When I started gardening, seriously, all I really wanted was to have hummingbirds in the garden, because my parents had hummingbirds in their garden—Da Hummingguys, as my stepfather call them—and y’know, hummingbirds are just so inherently neat.
But I’m way too scatterbrained to reliably clean and refill a hummingbird feeder every week, so it was much easier for me to plant plants that the hummingbirds would like. So then, because I was on a budget, I had to research what kinds of plants hummingbirds like, instead of just buying everything with a silhouette of a hummer on the label
Then the hummingbirds needed more than nectar. They needed little tiny bugs. Lots of little tiny bugs. Apparently they are not exclusive nectarvores. So I had to do things to bring in little tiny bugs, which involved reading books about wildlife gardening, which led me to discover all the shocking facts about the amount of ecological lifting a native plant does vs. the vast majority of ornamental immigrants. (Bringing Nature Home is a great book for charting this all out in layman’s terms.) So then I wasn’t just working for the hummingbirds, I had to do something for all those poor specialized little bugs that would be starving in my yard. The butterflies were easy to love, but my affections are broad, if largely unrequited, and I found myself fretting over the fate of the milkweed assassin bug.
Plus I had to clear space for my plants, which meant that those take-over-the-world viney things had to go, which led me to discover Japanese honeysuckle and English Ivy and Chinese Wisteria (They call me…Wisteria-bane…) and also I lived in the south, where you learn about kudzu very rapidly. And this taught me about invasive species in a big and practical way, beyond the abstract knowledge derived from an 8 AM biology elective in college, which turned out to be one of the more important classes I ever took and I kinda wish I’d been more awake for it.
And then it turned out all those little bugs fed frogs, and I knew amphibians were hurting around the world so they needed all the help they could get, and I started trying to dig them a pond, and then it turns out that bees are in trouble too, so I had to plant more things for bugs, because let’s face it–bugs run the world under our feet and largely out of our sight, and planting spring things for bees, because without bees and pollinators in general, we are in A Whole Lot of Trouble. This is pretty much enlightened self-interest, particularly since I had discovered tulip poplar honey and what it can do to tea.
Then I started reading about why the bugs and the birds were in trouble–factory farming and pesticide use for one, habitat loss for another. Eating pesticide sprayed bugs kills some unbelievable number of birds a year–millions and millions, even by conservative estimates–and we need the pesticides because we killed the predatory bugs with last year’s pesticides, and every time it takes more to kill the pests because the bugs are growing resistant but of course big Agribusiness isn’t interested in changing this state of affairs, because they’re the ones who sell pesticides.
And that led to reading about organic farming and the way our food really works, and once you start reading about farming and food you are utterly lost, because the whole system as it is set up is so insane and so warped and so…unkind…that it’s nearly impossible to get your head around.
To go off on a tangent for a minute, I had two grandmothers, like most people. You’ve heard me talk about them. I usually think of them like fairies at a christening–this is the Good One and this is…the Other One.
To cite a representative example, she once called up a relative who had just miscarried to inform her that it served her right. That sort of thing. She was not precisely a good person and she got worse as she aged. She could be very engaging when she wanted to, but it generally lasted as long as it took to get the outcome she required, and then she went back to something that was…oh, just this side of pathological, honestly.
So anyway, having been the chief victim of this madness for a stretch, one day my stepmother turns to my father and I and cried “Why didn’t you warn me?”
Dad and I looked at her in mild amazement and one or the other of us said “You can’t. If you try, it makes you sounds crazy.”
Most of my reading about food in this country has reminded me of that–you can’t explain to people how weird and broken parts of it are. You sound crazy if you try. Nobody could really be so greedy as to decree that saving seeds from a crop for next year is a serious threat to the bottom line, and allot millions to pursue farmers who do it…except they are, and they do, but if you try and explain this, it’s like yelling that somebody’s pointing a death ray at your head. Nobody is going to believe you, because that’s just crazy talk.
Seriously, try talking about Monsanto and monocultures and the Irish potato famine at your next party. If you manage to get very far, you have awesome friends. (Also tangentially, just ‘cos I think it’s neat, the potato that Ireland was hit by was a variety called “the Ol’ Lumper.” I don’t think it still exists.)
All I wanted were hummingbirds. I’m not an activist. I’m nothing even resembling an activist. You couldn’t get me to sing a protest song if you had sheet music and a cattle prod. I have never waved a sign. I do not march. I occasionally give a few bucks to the Nature Conservancy and Planned Parenthood, but that’s as far as it goes. I can only get angry about politics in short spurts–mostly I just get tired.
But all this stuff makes me want to do something, except that I don’t even know where to start. Little tiny stuff turned out to be connected to huge big terrifying stuff. I feel like I went out fishing for minnows, whistling and thinking about nothing in particular, and then I looked down through the clear water, and saw that I was fishing over top of a kraken, and his back went on for miles in every direction. I don’t even know which way to row.
For what it’s worth, some people estimate that if everybody in America ate one local meal a week, we’d save a million barrels of oil. Per week. It’d take a little over a month—five local meals, say—to save more oil than went into the Gulf of Mexico. So I guess that’s a place to start, even if my cooking skills are such that said meal is likely to be scrambled eggs. Local eggs, local milk, both available at the co-op. It still counts!
…I think I might need to learn to cook.
You hummingbirds better appreciate this…