmalls.
Horticulture is even worse. Check out any nursery in San Diego County and see if it is not near impossible to buy native plants. Drive through any of the new planned communities and you will be hard pressed to see any native plant other than the occasional sycamore. We live in a desert but we waste water on growing plants for market that are either non-native and water hungry or just non-native. And then there is the flower and house plant industries producing foliage designed to die shortly after they are given.
The trees we plant are ornamental as well, and are only allowed when they don't make a mess or threatened man-made structures. When the roots of an established tree begin to buckle a sidewalk the conversation is never about moving the sidewalk. The question is who pays for the tree removal. Landscaping should be called manscaping, for that is what it truly is. Order at all costs, we shape nature to suit our needs. And if nature doesn't suit our needs it is converted to something that does.
Coastal cities are examples of such specieism. Regularly I engage elected officials in the conversation regarding the importance of planting native species. So much so it has become a joke with the Encinitas City Council. I am not laughing, and neither are the animals that are being pushed out of the way to make room for all the landscaping. Manageability is the main consideration when plants are selected for development purposes. Oaks can't be tolerated because they drop leaves, as if that was a crime. Palms might be picture perfect but the only wildlife they support are rats and pigeons. Which are far from wild.
Perhaps a sustainable vision of the future is the one where human neighborhoods are also wildlife corridors, and homes are carefully built in balance with the native habitat. As a culture we are capable of such altruism, why is it never directed towards anything then our own selfish existence.