Williams College professor Joan Edwards, on the right, leads a discussion at the college's Hopkins Forest.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Art and science came together in a unique way for Bridget Spann.
One of the coordinators of the town's Bee Friendly Williamstown campaign was at the Clark Art Institute in May when she had an epiphany.
"They did a panel discussion with Kim Skrym, who is the [Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources] apiary coordinator about how the Clark is altering its landscaping practices to be more pollinator friendly. It was very inspiring, and it's a change from how the Clark used to tend to its grounds."
But not all the lessons, at least for Spann, were learned during the panel.
"After attending that talk, I was going back to the area where the crafts were, and I needed to walk through the Impressionists Gallery," she said. "Suddenly, it was this direct link of: Would we ever have these masterpieces if all Monet saw was a chem lawn? Would we have Renoir's landscapes if all they ever saw was tightly manicured, uniformly green chem lawn?"
Art historians can ponder those questions.
But what is undeniable is the science of pollinator decline and the toll that human activity has taken on bees, butterflies and other creatures that are a vital part of the ecosystem and the food chain.
The town in 2017 took a step in the direction of reversing those trends by declaring Williamstown a "pollinator friendly community" in a non-binding town meeting resolution that encouraged more sustainable property management.
On the heels of that, the town secured a $9,120 grant from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
With that money in hand, Spann, Select Board member Anne O'Connor, and other advocates organized more than a dozen educational events, ranging from a butterfly walk at the Spruces park on Main Street to training aimed directly at professional landscapers.
Recently, Spann and O'Connor sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about their activities and where they see the pollinator-protection movement going in the future.
Question: What, if any, changes in behavior are you hearing about in the community?
Spann: One of the things we did at the beginning was [Williams College professor] Joan Edwards showed the group her research at Hopkins Forest about the benefits of delaying mowing until after the first frost and looking at the flowering resources that are available to pollinators when you do an annual mow after the first frost.
And there were several people on the tour who said, 'Oh, I just need my field mowed once a year at some point. I can easily request that it be done in late October.' And these are people who live in South Williamstown who have large areas that they don't want to be wooded. It's really beautiful as a meadow. And that was just an easy strategy.
O'Connor: I have a variety of examples. I've been pleased to see that our big landscaping companies have picked up on the message and put a lot of effort into advertising, in particular, organic lawn care products. Countryside and Mountain Home both have clearly been working on this and engaging their customers through mailings and discussions when they scope out a property.
Countryside mentioned clients they're working with to convert a turf lawn to a clover lawn. Those are all recent developments.
Q: Do you have a sense if any of these are people who have been engaged in your presentations?
O'Connor: We don't know. [The landscapers] said, before you reach out to them and take a picture of their lawn, let me ask them first. And I don't know how quickly they're likely to get back to us on that.
I think there's been enough in the news generally about pollinators that someone may not have picked up on it through our messaging alone.
Q: Whether it was someone who came to an event, it could have been someone who talked to someone who came to your event. It's impossible to know. But you've kept the conversation going.
O'Connor: There have been many more conversations around it, and we have really sought out different audiences.
I'm particularly pleased about the presentations we've done in churches. It's nice to find an audience that … often is really ready to hear the message. People who care intensely about the environment, who care about creatures, God's creation or whatever you want to call it -- and just didn't know, didn't realize that that pretty shrub they have in front of their house is feeding no one or the grass, the way they're taking care of it, is killing off insect life.
Others are receptive to the fact that it's dangerous for pets and children.
Q: What sorts of resistance have you heard?
O'Connor: Somehow, we have come to a certain way of thinking how your property should look. You should have your nice spread of lawn and a few ornamental shrubs. What people don't realize is that's gardening for a certain aesthetic, and you don't even know how that aesthetic developed. It wasn't the aesthetic 60 or 70 years ago, and it certainly wasn't the aesthetic 100, 120 years ago.
And what we are neglecting is gardening for life, gardening for habitat.
Spann: I think also very powerful for me is: Fourteen years ago when I moved to Caretaker Farm, I lived in the house where Sam and Elizabeth Smith live. When Don [Zasada] and I were there, we mowed the lawn because that's what you do. You mow the lawn. It wasn't a huge lawn, but we mowed it.
