Act: Inspiration

Creating a Global Patchwork for Nature – A MAHB Dialogue with Mary Reynolds, Founder, We Are the Ark

March 3, 2022

One fine morning, I was sitting at my desk looking over my garden when something happened that made me realize how we can all become part of the solution in the crisis we are facing with nature.’ – Mary Reynolds

Geoffrey Holland: What is an Ark?

Mary Reynolds: Most gardens, parks, or human-controlled land of any kind, have traditionally been maintained as personal visions of what is considered a socially fashionable and acceptable beauty.

An Ark is what we call those places which have been set free from those chains to heal our planet, patch by patch. It is a restored, native ecosystem, a local, small, medium, or large rewilding project. A thriving patch of native plants and creatures that have been allowed and supported to re-establish in the Earth’s intelligent, successional process of natural restoration.

Over time this becomes a pantry and a habitat for our pollinators and wild creatures who are in desperate need of support. This takes time to happen but it begins to re-establish itself as a simple ecosystem very quickly and over time it becomes a strong wildlife habitat and eventually a multi-tiered complex community of native plants, creatures, and micro-organisms. We call it Arking>, as it’s not quite the same as re-wilding. In our relatively small Arks, we can’t recreate wild, balanced landscapes such as those being restored on a large scale through re-wilding processes.

The top predators in an ecosystem and the large herbivores and ecosystem engineers ensure that a balance is kept in the web of life. This ensures that there is constant destruction and recreation of all the stages of an ecosystem. The Earth, like us, is in a constant state of death and renewal. We obviously cannot introduce these creatures into our Arks, as they would not survive in such fragmented habitats. Therefore, we must become the wolf, become the deer, the beaver, etc. and carry out the ecosystem services these creatures would normally be charged with. This basically means we try and create as many layers of ecosystem maturity as we can within our small patches of land. From mown paths through meadows replicating the effects of the large grazers to scrubby thorny thickets, woodland systems, ponds, to areas of bare earth replicating the rooters such as the wild boar.

Every region of the planet will have different creatures and their services in an ecosystem to replicate, different native plant communities to develop and support. All efforts are welcomed and appreciated by our shared kin, the rooted and the unrooted. Even a window box full of wild, locally sourced native “weeds” is considered an important ARK in our world. We do ask that people give at least half of their garden or land back to nature. If not half, as much as they can manage. To try to grow as much of their own organic food as possible in the other half. Stepping out of the destructive food system is a big part of Arking. If that isn’t possible, support local organic and regenerative food producers.

GH: What is the value of having a planetary patchwork of Arks?

MR:We are the Ark invites people to wild portions of their gardens, window boxes, parks, and public land. Any patch they can, to create a patchwork quilt of sanctuaries that wraps its way around the globe. The Earth has become a barren green, brown, and scorched desert. We now must create the island oases in these deserts. These oases will be the seeding ground for our new story to begin again. They will be sanctuaries for as many creatures as we can fit into them, safe havens for the magic and abundance in the natural world. They will become the Ark for the flood of extinction that is upon us. These island patches will provide corridors and safe havens for beleaguered mammals and the tiny kingdoms of microorganisms, stopover service stations for desperate insects and birds, and seeds of restoration for the native plant worlds.

GH: You have said that gardeners need to see themselves as guardians. Can you elaborate?

MR: As you probably know too well, bad news for the environment comes at us every day. And, although it’s important to stay informed, this avalanche of gloomy headlines is stealing hope from the people who most care and matter most… and hope is a vital impetus for action when fighting against the odds.

We Are The Ark re-awakens these same people’s protective instincts and sparks them to personal action that makes sense. The message is inspiring because it’s clear that these actions will create life for millions of our fellow creatures and bring balance to our planet in the process. Little pieces of earth on almost every continent are already being carefully returned to their original residents. Families, in fact, whole interconnected neighborhoods of creatures, are invited and allowed back to establish permanent residency. All kingdoms are included; bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, birds, animals.

We are asking people to give their patches of land back to nature. We have taken too much. We have got to learn to share it with all the other sentient beings we live on Earth with, on whom we depend for our very existence. The reality of such a breathtaking recovery, be it on a small scale at first, wakes intelligent people up to the real difference people can make – even in challenging times. It also brings home the wider concept of becoming a true protector because now there’s something tangible to protect. The actions it inspires are many times more empowering than “protesting”, which itself greatly exceeds “ambivalence” or “hopelessness” among the currently available environmental activities. A reconnection with nature and a remembered love for the Earth is restored.

GH: Why is it important to focus on planting native species of plants in our gardens?

MR: The foundation stones of all ecosystems are healthy and abundant native plant and insect populations. The plants in any area have uniquely evolved alongside their native insect partners. Plants are very good at protecting themselves, using a cocktail of noxious chemicals to deter creatures from eating them. Native plants and “weeds” support the web of life in more ways than we understand. There are thousands of species of insect that are important pollinators. We often hear about the bees and the butterflies, but we also need to support the beetles, spiders, moths, flies, and the wiggly creatures that do not have the “cute” effect but are very important threads in the web of life. Insects are mostly specialists and their specialty is in eating particular plants, which they have focused their energies on adapting to over millennia.

