In my post a few weeks ago about what I called the “Garden Resistance Movement” (where people are converting their yards to gardens, etc.), I alluded to the fact that I was now on the front lines of this particular fight. I decided to withhold posting more details until I took the time to A) carefully consider my approach; B) educate myself on the issues; and C) consult some experts. So in this post, I’m going to describe what happened, outline the current ordinances, and describe some steps that I’m taking and have already taken to address the issue. I’m going to start by providing a bit of context and some photos to describe my personal situation at hand, and then I’ll broaden out to discuss the steps I’ve taken and where this whole thing is heading.
Since I moved into this land, I’ve been establishing it as a sacred site, a sacred grove, a place where all life is respected and honored, as a space of growth for visitors and inhabitants, be them human or otherwise. As part of this, I’ve talked about cleaning up and healing the land, establishing gardens, building sacred spaces, and much more! So this is the context going into my story.
My home is situated on a 3 acre parcel in rural Northwestern Oakland County, Michigan, in the township of Independence. Most of the homes on this particular road are 3 acres or 5 acres; the neighbor across the street has 80 acres. Directly across the street, a lush wetland exists, to the right, I have a very nice but “conventional” neighbor who sprays for bugs, mosquitoes, weeds, and everything else. My neighbors behind me and to the left don’t seem as bad, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know them. My property is surrounded on all sides by large oaks, cottonwoods, sassafras, and maple trees, and much of it is quite private, not visible from anyone else’s yard or road.
This brings me to my road. The road that I live on is a dirt road, and much of it is what others would call “overgrown” but what I prefer to describe as “lush and lively.” Most people have trees/plants growing wild in their front yards and along the drainage ditch. All the “noxious weeds” listed in my township’s code or ordinances grow along this road freely. A lot of people have a portion of yard that they mow behind that section, and this, dear readers, is where we get in trouble.
Now if you remember several months ago, I decided to stop mowing my yard. I’m in the process of converting it into a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary, and using good permaculture principles including spending a full year in observation, I wanted to do some site observations to see what is currently growing there. This was hard to do if it was always in a mowed state–I didn’t want to rip out potentially native or beneficial plants, but they are hard to ID if they are only 3″ high. Plus, I was sick of consuming fossil fuels to maintain the space. I didn’t even realize that anyone would care, seeing how rural I am, nor that there were ordinances against such an approach.
By mid-June, I had a number of wildflowers, brambles, and grasses growing and was quite proud of the result of just letting things “be.” I saw some areas where I wanted to reduce grasses and increase flowers and other beneficial plants, and had started formulating a plan for what plants would go where.
In June, apparently, multiple someones got angry at the state of affairs in my unmowed (but certainly not untended) front lawn area and complained to the township. Unbeknownst to me, they sent someone out to assess the site. The people who complained and the township assessor never approached me or asked me any questions. This was the same time that the house next to me went up on the market for sale; I have a strong suspicion that the realtor called because it would somehow “look bad.”
Just before the 4th of July, I received the following letter from my township. It certainly wasn’t friendly, and frankly, as a new homeowner, it scared me and angered me. I had to wait till after the holiday weekend, and when I called early the next week, the woman on the phone in the township office kindly but firmly explained to me that I had no recourse but to mow it, and if I didn’t mow it, the township would send someone to mow it. She also said that they would place a lien on my house, and the whole ordeal would cost me somewhere around $1000. I inquired about the process for talking to someone to change the laws, and I was given a host of names, many of whom I left messages for and never heard back from. But I was also given just three days to mow, and that left me little choice and few other options.
The Initial Defeat
At this point, I was at my lowest. I’m a single woman, on a single income, and things are tight. I am in the process of refinancing my mortgage, so I can’t have any kind of lien. I was seriously terrified and out of the fact that I can’t afford to pay the township $1000, and so, I’m ashamed to say, I capitulated. I remember the day I mowed it all down–I sat on that stupid mower and cried my eyes out as I watched my lovely flowers and grasses get the axe. I felt the land weeping as I wept, the loss of habitat and the loss of fossil fuel all to achieve some image that I ethically and spiritually disagreed with.
But after the defeat, I realized that the real work still was ahead of me. I straightened my shoulders and set out to learn everything I could about township ordinances and how to change them. I spoke to a friend who is heavily involved in the politics of another township, and he had himself rewritten the laws only 5 years ago concerning lawns. He ended up being a wealth of knowledge and had lots of suggestions for other people to contact. About a week after I received the letter, we stood at my farmer’s market booth and spoke of the issues; he followed up with some more suggestions and a number of people to contact. The following week, again at the farmer’s market, I spoke to a few other concerned citizens, including another person who also received a letter.
Task Force Formation
In the last few weeks, this amazing group of people emerged who were knowledgeable about politics, ordinances, native plants, alternatives, and so forth–and so willing to help and lend their support. The two of us who received letters are forming a task force, which will meet in late August, to address the issue at the township level and work to educate our local community and work with our politicians to help change the laws to be more earth-friendly. And despite my initial defeat, I am given hope–hope that there are so many who know more than me about these processes, hope that we can enact better laws to change our relationship with our landscape.
Part of me is disappointed in my own actions, in capitulating so quickly, but when I step back and look at the bigger picture, I realize that this is about more than just my patch of lawn. Its about working with people, rather than against them, to enact positive change. If I put myself in an adversarial relationship with the township, I think I would be much less likely to succeed. This whole process has also given me a unique opportunity to educate myself and help create positive change for our community. In the least, I plan on documenting our task force’s efforts and compiling resource lists so that other people can learn about what we learned!
Other Legitimizing Steps: Certifying the Land
The other thing that was suggested to me, and that I’ve already done, was to officially establish the property as a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary. The butterfly garden was the first thing I put in when I moved here three years ago, and I’ve been adding more and more beneficial plants and observing how the plants that already are here help the wildlife. I went through two organizations to register the land and get appropriate signage:
Certified Wildlife Habitat (through the National Wildlife Federation): This program focuses on providing habitat within homes, businesses, and communities for birds, insects, plants, and animals.
Monarch Watch Certified Waystation: This program targets the endangered monarch butterfly, whose numbers have been substantially declining in light of loss of habitat and chemical agriculture.
I spent $50 on the NWF certification and $40 on the Monarch certification–this included the certification and the sign in both cases. I was also very pleased to note that when I looked online at the requirements for both certifications, i realized that I already exceeded the base requirement due to my previous work.
These programs provide you with a certificate, and, if you want to pay a bit extra, a nice sign for your yard. The sign, I was told, is incredibly important–it helps people understand what you are doing and educates them on the issues. I am looking forward to receiving these signs in the mail and creating one of my own explaining my work here.
You’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts on this blog in the future about how to navigate complex legal ordinances and ways of building community support. This story is far from over–so stay tuned!