WADING RIVER, NY – If Bill Jacobs were a petty man, or a less religious one, he might see through the thickets of flowers, shrubs, and brambles that surround his home and see enemies all around him. For to the north, and to the south, and to the west and east, and all points between them, are acres and acres of lawns.
Lawns that are mowed and trimmed with military precision. Lawns where leaves are banished with roaring machines and often doused with pesticides. Lawns meticulously maintained by landscapers such as Justin Camp, Mr. Jacobs’ neighbor, who maintains his own pristine green blanket.
“It takes a special kind of person to do something like that,” Mr. Camp said, nodding toward the wooded wilderness of his neighbor’s yard. “I mow lawns for a living, so it’s not my thing.”
Mr. Jacobs and his wife, Lynn Jacobs, have no lawn to talk about, except for the patch of grass in the distance where Mr. Jacobs occasionally runs his old hand mower.
Their home is barely visible, obscured by a riot of flora bursting with colors—periwinkle, buttery yellow, white, deep oranges, scarlet—from early spring to late fall. They grow a variety of milkweed, asters, elderberries, mountain mint, joe-pye weed, goldenrod, white snake root and verbena. Most are native to the region and virtually all serve the higher purpose of providing habitats and food for migratory birds and butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bees.
Mr. Jacobs is an ecologist and Catholic who believes that people can fight climate change and help restore the world where they live. While some city dwellers and suburbs are also seeding native plants for it, Mr. Jacobs says people need something more: to reconnect with nature and experience the kind of spiritual transcendence he feels in a forest, or on a mountain, or amid the bounty of his own garden. It is a feeling akin to him being close to God.
“We need something bigger than humans,” said Mr. Jacobs, who spent nine years at the Nature Conservancy before joining a nonprofit that tackles invasive species — plants, animals and pathogens that squeeze native varieties. “We need a calling outside of ourselves, to some kind of higher power, to something higher than ourselves in order to sustain life on Earth.”
That’s why Mr. Jacobs has been looking beyond the lawns of Wading River, a wooded hamlet on Long Island’s north shore, for years to spread that ethos around the world.
About 20 years ago, he began collecting quotes from the Bible, saints, and popes expounding on the sanctity of the earth and its creatures, and posting them online. He considered naming the project after St. Francis of Assisi, the saint to animals and the environment. But not wanting to impose another European saint on American land, he instead named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and became the first Native American to become a saint in 2012. declared.
“Kateri would have known every plant, gathered food and had a strong bond with the land,” Mr. Jacobs said.
Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs took it one step further by teaming up with fellow Catholic ecologist, Kathleen Hoenke, to launch the St. Kateri Habitats Initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens with native plants and a place to reflect and meditate (they also collaborated to write a book, “Our Homes on Earth: A Catholic Faith and Ecology Field Guide for Children,” due out in 2023). They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics and have since added an Indigenous Peoples program and two Indigenous women to their boards.
The site is apolitical, reliant on donations, and suggests ways people can help mitigate the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse.
“People have to love the Earth before they can save it,” Jacobs said. “So love is the key. We don’t do doomsday scenarios.”
There are now about 190 St. Kateri habitats on five continents, including an ecovillage on the island of Mauritius, a tree nursery in Cameroon, an atrium in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, and a backyard in Washington, D.C.
Jacobses’ garden was the first, and includes non-native plants that birds and insects love, such as fuchsia, a magnet for hummingbirds, and Mrs. Jacobs’s steadily growing patch of Mexican sunflowers, where between the petals, bumblebees often doze in the late in the afternoon. At the back, fall leaves are left in place for overwintering insects, and a pile of fallen branches for years has become home to generations of squirrels.
But as the number of St. Kateri’s habitats grew globally, making them one-third acre more hospitable to wildlife, many of the Jacobs’ neighbors seemed to be heading in the exact opposite direction.
Dozens of old trees were cut down on nearby yards, making the neighborhood’s canopy thinner. Noisy machines replaced rakes, fallen leaves became an abomination and outsourced landscaping, once the preserve of the wealthy, became commonplace. As concerns about tick-borne diseases grew, the popularity of pesticides soared. The Jacobses began to carefully move the eggs and caterpillars of monarch butterflies into special nests in their homes to protect them from parasites and floating chemicals.
So-called completely natural or organic pesticides are also suspect for the Jacobsen; if a substance is designed to kill one type of insect, they think it will hurt others. Hadn’t people heard of the insect apocalypse?
“If you’re the kind of creature that has a really hard time watching things die, that’s very disturbing,” Mrs. Jacobs said during a conversation in her garden on a recent fall day, raising her voice over the roar of a petrol car. powered blower that shot leaves from the neighbor’s lawn.
Mr. Jacobs, for his part, looks around at all pristine lawns (“the lawn is an obsession, like a cult,” he says) and sees ecological deserts that nourish neither nature nor the human soul. “This is a poverty that most of us are not even aware of,” he said.
Beneath the grass-owned Wading River set, feelings about the Jacobsen’s thriving habitat range from admiring to indifferent to mixed. Some neighbors have whispered complaints that rats sometimes join in the bug parade to Jacobses’ yard. Mr Jacobs said they are drawn to birdseed – as well as to other neighbors’ gardens – and also that he has just invested in new rodent-resistant compost bins.
Mr. Camp, the landscape gardener, maintains a friendly courtesy with the Jacobsen, saying that, as lavish as their garden was, lawns like his require far less work. The other landscaper whose property adjoins their yard did not respond to requests for comment.
Linda Covello, who lives nearby, and who has also kept a dead tree in place because woodpeckers regularly nest there, described Mrs. Jacobs as “sort of a Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.”
‘You have your people here who garden,’ said Mrs. Covello, ‘but she is the lady of the forest, the goddess of the forest.’
In general, however, the Jacobs had to admit that their approach to nature did not really catch on locally.
Then a magazine marketing executive named William McCaffrey bought the house opposite them in 2020 and moved in with Maxwell, his Miniature Pinscher.
From the start, Mr. McCaffrey was captivated by the Jacobses’ garden and took pictures as he and Maxwell passed by. He and Mrs. Jacobs got to talking and he told her that he also wanted to redecorate his house and grow wisteria. Ms. Jacobs said softly that, as beautiful as it was, wisteria was invasive, suffocating native plants and starving them of light.
“She told me she could show me alternatives,” said Mr. McCaffrey. “I never really thought about it. She raised me.”
She gave him seeds from her flowers and he planted them with other native species. Last summer, hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and pairs of goldfinches roamed between Jacobses’ garden and his. Now, Mr. McCaffrey plans to massively expand his flower beds, which, according to Mrs. Jacobs’ counsel, he’s enriched with leaves from his lawn, with 30 other species of native plants. He has two cars and is thinking about what else he could do in his yard to offset their CO2 emissions.
“I’m a convert,” said Mr. McCaffrey, “it really got me thinking about how and what I pick for my garden in the whole cycle.”
He also sees the land around him in new ways. One of his favorite trees on his property is a writhing, soaring grasshopper. Looking at it one day, Mr. McCaffrey realized that he could see the shape of a woman in its graceful branches, and now he sees her every time he looks.
“Can you see her?” he said, pointing to the tree one recent day. “A ballerina.”