And then a year later when the farm transfer occurred, we switched houses, so now that was Sam and Elizabeth's back yard. And over the past few years, they probably mow half the area we used to mow, and Elizabeth has done some native plantings, she has welcomed the goldenrods, she has some birdhouses. She has all different things specific to pollinators. It's a really striking example to me because if you'd asked me why we were mowing the lawn, I'd have said, 'That's what you do. You mow the lawn.'
I guess it's an example for me of having done so much organizing this campaign: What are the low-hanging fruits, the simple things all of us can do that would be better for pollinators, better for people, better for pets and have our community looking different?
That for me is really inspiring. It's not that we were resistant to the idea. It just didn't occur to us. And if you ever have a chance to walk into her backyard, it's beautiful. It doesn't look unkempt, she has a mowed path through it so you can walk through things. It's really beautiful and inviting.
Q: What kinds of plantings should people use?
The yard of a Williamstown residence that has been converted to a pollinator-friendly habitat.
Spann: One of the things that is so important people learn about pollinators and say, 'I want to go out and get some pollinator-friendly plants.' But there are many plants at big box stores and other places that are from seeds treated with neoninicitoids. So they have this idea, I want to get a pollinator-friendly plant, and in fact, that plant is damaging to pollinators because it's from seeds treated with neoninicitoids, which are now throughout the plant.
So one of the things we did because people kept asking, where can I get plants from a trusted source … we hosted a plant say with Amy Pulley of Wing and a Prayer nursery in Cummington. It was so inspiring for people to hear a presentation from her and have a chance right away to look at possible plants and have a consultation about how to improve their gardens.
Yes, we'd like to work with hardware stores and other retailers to make sure that what they're selling is safe, but it's also about educating the consumer so the consumer can make the best choices possible.
Q: I know it's still early in the movement, so there may not be much data, but have you heard anything about whether changing the way people landscape a property impacts resale?
O'Connor: I know [one town resident] told me that his wife wouldn't let him stop the weed and feed because she was afraid it wouldn't sell.
That's an interesting question.
Q: Have you engaged real estate agents?
O'Connor: With each step, new ideas come along. We discovered halfway through the year we did want to have conversations with the hardware stores about the chemicals they were selling. That's the kind of work that, to the extent, we have volunteer hours to allocate, that's the type of direction we could be going.
I think a conversation with Realtors would be a useful one to have, particularly to have a narrative. If people are looking at houses, they might say, 'I'd like to buy here, but there are all these run-down properties. What's going on?' The Realtor could say, 'These are not run-down properties. Here's what's going.'
Q: But if a person is living at a property now understands the importance of pollinator-friendly practices but they want to sell the property someday, it's kind of a conundrum because the last thing you want to do is limit your potential market.
Spann: The real estate question reminds me of how ingrained it's become for all of us: What is this vision of a well-kept property?
I've walked by this [one property] on Cole Avenue many times. It is gorgeous, and there are places nearby with this clipped little lawn. This, to me, is beautiful, and there's clearly a lot of work that goes into it. At the Clark, there are places where it's mowed, there's a clipped path around the perimeter or through the meadow, so you can see it is intentional and people can access that space and appreciate it.
It would be interesting to talk to Realtors, but it's also about getting at consumer demand and changing people's sense of what's desirable and beautiful. What is healthy for people, pets, planet, pollinators?
Q: It had to be gratifying to see nearby Lanesborough adopt similar pollinator-friendly community language at its annual meeting in June. Where do you see the movement going? Could there be, potentially, enforceable ordinances or statewide legislation?
O'Connor: Personally, I'm not hearing that, per se, in the Western Mass Pollinators Network push. Perhaps for myself as a politician, someone who is a little closer to making policy than if I was wearing activists shoes, I feel like the real goal is still education. Many people will change what they're doing once they know. And then we don't have to force them to do anything. The outliers become fewer and farther between. That's the reality of life in America, that you can still do what you want.
Spann: I do think part of what we've been doing is to change people's aesthetic sense of what's pleasing and necessary.
When I think about my own life and what changes I've made, so much of it has been, 'Oh, I didn't realize that and through these steps, this could benefit me, the environment, my children, people around me. It's more economical.'
As a strategy for implementing change, we've felt really good about the educational programs and where that can take us.
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'New Horizon's' reflective material mirrors the world around it.
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