Finding Glory in a Roadside Ditch with Lisa D. Watson
In an overgrown ditch just off President Street, somewhere between the Truman Parkway homeless camp and the stately entrance to the Savannah Golf Club, lies a tiny wild paradise.
Thick cattails stand tall amongst a carpet of purple and red morning glories, vines intertwining with shrubs dotted with button-sized white flowers known as shepherd’s needles. Pokeweed stalks more than ten feet high sway in the early morning light, berries ripening midnight black on fuchsia stems. Bees and butterflies swoop merrily from bloom to bloom as the sun’s rays unfurl, imbuing drops of dew with vivid sparkles. It is a glorious slice of southeastern botanical life, writ small.
“It’s this perfect little native ecosystem, and you’d never know it was here,” marvels Lisa D. Watson, the artist, landscape architect, activist, and plant nerd who’s brought me along to investigate this miniscule patch of biological wonder. She’d driven by this lush spot near the pavement hundreds of times before and decided she’d better have a look at what’s growing here, before it’s too late.
This is not the first time I’ve been up at dawn to go tromping around in the dirt with Lisa. A couple of springs ago when writing gigs were slow, she graciously threw a few hours a week my way working for Plan It Green Designs, her landscaping company that educates and encourages clients to replace boring, water-guzzling, toxic lawns with native, drought-resistant, and pollinator-favorable plants that restore natural ecosystems.
“If we don’t plant them, they will disappear,” she admonishes.
For weeks in the early morning hours before it got too hot, we sowed a berm on Tybee’s Back River with sweet-smelling wax myrtle, pink phlox, and blue sage to anchor the sea wall and provide a haven for birds and butterflies. To this day I cannot pass by it without taking a selfie, and I learned so much hanging out on that small sandy hill that Lisa could ask me if I wanted to haul 40 bags of pine straw to Ludowici in a broken wheelbarrow and I’d say yes.
You’re going to read plenty in local art columns in the next few weeks about Lisa’s latest and highly anticipated solo exhibition, Avant Gardener, opening at Sulfur Studios on Sept. 2. For good reason: Those familiar with LDW’s 2015 residency at the City Hall rotunda with its crisp renderings of nearby bridges and her 2017 multimedia installation at the Telfair starring a deer lost on the highway know that her sublime paintings reflect a gracefully compelling juxtaposition of human infrastructure and the natural world. Always an unabashed delve into the dangerous relationship we narcissistic monkeys have with our environment, her work gently reminds us of the relevance and beauty right in front of our faces.
This latest series focuses on the imperiled species native to southeastern Georgia and parts of Florida, not only the plants but their pollinators and other animals that depend on them. Entire ecosystems are collapsing due to habitat loss from unchecked development, suburban gardens stuffed with shrubs sold at Home Depot that are toxic to songbirds, and those fast-growing invasive fuckers that strangle everything in their path (lookin’ at you, kudzu.)
“Don’t even get me started on grass. And that English ivy everyone has in their front yard,” mutters Lisa as she pages through the guidebook she’s carrying to confirm the identity of a palm-fronded bush fanning out from the edges of the swampy ditch. “Umbrella flatsedge! Not native, but the roots are edible.”
Not that she isn’t realistic about the fact that exotic species are here to stay. Seeds are meant to spread, after all, and transplants can be good for culture and diversity, as many of us will defend. Often, however, they’re not, like the deceptively lovely Chinese wisteria that can choke out an acre of native habitat faster than millennials gentrifying Cuyler-Brownsville. (There is such a thing as native wisteria; the way to tell the difference is that the Asian version has fuzzy seed pods while the American ones are smooth. Invasive people tend to reveal themselves by bragging about how they “discovered” affordable neighborhoods in Savannah.)
“Just because it’s not from here doesn’t mean it’s bad,” she says with a shrug as we poke at leaves. “Only if it harms what’s already here.”
While she’s quick to protest that she’s no botanist, Lisa’s depth of plant knowledge goes far beyond casual picture book references or even simple observation—her penchant for picking around wild places brings tactile wisdom to her business and the canvas (to clarify, she actually uses reclaimed wood and other upcycled materials.) A few years ago, she began tagging along with the experts of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance to learn more about how to revive rare and endangered species, joining naturalist Christa Hayes on a monarch butterfly survey of the southeast.
“By tracking the monarchs, we can know when to plant milkweed so it will be ready to go for them,” Lisa explains of the beleaguered butterflies that are in dramatic decline. Growing the correct species of milkweed for Georgia can help keep their migratory tendencies on track, and Lisa will be handing out seeds as Avant Gardener journeys to several more galleries through the spring.
Her muckabouts into Georgia’s longleaf forests with Hayes inspired “Kingdom of a Roadside Ditch,” an amalgam of small works tethered by the interconnectivity of pollinators’ flight paths. The show also includes a stunning homage to Hibiscus grandiflorus, the highly endangered—and hard to find—gargantuan “swamp rose” native to our rapidly disappearing wetlands. Also making an appearance is the carnivorous hooded pitcher plant, which apparently eats roaches. Why we aren’t already planting our entire yards with them is beyond me.
With our backs to the morning traffic barreling by and our noses pointed to the flowers, Lisa points out the far-reaching benefits of what’s growing naturally in this particular roadside ditch: Pokeweed serves as the sole breeding ground for the giant leopard moth and is being researched for its anti-cancer properties. The shepherd’s needles—scientific name Bidens alba—are edible and pack a wallop of antioxidants. Morning glories have long been used in ancient cultures as a laxative and are also purported to have hallucinogenic properties—which could be a useful combination in some instances; maybe microdosing them will become the latest wedding rage?
In any case, when Lisa is not painting or planting, she is advocating to gardening groups and commercial landscapers not to spray poison on or mow down these native gems—and to move away from planting invasive species as decor in the first place. Her message seems to be taking root like a healthy garden should: She’s been tapped by the city to consult on the new arena’s permanent landscaping (assuming that phase will happen once the parking situation gets squared away, hope no one’s holding their breath), and the Avant Gardener exhibition will reach more audiences in Hilton Head and Statesboro later this year.
Still, as I look past the poke’s tall stalks to the manicured lawn of the golf course, its orderly grass kept neon green by pesticides and weed killers, I wonder if fighting for our environment is a losing battle. Invasive people—er, I mean plants, or do I? Let's just say both—will grow where they please regardless of whether they’re harming what’s already there, and preventing the takeover of the entire planet from the greed we call progress seems less possible with each passing day.
But Lisa, always rooted in optimism, points out that many golf courses have steered away from their water-wasting ways by planting drought-resistant species, and there’s even a course in Scotland that keeps parts wild to encourage pollinators.
“You never know, this could be all native plants in the near future,” she says, and we have a grand giggle picturing Southern golfers trying to tee off from a pile of sweetgum balls.
Anyway, it’s too early in the day for bleak thoughts, what with the sunlight shining gold on this little strip teeming with life with species that have been growing here for millenia. It reminds me there’s power in time and knowledge: Ecosystems heal as native species thrive, making them resistant to invaders. Communities flourish when seeded with art, education, and acceptance.
Maybe if enough of us cultivate the good milkweed, the monarchs will come back.
And optimism? I think Lisa would advise that the best way to keep that growing is to plant more of it.
Keep sowing the seeds of love ~ JLL
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