Volume 13, Issue 26 ~ June 30 - July 6 , 2005

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Bay Weekly Summer Guide

by by Gary Pendleton

What Good Is a Buttonbush?

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land should be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.
"Aldo Leopold

A friend owns a wonderful piece of property on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Much of it is wooded, with a stream and wetland. It is a fine example of healthy Mid-Atlantic forest, with lots of beautiful native plants. He has some of the largest mountain laurel bushes I have ever seen, real champions.

I enjoy teaching him the names of the things growing there: jewel weed, clethra, even American chestnuts sprouting from old stumps.

When I pointed out a shrub growing in the wetland, along the path he had made, he asked what seemed like an impertinent question: "What is it good for"?

I was taken aback. Why question the value of any native plant, I thought. But I tried to answer.

"There are butterflies that depend on this plant," I said. "The adults eat the nectar; the larvae feed on the leaves."

But my answer seemed to beg the question What good is the butterfly? I feared that my knowledge of natural history and ecology would fail me, leaving me defensive and unconvincing.

When I decided on the button bush, a beautiful native wetland shrub, for this week"s Earth Journal I was pleased with my choice. I would do a little research, find a few interesting tidbits and write a clever essay. Easy.

I checked my library of field guides and nature books, and I Googled, but I wasn"t finding much. Finally a source noted that the flowers of the button bush are a good source of nectar for butterflies and bees. Well, so are lots of plants, and I needed more to write something interesting.

So I turned to a local naturalist, my usual source when I have questions about natural history. "What good is the buttonbush"? I found myself asking. "Is it associated with a particular insect that plays a vital role in wetland ecology? Is there an endangered species that uses it for nesting"?

No, not that she was aware of.

It is difficult to explain that we should value bio-diversity for its own sake.

Aldo Leopold, founder of the modern environmental movement, can guide us. Among the ideas he fostered was the importance of creating a land ethic. He argued that without such an ethic, humans view land through the lens of economics. Without an environmental ethic to temper the economic worldview, we will only be able to answer the question What good is it? by placing a dollar value on the land and its components.

We don"t need an accounting firm to tell us the value of the button bush. Let"s leave it at that.

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