I need you to ask your neighbor to plant some sagebrush. It’s the key to us all being happier and avoiding global catastrophe. I promise you the potential is atomic. It’s imperative you ask your neighbor to plant sagebrush; we’ll come back to that ask. 

A nascent, intentional effort to surround our communities and homes with native plants such as sagebrush is about inviting nature back into our daily experience and making space for it to thrive alongside us: it’s called Wildscaping. This humble action can powerfully benefit our mental health and reverse the destruction of wildlife. It just may be the most potent action you can take to fight the looming environmental threats of our times. 

Our connection to nature benefits our mental and physical health. People who live in greener neighborhoods experience less depression, cardiovascular disease, stress, sleeplessness, and experience less crime. Doctors in the U.S. now write prescriptions to visit nature. And visitation to national parks is at an all-time high. There is research suggesting our collective mental and physical health reflects that of our landscape and how we do development. And EO Wilson’s biophilia theory posits we are drawn to flourishing open space because that is the world our species evolved in, where opportunity, safety, sustenance and inspiration all reside.  

And here we get to the point. We are disconnected. We think there is a world with street addresses and buildings for people — and a separate place far away, off in the hills, where nature exists. Our sprawling development has failed to consider the wildness we need to feel at home.

Parks are wonderful for picnics and community, and we need more of them. Median strips and yards are often covered by close-shorn grass and street trees. They provide aesthetic benefits, but are notorious “green deserts” for wildlife, particularly for birds and beneficial bugs, and are sinks for water and labor. What if we gardened a riot of life instead of sterile, uniform sod? 

The real benefits will come with keying into this preference for messier, wilder spaces that host species that function together as an ecosystem and reestablish the awe-inspiring elements of the natural world we have pushed out and paved over.  

Don’t dismiss this change in perspective as negligible. It’s revolutionary.

By beginning to appreciate these wild elements, we would build our nature relatedness. Besides reaping the mental and physical health benefits, we would be shifting away from the popular delusion that people and nature exist separately, and understand that we exist amongst nature, we are impacted by it, and it by us. Choosing to grow native plants, or even prefer them, builds within us an identity as stewards of the environment. This green identity has been shown to make us more likely to approve of environmental initiatives, and our outward green social identity has been seen to make us more likely to take action or vote.  

From social psychology we understand people can feel helpless regarding massive societal problems like climate change because they feel ineffective as individuals, and so shift to a state of emotional coping where they throw up their hands and change the subject. However, when a critical mass of our peers act, we switch to problem coping, where we feel empowered to act.

We are such social creatures. Consider how, when researchers tested messaging to decrease energy consumption, they found emphasizing a community social norm of energy saving to be more influential than appeals to environmental values or cost savings arguments. Norms are the atomic power of behavior change, and those suggested and demonstrated by a trusted neighbor are the most influential, even over an expert.  


Now imagine if your entire neighborhood started planting prairie grasses, sagebrush, and wildflowers such as Colorado blue columbine. And by the way, municipalities will pay you to do this. There would be acres of new patchwork habitat hosting song birds, butterflies, other wildlife and wild plants! As habitat loss is the greatest threat to species globally, your neighborhood would be making a huge contribution to beleaguered local populations and stressed migratory ones. Your oasis would have cleaner air, use less water, and not use pesticides or fertilizer or lawn mowers. Your neighbors could be less depressed, live longer, and less likely to be a victim of crime.

Beyond a beautiful space, your neighborhood would be a community fostering the social norm of heightened nature relatedness, where peoples’ identities congruently support sustainability. Wildscaping would be a popular, public act of environmental service influencing everyone to feel able to cope with larger, looming environmental problems instead of avoiding them.  

Wildscaping is easy, cues you to be happier, benefits nature, is easy to explain to neighbors, and holds the potential to virulently promote environmental voting and action. Go plant that sagebrush, then ask your neighbor to, also. 

Tim Helming lives in Loveland.

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Tim Helming lives in Loveland.