The flawed wildlife gardening narrative has us focused on buying large showy flowering plants, with flowers that the pollinators are attracted to. These pollinator insects will be attracted to the non-native flowers, to the detriment of the native, often less significant plants which will then not get a chance to be pollinated and reproduce. This in turn leads to a lack of plant partners for the insects whose larvae have adapted to eat them. As these plants are not being supported, and are being pushed out by non-native invasive and garden plants, the insects struggle to produce a new generation. This leads to a loss of food for the birds to feed their young and the loss of staple diets for lots of other mammals along with the creation of an imbalance of many kinds in the ecosystem. We keep breaking the threads in this delicate and intricate web of life we call Earth. With each strand we remove, the web gets closer and closer to collapse and we really don’t know which broken strand will be the last straw.

GH: Why is the current, chemically-driven brand of horticulture antithetical to your “Ark Philosophy”?

MR:Gardening is typically seen as being a “green” activity, a way for people to connect to nature. However, gardens and nature are no longer related. Gardens are like still life paintings, controlled and manipulated versions of the real deal, which is the natural world. Nowadays they are simply blank canvases that garden artists of all kinds use as a base where they impose a personal creative vision upon the skin of the mother Earth beneath, with no thought for the countless other creatures that need safe havens in these polluted and desperate times, no thought for the intentions of the land herself.

Gardens use 10 times more chemicals per acre than industrial agriculture and the estimated 40 million acres of lawn in the USA are the single most irrigated crop in those lands. The chemically driven production of non-native plants to populate these patches of Earth has become a behemoth of an industry. And like any industry, it will only change if its customers demand change. It will follow the money.

GH: Around the world, bird and insect numbers are collapsing. Why is chemical-free horticulture essential to reversing that trend?

MR: The loss of biodiversity is even more threatening than climate change because it is rapidly reducing the ability of the Earth to maintain clean air and water, and to provide food and habitat for all her creatures – including us.

Do you remember what it was like to drive at night until recently? Any trip in a car resulted in a windscreen covered in dead insects. At night, moths would always be part of the view from the front window, as they were attracted to the headlights of the car. If you left a window open in your house at night, your light bulbs would quickly be surrounded by a swirl of moths. Not any more. The population of insects has plunged by 75% in the last 50 years. That’s pretty catastrophic if you consider the speed and the consequences. Insects are by far the largest group of creatures on the planet. They form the basis of most terrestrial food systems including pollinating our food, but rising temperatures and widespread use of chemicals in gardening and agriculture are flooring them.

It is estimated that if we managed to continue the trend and kill off all the insects, we would only have months, not years, to live. Is there anything left to add to that fact? I think not. The network of existing gardens, parks, and green spaces could become a network of safe havens and pantries for our precious insect overlords. Because let’s name them for what they truly are, Gods. Our lives are in their hands. How blind we have become.

GH: Should local and national governments be using public policy to emulate the “Ark Philosophy” with parks and public lands?

MR: Yes, it’s a no-brainer for them! There is a wave of awareness growing worldwide that we need to change our land-use policies and expediently become more supportive of nature. Goodwill is the harvest from coming on board this Ark re-wilding concept. By Arking derelict land, industrial estates, and large areas of parks that are unused, you are becoming part of the solution and set a very positive example.

Erecting a sign stating “This is an ARK – an Act of Restorative Kindness to the Earth” is the key to avoiding the complaints from passersby about leaving the land messy, uncared for. Now people can begin to see it with new eyes, they will see it as true care. At a bare minimum, it may need the non-native invasive plants to be removed and if they find native plants are not naturally emerging from the land’s seed bank, they may need to help it along with as many layers of native plant communities they can manage to introduce.

GH: How can local and national governments encourage citizens to create their own arks?

MR: Simple. Lead by example. They could organize ARK sign-making workshops, organic food growing workshops, teach people what else they can do to support local wildlife, things such as log piles, pond creation, sand and earth banks, meadow creation, etc.

GH: The Half-Earth Project calls for half of the Earth’s land taken over by humans to be returned to its natural state. Is that something you support and if so, why?

MR: Yes, I loved E.O. Wilson. He is a hero in my world. So many of the problems we are facing can be solved by learning to share at least half of our planet.

When you consider that humans make up only one species of billions, half doesn’t even seem fair. Humans make up only 0.01% of all life on Earth, yet we have already wiped out 83% of all wild mammals. But if Wilson thinks half of a wild Earth is enough to sustain natural systems of life, the ones that GIVE us life, then half should be our baseline aim.

GH: How does remaking one’s outdoor space into an “Ark” reinforce our proper sense of place as part of nature?

MR: It allows us to reconnect with nature’s true beauty, not some fluffy controlled vision that we have imposed upon her. As you restore as many layers of habitat in your land as possible, you will be blown away to see so much life return.

Your heart will open to embrace every fluffy songbird, every tiny mushroom, insect, and wild self-willed native weed that finds its way into the heart of your family, your patch of this planet. You will become their protector. And from then on, you will automatically view every traditional garden as part of the old world – lost opportunities as a healing part of a new world. One that puts our shared kin and a healthy home planet at the top of our priority list.

Geoffrey Holland

Geoffrey Holland is the lead author of The Hydrogen Age, Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2007. He is a veteran writer/producer of long and short-form videos focused on clean energy and the environment. He also happens to be the coordinator for the MAHB Dialogue series.

Tags: ecosystem restoration, rewilding