Sharing the Orchard

Marita Prandoni, Farm to Table Chef

After a wet spring and an above-average monsoon season, the Academy green spaces this past summer were lush as ever. The orchard on the east side, in particular, has received many winged and four-legged visitors that typically would be too shy to approach human-built environments. A Cooper’s hawk preys on songbirds that feed on seed among the wildflowers, and a doe brazenly browses on crabapples, peaches and apples outside our office windows. Wolf spiders fatten up on insects that are attracted to the smorgasbord of edible landscaping. Signs of coyote, bobcat, owl and the ubiquitous gopher point to after hours partying on these grounds.

But there’s something both exciting and unsettling about the presence of our non-human neighbors.

It’s thrilling that wildlife feels at ease here. This was, after all, their home before we moved in. Granted, they’re not so comfortable with us that they would eat out of our hands (and that’s a good thing) but I suspect that our increased sightings have mostly to do with their shrinking habitat.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has recently warned us about the sixth mass extinction event over Earth’s history that is underway, representing a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” That’s right: We need wildlife for our own survival, especially the pollinators. I have a hard time imagining how much human labor would be required to hand-pollinate our crops.

Worldwide, there are some success stories, like the fact that tigers are rebounding in India, Asia and Russia. But less charismatic species and more important are the insects, which nevertheless outweigh humans on the planet by more than 17 times. Yet scientists warn that 40% of insect species are declining, and a third are endangered. Their die-off is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The main drivers are industrial agriculture and the use of pesticides.

That brings me back to the Academy orchard, where the most frequent visitors are the bees, butterflies, spiders, beetles and other bugs. Their presence entices the reptiles, birds and bats, which in turn attract coyotes, bobcats, raptors and owls. Small-scale cultivation not only gives biodiversity a fighting chance, it improves the human condition. When the environment improves, so does our spirit, creativity and compassion. As Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai said, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and the seeds of hope.”

The entire community at the Academy inspires transformational learning and hope. And it can be as simple as planting some trees. Please, do try this at home.

(Photograph by Kevin Brown, 2019, at Academy for the Love of Learning)

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