Living Virtuously– With the Land

To promote flourishing, you have to know your landscape.

I’ve come to realize what we all know in our heart of hearts— that we really don’t live virtuously unless we attend well to our relationships with the other-than-humans.

It is only last year I realized that we had a toxically invasive species in our yard—the Asian Bush Honeysuckle. You might wonder what it means for something to be toxically invasive, especially since over 90% of planned landscapes (in the USA) do not use native plants. Departments of natural resources in states across the country seem to have only recently realized the harm the invaders are doing to native wildlife, and so are alerting landowners to the worst of the worst.

What’s wrong with Asian Bush Honeysuckle (aka Lonicera maacki, L. morrowii, L. tatarica, x bella, x muendeniensis, and x xylosteioides)?

This is what the brochure, “Invasive Plants in Indiana—Pretty Awful,” says: “Dense shrub growth shades out plants on the forest floor; it reduces the growth and regeneration of trees, reduces nesting bird success, and increases ticks and tick-related illnesses.”

Since I learned about Asian Bush Honeysuckle over the past year, my husband and I decided to pull out (or smother and then pull out, rather than using toxic chemicals) the bushes in our yard. The Asian Bush Honeysuckle is the first to leaf each spring and so is easy to find. In fact, this spring I noticed them all over the city where I live and the university campus where I work.

We decided to leave the largest honeysuckle, in the middle of our backyard, and take it out in the fall before it produces berries that birds eat, spreading the seeds (even though its fruit is inadequately nutritious for migratory birds). The birds like to perch in it, so I thought. But now I see that that is true only in winter when it is bare. As I stare at it from my home office window, I see that it attracts no bees, butterflies or insects despite its proliferation of blossoms right now. That lack of interest is a sign of an invasive—it does not feed the native wildlife.

I started to educate myself more about native plants and in doing so have realized that we have other invasive plants in our yard: e.g., Norway Maple, Burning Bush. They were here when we moved in. But also, unknowingly, I have purchased and put in invasives, including English Ivy (this past weekend I removed the dozens of offspring from the couple of small vines I put in last year).

Invasive plants not only fail in providing adequate food for native wildlife, they suck up the resources (water, nutrients), or even poison the soil, so that native plants cannot flourish.

Flourishing, that is what virtue is about. Flourishing for all, that is, for humans and for the more-than-humans. Promoting flourishing for all requires close attention to what helps the local landscape flourish, which I have only recently started to practice. It means being mindful about what you purchase and what you use. For example, water is becoming scarce in many places and native plants need less water. (Lawns are not native and must be coddled virtually everywhere in the country. But I have not yet convinced my husband to do away with our lawn, but I have convinced him not to fertilize with chemicals that harm the waterways or use toxins to kill other-than-grass, undermining the health of critters, including us–homeowners use 10 times the toxins that farmers use).

Native American groups were quite attuned to the flourishing of their landscapes, just like others with close-to-the-earth lifestyles. Their lives depended on it. But so do ours, though they could see the consequences more immediately than we can.

We’ve lost over half of animal species globally since 1970 (and many more were exterminated in the last few centuries under the European expansion, before ever being notated by scientists). We risk more and more native species each day as invasives take over (and undeveloped land shrinks). Moreover, we continue to undermine local ecologies and their flourishing with ignorant practices (e.g., dams, draining wetlands), which mess up not only a local ecosystem but its cooperative, supportive relations with other ecosystems (leading to drought, etc.).

Indigenous communities have understanding and wise attitudes to offer the modern world which can help bring us back to the humble awareness of residing on a living planet with interdependent ecologies. (See fall conference on Sustainable Wisdom at which will discuss how to integrate this deep ecological knowledge with what we have learned from modern science and scholarship.)

As part of the Self, Motivation and Virtue Project,* I wonder these days what is a self outside of a specific landscape? Often people de-emphasize the fact that humans are earth creatures of a particular sort, with particular bodies and capacities. I now think that caring for embodiment is the key to flourishing. Embodiment fully described and experienced includes where you walk and sit and with whom you interact. When I am in the garden there are hundreds of relationships I experience at once—the wigglers in the dirt, the plants releasing sweet smells, the bees and butterflies coming by, the dozens of birds singing, chirping or flying, chipmunks and squirrels leaping, winds playing through the trees who wave and drip seeds. It’s more complex than J.S. Bach’s trickiest compositions. Embodiment is what I feel when I interact with the millions of creatures in my yard. Fully alive. Together. We are fellow earth creatures, moving about in a wondrous, cooperative planet. What should be more motivating than living in connection with other humans and other-than-humans, wisely using our skills to help flourishing of all? Isn’t this the heart of virtue? I wonder if it is not the heart of being human.

*The Self, Motivation and Virtue Project is funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

For more on these ideas, see the book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.