Tending the Delicate Balance

I was trying to sleep but found myself distracted by the bat that kept flying in and out of the window directly above my head. Fwap, fwap, fwap. Pause. Fwap, fwap, fwap. Knowing that the bat was eating dozens of mosquitos and no-see-ums that would otherwise be eating me was somewhat of a comfort, but bats in the bedroom are, none-the-less, hard to ignore. The previous week, I had come back to my place to find what appeared to be the world’s largest toad sitting squat in the middle of my living room. It was completely unperturbed by my presence and made no effort to exit the premises when I attempted to shoo it out the door. Again, I am not afraid of toads, but the thought of picking up the giant, warty beast to move it out of my cabina was less than appealing.

During my first month in Costa Rica, I had many such encounters with members of the animal kingdom. There was the parrot that flew into my kitchen every few days and ate the corner off a loaf of bread. There were the unstoppable armies of ants, some vicious, others benign. When I tried to protect a bag of cookies by suspending them from a clothesline, the ants, undeterred, just marched up the clothes pole, across the line and down the sides of the bag, chewed a tiny hole in the plastic and then helped themselves to the treats. Equally undeterred, I would pick up the bag, shake out the ants and then eat the cookies anyway.  Worst of all was the tarantula that crawled out of my pant leg one evening while I was at a party. “How long had it been there?” I wondered, knowing I had dressed hours ago.

The plants in Costa Rica were no less impressive. There was the Mimosa pudica, or sensitive plant, that folded up its leaves when touched. A small tree, referred to locally as reina de la noche, boasted huge, pink, bell-shaped flowers with hallucinogenic qualities. Still another tree, called Pao d’Arco, had bark with medicinal properties. As my host Jessica explained, her mother’s stomach cancer was cured after drinking a tea made from the tree daily for six months. The doctors were amazed when they discovered that her tumor had completely disappeared.

Here in Minnesota, our native plant and animal communities contain many equally impressive specimens. The purple coneflower, sometimes called Echinacea, is said to boost the human immune system, while the dried root of another prairie plant called culver’s root has been used as a homeopathic remedy for liver problems, jaundice, headache, and hemorrhoids. Our monarch butterflies migrate 2500 miles to south-central Mexico every winter, making them the insect with the longest repeat migration in the world. While they are here in Minnesota, they lay their eggs on milkweed, the only plant that the caterpillars can eat.

In both Costa Rica and Minnesota, intimate relationships exist between plants and animals. Plants are dependent on animals for pollination, while animals rely on plants for food.  By most estimates, one third of human food crops and 90% of all flowering plants need animal pollinators to reproduce. In the U. S., domestic honeybees alone pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops each year. Non-living components like soil and water are part of the relationship as well. Maples and basswoods attract bees but also have large canopies that can intercept up to 1600 gallons of rainwater per year, thereby reducing stormwater runoff. Native plants like Joe-pye-weed, sneezeweed, blazing star and aster, attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, but also have deeper roots than cultivars, making them ideal for erosion control and for helping rain and melting snow to soak into the ground.

The Wild Ones 2012 Design With Nature Conference: Tending the Delicate Balance, will explore the relationships between plants and animals in our natural communities and consider the impacts of processes such as habitat loss and climate change.  Speakers will include Jessica J. Hellmann, a professor of biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame, Stan Tekiela, a naturalist and wildlife photographer, Elaine Evans, an entomology expert from the University of Minnesota and author of Befriending Bumblebees, and Larry Weaner, a natural landscape designer and consultant.

State climatology records show that our weather patterns have changed marked over the past fifty years. While annual precipitation has remained relatively constant, there has been an increase in longer, more severe droughts, punctuated by more extreme storms. These changes impact many aspects of our human and natural world, from agriculture, to stormwater management, to ecosystem diversity.  The Wild Ones conference will explore opportunities the scientific community is considering to save certain species, as well as the ways that we can manage our landscapes to mitigate impacts of habitat loss and climate change.

The conference will be held Saturday, February 25 at Plymouth Creek Center in Plymouth. To register or learn more, visit www.designwithnatureconference.org.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water – www.mnwcd.org/cleanwater – which includes Brown’s Creek, Carnelian Marine – St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch Watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake, Lake Elmo, Stillwater, West Lakeland and Willernie, Washington County and the Washington Conservation District. Contact her at 651-275-1136 x.35 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.