Catching up with former Wild Ones Honorary Director Lorraine Johnson 

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In the realm of environmental stewardship, few voices resonate as passionately as Lorraine Johnson‘s. With three decades dedicated to researching and writing about environmental issues, Johnson is not only an accomplished author and community activist but also a fervent advocate for protecting and expanding the urban forest. Join us as we catch up with former Wild Ones Honorary Director Lorraine Johnson, just in time for her upcoming webinar on January 25. 

In your extensive career, you have been a staunch advocate for protecting and growing the urban forest. Can you share some key experiences that have shaped your passion for this cause? 

I’ve always loved trees, and I think it all started with the tree in front of the house where I lived as a young child. It was a maple, and I have so many memories of spending time with that tree: climbing it, swinging from its branches, putting the maple keys/samaras on the bridge of my nose, finding refuge out under its shade on hot summer days…I think all of these childhood experiences with trees fed into my adult relationship with trees, so that when I started to learn about their ecological importance (as habitat, carbon sequestration, and more), it was something that I felt very deeply–emotionally as well as intellectually. And one of the most satisfying aspects of my work is being able to share that love with people and seeing a passion for trees being sparked in people – especially young people. When I taught a course called “Native Plants Ecosystems” at York University for many years, one thing I loved witnessing was the transformation in students as they learned about trees. On day one of the course, I asked them to draw a tree, and then as we looked at the drawings, I asked them what species they had drawn…Very few had drawn a particular type of tree; for them, trees were kind of generic. Helping open their eyes to the diversity of trees over the course was such a great feeling–for me and for them! 

Your recent book, co-authored with Sheila Colla, focuses on native plants and pollinators. What inspired you to delve into this subject, and what do you believe is the significance of promoting native plant species in gardening? 

Over the years, I’ve observed that a lot of people (gardeners and non-gardeners) tend to view insects as “pests”. Or, if not pests, then simply as tiny and insignificant… I really wanted to focus on an alternative way of looking at these crucial creatures and help nurture a love for insects–in particular, pollinators–by focusing on how amazing they are and how important they are to the web of connections that support all life on earth. I’ve also observed that a lot of people (gardeners and non-gardeners) are keen to support monarch butterflies, so I wanted to build on that and maybe try to expand that understanding about the relationship of an insect (monarch) to a native plant (milkweed) and inspire people to start seeing these connections throughout the ecosystem. When the opportunity arose to work with Dr. Sheila Colla–a conservation scientist and an expert in bumblebees–I was over the moon. I welcomed the chance to combine our strengths and knowledges into one book that focused on the importance of native plants and pollinators (native bees, in particular). Our goal was to help people take action in the landscapes they steward (yards, community places, balconies, and more!) by planting native plants to support pollinators. 
Wild Ones staff note: Johnson and Colla collaborated on both A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators (2023) and A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee (2022). Both offer hundreds of comprehensive plant profiles, valuable information, sample garden designs, and beautiful illustrations-look for a review coming up in our Spring 2024 Wild Ones Journal. You can see Johnson’s full book list on her website

As a community activist, you’ve been involved in various projects. Can you highlight one project that stands out to you as particularly impactful and share the lessons learned from it? 

One of the things that inspires me the most is to see the way that gardening projects can bring people together to strengthen communities and to forge new relationships among people who might not already be connected. I write about, and am active in, both urban agriculture and native plant worlds, and some of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever seen or been a part of are those that combine food-growing with habitat-growing. It makes so much sense ecologically, but it also makes so much sense in terms of human communities, too. 

In your gardening manifesto, “Tending the Earth,” you emphasize the interconnectedness of all living things. How can individuals, especially those in urban environments, foster a deeper connection with nature in their daily lives? 

Fostering a deeper connection with nature (which I think is meaningful on every level, from the personal right up to the global!) is something that can happen when we spend time in and with nature. It doesn’t have to be in some huge natural area; it can be the simplest and smallest-seeming interaction (just watching the birds that visit a tree in your neighborhood) and it can have a profound impact–on our feelings, on our mental health, on our sense of belonging, on our sense of connection with all life…And so one of the biggest benefits I see in native plant gardening (particularly when it’s done at a community or public space) is that we’re creating these places of opportunity for everyone to experience a connection with nature and the opportunity for everyone to feel that sense of belonging with all life. 

Over your three decades of research and writing, you’ve witnessed significant changes in environmental awareness. What, in your opinion, are the most pressing environmental challenges today, and how can individuals contribute to positive change? 

I think that the most pressing challenges today are the connected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and injustice/inequity. There is more awareness about these issues today, I think, than there was 30 years ago, but the challenge is to translate awareness and concern into action. Collective action AND individual action, which are of course also deeply connected. I think that native plant gardening offers people one entry point, and it’s a profound one, to making a positive difference. We might not feel that we have the power to effect big change (though collectively we most certainly do!), but we can see positive impacts and changes at a local scale. 

As we conclude our Q&A session with Lorraine Johnson, we should carry forward the seeds of inspiration she has planted. From community projects to the interconnectedness of all living things, Johnson’s insights offer a roadmap for positive change.  

Interested in learning more? Register now for the next Wild Ones national webinar, “Cultivating Change” with Lorraine Johnson. Johnson will offer a practical and insightful discussion on gardening’s positive impact on the environment and our future. Learn about the pivotal role of gardening as an act of stewardship in the face of climate, ecological and social challenges.