Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Burke naturalist’s faith grows amid her love for creation

First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

The trees, flowers and shrubs grown in Northern Virginia are beautiful, hardy, self-reliant, and a natural source of sustenance for birds, bees and other wildlife. But native plants, such as golden rod, Brown-eyed Susans and oak trees are often overlooked and edged out by the neat and trim, water-thirsty, maintenance-requiring, all-American lawn. Many naturalists, including Kim Young, a parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Burke, see these blades of grass as a growing problem.

 “Lawn monoculture does nothing for wildlife,” said Young, a senior interpreter at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale. Still, suburbia is full of it. “We can’t turn back the clock but what we can do is try to bring nature into our communities, our homes, our churches and our schools by providing a habitat for wildlife right where we are.”

Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to join the ecumenical “Season of Creation” initiative, which runs from Sept. 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, through Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The initiative includes prayer and practical action to clean up the environment, promote recycling and lobby governments for action to mitigate climate change.

For Young, advocating for plants comes naturally as the daughter of a plant nursery owner. Her father later moved their family from southern New Jersey to Northern Virginia to work for the national cemetery system, bringing a more park-like feel to Arlington National Cemetery. When Young and her siblings were children, their father often took them hiking, pointing out plants and their scientific names. 

 “My oldest brother and I would compete about who could come up with the names,” said Young. “The one that was always laughed about was Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea' (a type of evergreen.) That was the longest Latin name of a plant that we knew.” 

Young studied botany in college and then worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior. While her children were growing up, she worked for a direct-sales educational toy company. For the past 14 years, she’s been at the nature center  — the oldest one in Fairfax County, she said, and the only one inside the Beltway.

The small center is surrounded by a 52-acre park filled with trails, gardens and a play place for children. Inside are kid-friendly displays about local flora and fauna as well as actual fauna, including snakes, a turtle and several soon-to-be hatched monarch cocoons. Young and the other staffers spend much of their time introducing the natural world to children who visit during school field trips, birthday parties and summer camps. 

Young believes the more people understand about each type of leafy tree or creepy-crawly, the more they’ll care if these things start to disappear. “The whole philosophy of nature education is if children and adults don’t understand nature, they won’t care about it, and if they don’t care about it, they’re not going to protect it,” said Young. 

Young’s faith teaches her that people should honor God’s creation. But in addition to that moral mandate, she knows there are many practical reasons to care about the health of the natural world. Study after study shows that removing one species from the ecosystem has unintended and often disastrous effects.

“Insects and wildlife have evolved to coexist with (each other) and in many cases require (each other) for survival,” she said. Removing the unassuming milkweed plant, for example, strips monarch caterpillars of their food source. That in turn affects the birds who eat caterpillars. “(Someone will say) oh, I have caterpillars on my cherry tree, and then spray them to kill them, not realizing that basically you’ve doomed your local bird population,” said Young. 

Though a common occurrence, planting non-native shrubbery and grass may starve local insects, animals and other vegetation. Invasive plants such as Japanese honeysuckle and stilt grass abound in Northern Virginia, crowding out local plant competitors. 

While some non-natives thrive, other often aesthetically pleasing non-native vegetation requires extra water and fertilizer that plants suited to this area don’t need. The excess water and fertilizer sprayed on lawns washes off to nearby streams, causing algae blooms.  

“We spend so much money and time maintaining lawns, and I was one of those (people). We had a lawn service and all of that,” said Young. “But then you realize, this is nuts. Who am I trying to impress? Not God, for sure.” 

Slowly, she and her husband have replaced the non-native plants surrounding their home. Box turtles, wood frogs, flying squirrels and rabbits now frequent her yard. Virginia sweetspire, a shrub that attracts native pollinator bees when it blooms in the spring, replaced the declining Japanese azaleas. “We chose to remove a plant that did not look good in order to replace it with native shrubs that were more suited to the space and required less maintenance,” she said. 

Young also introduced some native plants to the grounds of her parish, Church of the Nativity in Burke. With the help of the Creation Care Ministry members, a grant from the Endangered Species Coalition and plants from the nursery Earth Sangha, the team created a pollinator garden. Those organizations, National Wildlife Federation and Audubon at Home are very helpful for individuals or churches looking to go native, said Young.  

After Pope Francis issued “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Young and others relaunched the environmental ministry at her parish. It’s made a big difference in her faith life. “I grew up Catholic, I taught CCD but I wouldn't say I had a strong faith life until I got involved more deeply with creation care,” said Young. “It sort of put it together for me and gave me a place in the church and in my faith that I’m not sure I had before. It makes me more grateful for what God has provided for us.”

Young is excited Pope Francis’ Season of Creation’s theme for this year focuses on the web of life.  “In some cases, due to being removed from nature, we’ve lost our perspective about what we’re doing,” she said. But something as simple as what plants are in the flowerbed have an impact on the environment. 

Creating a yard that fosters native plants and animals might look different that the neatly manicured lawn next door. Leaves on the tree might have nibbled holes because they’re actually a food source. But Young thinks the adjustment is worth it. “We have to be willing to live with a little more messiness in God’s creation.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019