Habitats for humanity – and our friends
The advice I ignored was my wife’s and so my axolotls and I are not riding high on the popularity stakes right now. They are in a worse position than me though: I’m at least still allowed inside of the house; they have been banished to the shed. They have a large tank to waft about in and I visit them regularly, at least for now; who knows how long they’ll be able to stay – the pressure to find a new owner is mounting. Having them here though, has given me pause for thought about habitats. Gardens are, everyone knows, habitat for more than just plants. Butterflies and bees, birds and other clambering, gliding, scrabbling and trotting things take up residence in our gardens in greater or lesser numbers, depending upon the suitability of the habitat. Clipped, minimalist gardens that feature concrete and lawn, with just a nod to shrubs and flowers, aren’t the powerful creature-magnets that wild gardens with complex canopy and tangled understorey are, as it is in my own forest garden. My axolotls’ natural habitat is a couple of lakes in Mexico, where precious few of their wild relatives still cling to life, despite the now-polluted state of those waters. I’ve tried to picture what their original homes might have looked like when they were healthy, and compare that vision with the homes I see axolotls living in now; online, in pet shops and where ever else I’ve seen the “walking fish” (as they are also known). Almost always, I see barren, easily maintained and cleaned aquariums, with perhaps a plastic “hollow log” for the creatures to hide in, with little else that might qualify as habitat. I’m reminded of many, many gardens in New Zealand, where practicality and ease of care is the over-riding factor in the design, and providing habitat for butterflies and birds is not a priority, and I feel saddened. A bleak tank has the same effect on me, and so I’ve rewilded mine and now the three “weird fish”, as Robyn calls them, live in what I believe will seem to them like home: plenty of water plants, for a start. They like vegetables with their meat, so the pet shop person told me, and large, fallen leaves to burrow under when startled or in need of privacy. I found some spectacularly large and well-seasoned leaves lying beneath the bare-branched deciduous Chinese willow, and slipped them into the water, much to the delight, so far as I could tell, of the axolotls. I fished some waterlogged twigs out of the spring where the giant kōkopu live as well, thinking they’d be happy to share with their Mexican cousins, though the former are piscine and the latter amphibian. Everybody seems happy – except my wife. I was mindful of the need for captive creatures to have an environment that served their minds and souls, just as I am of providing natural structures to give the more mobile inhabitants of the garden a decent life – one that provides them with interest, opportunity and a venue for self-expression, as I believe I’ve done for the axolotls. It may seem fanciful, but I believe it’s true that the more natural your surroundings, the happier you will be. Humans don’t escape this truism either, I suspect. As we have become more citified and separate from the wild world of stream and forest, beach and mountain, our mental health has worsened and anxiety levels risen. Forest bathing is now a thing, for time spent amongst trees will reduce levels of worry and ease the harried human soul. It’s no surprise to me, and the news that natural, wild and unruly forests are more effective than manicured parks, comes as no revelation either. Our minds are receptive to the patterns and movements of nature and tire of the highly managed, reductionist landscapes we create for our convenience. We in New Zealand are perhaps luckier than many, in that we can get out of the city relatively easily and bathe in the natural landscapes we are blessed with, but the opportunity to bring those healing qualities into our own gardens is one many of us can take up. Rewild your garden, if only a little, and harvest good mental health along with carrots, cabbages, silverbeet and salvias. It’s unlikely I’ll mention my axolotls again in these columns. They are unremarkable in their behaviours; they float, waft their gills, eat suddenly and briefly, and otherwise do very little. But they would perk up, I believe, if they became aware somehow, that their existence helped to move gardeners here in, to them, a foreign country, to a wilder way of gardening, one that made myriads of not-in-a-tank creatures happier. It’s hard to know, with axolotls.