Opinion

Be an environmental activist through your backyard gardening choices

April 29, 2022 3:33 am
The monarch butterfly's marathon migratory pattern from Canada to Mexico over the course of generations of reproduction is a natural miracle, writes Eric Thomas. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The monarch butterfly’s marathon migratory pattern from Canada to Mexico over the course of generations of reproduction is a natural miracle, writes Eric Thomas. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

I like to consider myself an advocate for the environment: someone who believes that climate change is a dangerous and advancing threat. I fret that our government doesn’t do more to encourage sustainability and alternative energy.

But I am striking some weak stances there with “believe” and “fret.” What about some action on my part?

The best I muster is minimizing the damage that I regularly do to the environment. I choose a car that gets good gas mileage. I run our laundry at night to avoid peak power hours. I scold my son and daughter about not recycling.

Those changes allow me to stay in my comfy place of privileged consumption. Those tiny actions minimize my outsized first-world environmental impact.

Two Kansas podcasts this week provide similar ways to begin healing our environment, rather than limiting the daily damage we impart.

Together, the podcasts offer dual serendipities. First, their timing is extraordinary. Both episodes — posted on consecutive days on different podcasting channels — overlap by considering how backyard gardens with native plants can foster monarch butterflies.

The second serendipity is considering the strikingly beautiful monarch butterfly. Its marathon migratory pattern from Canada to Mexico over the course of generations of reproduction is a natural miracle. Add to that the precision of their migration (the butterflies take their cues from the angle of the sun in the sky).

Here are the two podcasts that magically overlapped in discussing how our backyard gardens can be more than a place to dump annual bags of red mulch: 

The connection to Kansas for the monarch butterfly comes from its migratory path through our state, and also from the Kansas-based nonprofit organization that for 30 years has been working toward their preservation.

Chip Taylor, the founder and director of Monarch Watch, connects the butterfly with today’s largest environmental issues on Uncovering Kansas.

“Monarchs are important because they are symbolic of how we are managing the planet and the effect that we are having on the planet,” Taylor says. “The fact that the monarch population is going down is troubling because this is one of the most fantastic natural phenomena on the planet. We’ve got to be paying attention.

“And the monarchs are telling us that we aren’t paying attention.” 

In eight countries, Monarch Watch has created more that 38,000 waystations: locations where monarchs can find their coveted milkweed plant.

Taylor explains that selecting a native milkweed plant is vital. Blindly buying any old milkweed might mean inadvertently harming monarchs with pesticides. 

“People who buy milkweed — tropical milkweed in particular — from big-box stores,” Taylor said. “And they take those plants home to raise a few monarch caterpillars on them. Two or three bites of that foliage, if it’s been treated with these neonicotinoid pesticides, those butterflies are curled up and writhing at the bottom of the pot.”

This kind of thoughtfulness about what plants we select flies in the face of the weekend warrior mentality of maintaining the stereotypical suburban backyard. It’s so tempting to race through the Home Depot nursery and choose a plant that might survive in an empty plant bed back home. We want to spend just a few hours to simply make our yard 'look cute.' 

– Eric Thomas

The guest on this week’s Flatlander Podcast also asks listeners to be mindful of what they plant. Brad Guhr, an educator at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, explains why we should choose native plants.

Guhr says native plants should give back to the environment in which they are planted as much as they take. (This sounds like a grand ambition for us all.) He agrees with Taylor that it’s often difficult to find such plants at national hardware and retail chains. 

However, finding the right plant can create a thriving natural environment. 

“The more diversity that you get at that plant level, the more diversity you are going to get at that animal level, more high up,” Guhr says. “And I think that is where another level of enjoyment comes in. Wanting to see the wildlife that gets attracted to a landscape.”

Of course, this kind of thoughtfulness about what plants we select flies in the face of the weekend warrior mentality of maintaining the stereotypical suburban backyard. It’s so tempting to race through the Home Depot nursery and choose a plant that might survive in an empty plant bed back home. We want to spend just a few hours to simply make our yard “look cute.” Both guests make the case for being more mindful.

Eventually, even Guhr’s interview turns to the monarch. 

“You bet I am going to talk about the monarch butterfly and all of the lessons that it brings along,” Guhr says. “Especially as it becomes more imperiled and we see these trends of its reduction in our environment, it’s easy to sound the alarms and try to highlight all of the different reasons that the monarch provides for us.”

Taylor sees the monarch’s symbolic value in prodding environmental curiosity and action.

“It’s a platform that we’ve got,” Taylor says. “The monarch butterfly is iconic. It’s cherished by a lot of people. And it gives us an opportunity to talk about a change that’s occurring.”

Savvy, lazy or crazy, Putin will soon lose power

When Experts Attack, April 21, 2022

In his interview with host Jon Niccum, Valery Dzutsati, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Kansas, draws a parallel between the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to the Russian-Japanese war in 1904. Detailed connections like these deliver what the title of the podcasts promises: experts attacking. Dzutsaki says that the 1904 war resulted in the first Russian revolution against the contemporary rulers of Russia. Will that happen again? Dzutsati predicts the end of Putin’s power in the next five years. 

Chris Courtwright

That Guy in Hutch, April 21, 2022

Chris Courtwright delivers a behind-the-scenes tick-tock of how the Kansas Legislative Research Department makes financial projections. While this sounds dry, Courtwright’s voice rings with the righteous conviction of a dedicated numbers guy. The wonky breakdown of economics and taxes will help listeners understand: 

  • The history of the grocery tax (he seems mystified that a cut hasn’t passed).
  • The diversification of tax revenue in Kansas (it protects against tax revenue slumping during downturns.
  • The cash in our state’s coffers (“I am telling you that there’s more money in the Kansas state coffers than there’s ever been.”).

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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