I grew up roaming the forests and beaches along Cooper Point in Olympia, Washington. My deep attachment to the land has grown over 65 years. As a child, I welcomed a small community of native trees and plants flowering each spring – trailing blackberries, thimble berries, black caps and dogwood. In summers we picked berries for free to make jam and pies. The cycles of light, tides, weather, plants and animals gave me something to look forward to. Much later in life, I began learning to recognize and name native plants and animals along with the South Puget Sound native place names, while keeping a field journal, planting native plants, and making art about native plants.
All of those activities, plus working with students on environmental art and restoration projects help me understand how my identity and spirit are connected to this place. For me, the habitat loss on Cooper Point due to human development is heart-breaking. Habitat loss has spread widely around the Puget Sound. Most recently, I watched as huge forests were clearcut to house giant Target, Uline, and Amazon warehouses near the Nisqually River estuary.
In 2003, when my Cooper Point house burned down, I moved to Tacoma. I immediately tried to reproduce the native habitats of Cooper Point in my yard so I could feel at home. I realized that in the city, much of the native habitat has been lost, except for a few wonderful parks. So, the issue for me broadened and sharpened: Why is it important to regenerate urban areas with native plants? How can we best do that? How can we prevent further habitat loss?
Scholars and advocates make practical and ecological arguments for gardening with native plants. Native plants are adapted to our unusual climate of wet winters and summer droughts. Once established, native plants require little to no water or added fertilizers and chemicals which can drift beyond our landscapes to damage the Puget Sound. Native plants have evolved with our soils and garden pests. Well planted native gardens can reduce our needs for weeding, mowing, and raking. In these ways, native plants improve water quality in Puget Sound. This approach is also so much healthier for pets and children. Additionally, native plants provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for local wildlife. Unlike non-native plants, native ones are crucial for sustaining biodiversity through their support of more insects, which are important pollinators and a key element in the food chain upon which we all depend.
But there is more to this appreciation of native plants and animals than the practical and ecological arguments. While many of us are new comers to this bio-region, people have been living here for over 8,000 years. Ancestors of the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Chehalis watersheds shared their knowledge of native plants and animals that define Pacific Northwest traditions, values and character with succeeding generations. Especially for these groups, this land and all of the life it generates, is not just a commodity, to be bought and sold, but, instead, their identity. To them, native plants and animals are people’s relatives. For newcomers who have taken the time to observe and learn about native plants and animals, these resources are our identity, too, helping us feel connected to the land and the long traditions that have been made known. We have an obligation to think of the future. Will our grandchildren have the opportunity to experience the joyful relationship to the land that many of us have been privileged to experience?
Appreciation of native species also is tied to reciprocity. The Pacific Northwest plants and animals, forests, prairies, rivers, lakes, marine environments have provided us with so much – the air, our food, materials for our shelters, and energy for our electrical world and more. We often take these abundant natural resources for granted, and we overlook damage and loss that so widely affect them. We have an obligation to give back. What can we do to help restore lost habitats?
We are also tied to native plants and animals through the realm of emotions, aesthetics and spirits. Think about the world of freeways, high rises, endless strip malls, parking lots and concrete. Contrast these places to the ones in which you find beauty and inspiration. How do you feel when walking along the trails at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, at Point Defiance Park or around Snake Lake in Tacoma? How do you feel pausing near the beautiful meadows of wildflowers at Mt. Rainier? Think of the healthful relief these natural places have given us during this pandemic. Why do we feel we must go to these places? Why not create the same beauty in our own neighborhoods?
And finally, there is joy which comes from learning about and observing native plants and animals. For me, this comes through seeing and making art. Learning to observe and recognize seasonal changes as plants form leaves, flowers, fruits and cones, invites me to look forward to the gifts of each season. Learning about the life cycle of butterflies and watching them chew and pollinate native plants brings joy. Watching birds arrive after long migrations, get sustenance from native plants and insects, build nests, and teach their young is joyful and freeing. While many think deer, squirrels and raccoons are nuisances, others are inspired by their behavior and beauty. Think of the difference between watching a nature program on TV and observing animals in the wild, even in your own backyard.
The reasons for appreciating and nurturing native plants are as abundant and varied as the plants themselves. I created this website and the Native Plant Magic Books to help you to use art to create a deeper relationship with the beautiful plants and animals of the Pacific Northwest. I welcome suggestions about my project and I wish you well as you explore and create.
Lucia Harrison, January 2021