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Wild Seed Project: Returning native plants to the Maine landscape
by Lillian Harris

We know that rewilding is good for nature. Reducing lawn size, allowing leaves to collect, and letting native plant species dominate are some of the things we can do to support local wildlife from the tiniest insects and caterpillars to migrating songbirds and our beloved bald eagles. Rewilding gives diverse, vibrant ecosystems the chance to flourish in our highly developed urban and suburban landscapes.

But is that the only reason we should get on board with rewilding? I’d like to share some reasons why rewilding is not just good for nature, it’s also good for us. Specifically, for our mental health.

In recent years mental health statistics have become increasingly alarming with rising numbers of young people and adults experiencing psychological distress. In my practice as a psychotherapist I have seen the demand for services grow steadily. While there are many facets of our modern lives that contribute to poor mental health, I believe a big factor is living on a planet that we feel disconnected from, and that we know is also struggling with declining health.

Lillian Harris and her husband Daniel Hildreth at their rewilded home in coastal Maine.

Lillian Harris and her husband Daniel Hildreth at their rewilded home in coastal Maine.

The pandemic has given me the opportunity to spend more time and energy on the rewilding efforts my husband and I have had underway for several years. I have noticed that this extra time and attention paid to our few acres of gardens, field and (tiny) forest, has been a source of resilience, optimism, and joy in spite of everything. In reflecting on why this is, I have come up with some specific reasons why I believe rewilding can help to heal not just native plant and animal communities, but also our mental health:

A fragrant northern bayberry next to Lillian’s home deck.

A fragrant northern bayberry next to Lillian’s home deck.

1. Rewilding helps foster a sense of belonging. Belonging is a key factor of psychological well being. In psychotherapy we often focus on the importance of developing healthy, enduring relationships with other humans and our pets, but what about the relationships that are possible with all of the diverse forms of life around us? What about the kinship I feel with the quaking aspen who waves at me every time the wind blows, or with the chipmunk whose cheeks are bulging with the acorns I didn’t rake last fall? Disconnection and loneliness are at an all-time high in our communities. What if the antidote were right here at home, just waiting for us to take notice?

Blue lobelia

Blue lobelia

2. Rewilding uproots perfectionism. We have a crisis of perfectionism in our culture. We wonder constantly if we’re smart enough, hard-working enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or if we have enough money. As far as I can tell, native plants don’t worry about being enough. They don’t grow in neat rows because that’s what is expected of them. One year I transplanted a blue lobelia to a carefully chosen place in the flower bed. The next year this resourceful biennial did not grow back where I planted it. Instead little seedlings grew up in a dozen other spots they chose for themselves. Today this garden doesn’t have clean lines or tidy patches of color; everything is mixed together. It has a life of its own and it’s beautiful as it is. This is a great reminder that we too have the freedom to be ourselves, rough edges and all.

Large-leaved aster and pollinating wasp.

Large-leaved aster and pollinating wasp.

3. Rewilding helps us learn to relax and “trust the process.” At first rewilding might not be relaxing! If you are used to tidy lawns and manicured flower beds, you may find a wild yard to be disorienting and even distressing. You might ask, “Who’s in charge here!?” Once you relax, and let nature meet you halfway, you’ll find that you don’t have to DO so much and you can take more time to just BE. I planted a few hay-scented ferns in one area by the deck and they didn’t fill in as quickly as I hoped. I didn’t like that there was so much bare ground. I fretted about what to do. Plant more? Plant something else? Wait until they fill in? In time, asters self-seeded and, just like that, my “problem” was solved. If I hadn’t waited to see what nature would do with the empty space, I wouldn’t have come upon such a simple, effortless solution. Now ask yourself, how often do you fret about a problem, turning it over in your mind, taking frantic action, just to find that in time it resolves itself making all of that angst unnecessary?

Growing native plants from seed is a way to participate in building back personal and ecological resilience.

Growing native plants from seed is a way to participate in building back personal and ecological resilience.

4. It feels good to give back. There are so many ways that our daily lives involve harming the planet. I’m typing these words on a laptop made of mined precious metals and plastic, and fueled by non-renewable sources of electricity. Even the most scrupulous among us take actions that harm the Earth when we are engaged with modern society. While we dismiss this reality to go about our lives without constant inner turmoil and guilt, I believe it takes a toll, even if the impact is largely subconscious. We don’t want to cause harm and yet we live in a world where it’s impossible not to. Rewilding helps me feel that I am giving something back, that I am participating not just in the breaking down, but also in the rebuilding of the world around me.

A garter snake thriving in fallen leaves and sticks.

A garter snake thriving in fallen leaves and sticks.

5. Rewilding builds resilience. There are aspects of rewilding that are not calming or soothing or restorative. Preventing a take-over by one (or many!) invasive species can make you feel like Sysiphus pushing his rock up a hill for eternity. Sometimes the seeds or seedlings you plant don’t want to grow there, or you find you really do have to mow your lawn to keep the ticks at bay. Rodents who delight in your untamed landscape may chew through something valuable (I know about this from personal experience…) making you wonder if it’s all worth it. Ultimately, all of these challenges will be rewarded with thriving, vibrant wild spaces, right where you live, that nourish you and so much more life all around you. The rewilding process is an opportunity to cultivate strength, patience, fortitude, reciprocity and humility, all qualities that are the foundation of good psychological health.

Bloodroot, foamflower and ostrich fern fiddleheads.

Bloodroot, foamflower and ostrich fern fiddleheads.

If you’re not convinced, give it a try. You may start out as a skeptic, I did. When I first looked at lists of native plants for landscaping, all I saw was what wasn’t there. No lilacs, poppies or peonies? No sweet-scented lily-of-the-valleys? I thought the garden would be boring and pale in comparison with what I was used to. I started experimenting with planting a few native plants, starting some wild seeds and letting what wanted to grow grow. Now I don’t see what I’m missing, only what is present, in abundance. I get excited for spring, not because of tulips and daffodils, but because of bloodroot, foamflower and fiddleheads. I anticipate bayberry leafing out and seeing where lobelia and butterfly milkweed will pop up this year. I look forward to welcoming the widening web of life that has grown to include all kinds of plants and animals, and also, that includes me.

Wild Seed Project member Lillian Harris, LCPC, is a psychotherapist and rewilding enthusiast living on the coast of Maine. She has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and a masters degree in Mental Health Counseling and enjoys exploring where these disciplines intersect. She is the author of the Monhegan Nature Guide: Natural history and guided hikes on one of Maine’s wildest offshore islands.

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