Eastern Bluebird (Photo: College of William & Mary)

The property surrounding our homes represents a bridge from a domestic to a wild environment. Inside our houses, we have control over everything – from the layout of rooms to the lime wedge on our Bloody Mary. Outside, the transition to nature slowly unfolds and we begin to surrender that control. We amend our soils, mow lawns, shear hedges and cultivate neat rows of radishes, but songbirds announcing the dawn or butterflies that wobble by are happy accidents. In our lifetimes, we’re certain to witness some aspect of nature, whether it’s an occasional glimpse from a city apartment window or the total immersion of a cabin in the woods. Which wildlife appear can depend on the environment that we cultivate: mockingbirds nesting in the spiny protection of a holly, monarchs on the milkweed, bunnies gently browsing on our [sound effect: screech of needle dragging across record]… Wait, who invited them? Well, you did; this is an open-house party, no bouncers, no velvet rope, the good with the bad. Landscapes that we create and tend are opportunities, in a dwindling world of natural habitat, for any living thing that can fly, crawl or be carried on the wind, whether it’s a beautiful, beneficial bluebird or a miserable, strangling Oriental bittersweet vine.

Every gardener knows the experience of battling those party crashers who stubbornly refuse to read our minds, which are screaming out: “You are NOT welcome here!” So we pluck weeds, fence out deer, chop snakes in half and spray. Boy, do we spray: repellants, dormant oils, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fratricides. Out of frustration and desperation we spray, splash and soak with substances never intended for the purpose: bleach, ammonia, gasoline, vinegar, oven cleaner, hairspray, you name it.

One reason for success of corporations is the absence of a sense of individual responsibility; the concept of one person simply moving a thing along an assembly line with no awareness of that thing’s final destination or its effect on others. In our brief 78 years or so on this planet, our impact on nature may not be noteworthy, but multiply that common behavior millions of times over and we begin to hear about the consequences: an extinct species here, an outbreak of cancer there, the fastest-melting glaciers ever.

Warnings for pesticides, as required by state or federal authorities, can only provide information about the known risks of that substance. Time has revealed some unpleasant surprises; asbestos, thalidomide, DDT and genetically modified crops, previously considered perfectly safe, are among the more notorious examples.

We are the stewards of our wee patches of earth, and the impact that we can have on ourselves and others may be greater than we think. When the urge to eliminate a “pest” by chemical means strikes, ask the question, “Is it really a pest? What harm is it doing?” and most importantly, “What are the consequences?” Sometimes we simply do not know. Yet.

What to spray? How about nothing?

J. McInnis