• Every plant on planet has purpose
    By Linda Freeman
    CORRESPONDENT | June 30,2013
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    Mike Ather photo

    Purple Flowering Raspberry is also known as Thimbleberry for the shape of the berry after it has been picked.
    June 21 might have officially marked the beginning of summer, but here in Vermont the season often begins on the Fourth of July, or more specifically, with the festivities that celebrate the birth of this nation as well as the arrival of vacation time. Visitors and residents flock to parades, field days, street dances and picnics throughout the week. It’s as if permission has now been granted to kick back and have fun.

    Those of you who come from a place where driving equates sitting in traffic on multilane thoroughfares, windows up, doors locked and air conditioning blasting, experience with wonder Vermont country roads on which the wheels continue to turn and the local habit is to signal hello to passing motorists.

    Even driving the Interstate is a pleasure. Distant hills are unobstructed by ugly billboards and roadside growth is lush and colorful. About now you will see thick patches of purple, white, yellow, orange and green growing in celebratory simplicity along roadsides, in median strips and fields: varieties of Vetch, Clover, Chicory, Butter and Eggs, Hockweed, Indian Paint Brush to name a few.

    (For more information see Wildflowers of Vermont by Kate Carter.)

    How do I know this? I met with an expert. Mike Ather, Middlesex, self-described Environmental Educator, is passionate about wild and growing things. “Fields and forests are the pharmacies of the earth providing fresh air, clean water, nutritious and medicinal plants, aroma therapy and sensory experiences that invigorate the soul,” he said. “We can save the world through wild flowers. Every wild plant out there, every single plant on earth, has a use.”

    Ather, a walking wealth of expertise, explains the many uses of plants but is quick to (a) caution safety by checking several references before eating anything, (b)forage responsibly and (c) defer to Nova Kim and Les Hook to whom he “bows” as wild food authorities.

    “One of the most important aspects of life, ours as well as the forests around us, is to learn to appreciate all the cycles of life. Realize that the forest is an ever-changing landscape. Remember, for better or worse, you are an integral part of that change.” (Nova Kim and Les Hook, www.wildgourmetfood.com.)

    Ather, who was born in Vermont, spent his formative years in Virginia, returned to graduate from the University of Vermont and stay, addresses the role we must play in nature’s drama. Flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees surely have aesthetic value. Pleasing the eye is a valid component of pleasure and well being, but there is more. “Unless we change our ways, by 2100, 50 percent of all species of plant and animals now living on earth will be gone forever,” Ather said.

    Perhaps the mission of Backyardwilderness.com states it best: “To help promote, restore, and maintain species diversity and environmental health in the face of human population increase and ever changing land use patterns, through educational programs, workshops, nature walks, publications and internet web presence. Goals include dispelling myths about chemical pesticides and fertilizers; expand public knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, and refugia; encourage recreation of backyard, and community wilderness.”

    What does all this mean? “All things work together for good in nature,” Ather said. “By interfering we create problems. I am simply interested in getting people to diversify their own land. I hope to build enough enthusiasm to have someone carry on after I am gone.”

    The starting point is an awareness of wild, natural growth. Do we speed through our busy days, ignorant of the landscape? Or do we stop to notice the proverbial flora and fauna surrounding us? Do we take a day off (or even an hour) from a hectic schedule or stringent training plan to observantly walk in the woods or meander by a stream, a day to notice or simply experience the scenery that provides the backdrop to life’s theater?

    After appreciation comes education. History portrays change. “When we read original journals of first explorers we see that native peoples lived as close to an Edenic state as possible.” Europeans arrived and left valuable records but also tried to improve upon what was here. Sometimes human interference creates a negative environment in which invasive species thrive.

    Informed, one asks, “what can I do?” “Backyard wilderness works well in the yards of our childhoods,” Ather said, but what about now? Citing the overpopulation and dense structural development of once rural areas, Ather suggest a few simple steps to help protect natural diversity and balance.

    Refugia, (yes, from which comes refuge) is an area left to grow on its own and provide habitat for wild things to prosper unrestricted.

    Ather suggests that each lawn could be mowed to provide a small and attractive area of refugia. “Be creative,” he suggests. Leave a border or swatch to grow, prolific with wildflowers that attract beneficial insects and songbirds. “What will thrive is the wildflower that was meant to be there,” Ather said.

    Learn more about edibles and utilize edible landscaping, be intelligently aware before consumption. “Every wild edible has a dangerous look-alike,” Ather said. “Be your own expert.” Just because an animal can eat it, doesn’t mean we can. Forage responsibly. Wash well; cook thoroughly.

    Composting is a huge topic for another day, as is the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. “Each person has an impact positively or negatively,” Ather said. “Collectively we can have a huge impact - if we have the will.”

    “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (attributed to Chief Seattle, Duwamish, 1780-1866)
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