“First question for you,” says UNC-TV’s Exploring North Carolina host, Tom Earnhardt, when he begins his talk to a Rotary club or other civic group, “is how many of you have spare parts somewhere in your body?”

A few hands go up. “I’m not just talking about new knees or organ transplants,” he prods on. “What about cataract eye surgery? Or a tooth implant?”

More hands go up, and Earnhardt continues, explaining that all those new parts have to fit in with the body’s system. They have to work with other parts of the body just like the parts they replaced.

The human body, he says, is a big community, and if it is working properly everything is in balance.

Then Earnhardt moves to his main point. Every animal and plant in North Carolina’s diverse natural habitat has an important role to play. When any individual part is removed, the balance is disrupted.

So far, everyone is mostly in agreement. Nothing Earnhardt has said is really controversial.

Earnhardt then becomes a cheerleader for natural biodiversity in North Carolina’s environment, from the sub-tropical at Bald Head Island south of Wilmington to the sub-arctic conditions at Mount Mitchell and the other 6000 feet-plus peaks in our state.

He emphasizes the interdependency of various plants and animals upon each other. “Diverse, abundant flora,” he says, “supports diverse, abundant fauna. Each plant and animal in the forest is part of a food web, with the success or failure of each species tied to one another.”
Using illustrations from his beautiful new book, Crossroads of the Natural World: Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt, he explains that in the Great Dismal Swamp, numerous Zebra Swallowtail butterflies “exist there only because the swamp is dotted with Pawpaw patches along the forest edges.”

Pawpaw, according to Earnhardt, is the sole host plant used by that species of butterfly. No Pawpaw, no Zebra Swallowtails.

Very gently and deftly, Earnhardt begins to get controversial. He explains that this interdependency and balance is in danger. More than 300 acres of natural North Carolina lands are being converted to development each day. The natural fauna and flora are ripped out, and bit-by-bit the ecosystem is being eaten away. In his book, he writes, “Unless we change the ways we manage new development, there is a growing risk that we will rapidly lose the diverse, native landscape that has helped us to find what many writers referred to as our ‘sense of place.’”

He explains that when newly-developed property is landscaped and planted, the native plants lost are most often replaced with plants called exotics that come from other places. Although they are often beautiful or serve particular purposes, they do not fit the delicate balance of the local ecosystem.

Earnhardt concedes that the majority of such exotics planted by homeowners and landscapers are not invasive and will not escape and propagate wildly like kudzu. But he cautions, “Whether the diverse native flora in North Carolina’s landscape is slowly being nibbled away by the march of invasives or replaced with exotic plantings in our subdivisions one five-gallon pot at a time, the effect is the same. Either way, we are replacing and losing our natural diversity.”

When some people in the audience worry that Earnhardt wants to prohibit the use of any plants other than those native to North Carolina, he assures them that he is not “advocating a return to a native-only wilderness tablet.”

But he insists that in a state that has “literally hundreds of native trees, shrubs, and flowers,” we should encourage their use in our yards, along our highways and in our public places – “to a restoration of urban and suburban plant diversity utilizing native plants whenever possible.”