Meet an Ecologist Who Works for God (and Against Lawns)

If Bill Jacobs was a less religious man, he would look through the thicket of flowers, bushes and brambles that encircle his home and see enemies all around. For to the North, and to the South, and to the West and East.

Military precision is used to trim the lawns. There are lawns that are doused with pesticides. Mr. Jacobs is next door to a man who maintains his own lawn.

Mr. Camp said it took a special kind of person to do that. I mow lawns for a living.

Mr. Jacobs and his wife Lynn Jacobs don't have a lawn to speak of, not counting the patch of grass out back over which Mr. Jacobs runs his old manual mower every now and then.

Their house is barely visible, obscured by a riot of flora that burst with colors from early spring through late fall. They grow milkweeds, asters, elderberry, mountain mint, joe-pye weed, goldenrods, white snake root and ironweed. Most are native to the region and serve the higher purpose of providing habitats and food to migrating birds and butterflies.

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The garden of Mr. Jacobs and his wife Lynn has a native aster flower.

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A bumblebee and a native aster.

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There is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the garden.

Mr. Jacobs believes that humans can fight climate change and help repair the world that they live in. Mr. Jacobs believes that people need something more to connect 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 yard. He feels like he is close to God.

Mr. Jacobs, who worked at the Nature Conservancy for nine years before joining a nonprofit that tackles invaders, said we need something greater than people. We need a calling outside of ourselves to something higher than ourselves to preserve life on earth.

Mr. Jacobs has looked beyond the lawns of the hamlet of Wading River on Long Island's North Shore to spread that ethos around the world.

He began posting quotes from the Bible, saints and popes online about 20 years ago, in order to promote the sanctity of Earth and its creatures. St. Francis of Assisi is the go-to saint for animals and the environment. He named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, because he didn't want another European saint on American land.

Mr. Jacobs said that Kateri would have been very connected with the land.

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A neighbor of Mr. Jacobs says a lawn is easier to maintain than a garden filled with plants that attract birds, bees and creatures. He said that it takes a special kind of person to do that.

Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs and Kathleen Hoenke launched the St. Kateri Habitats initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens that feature native plants and offer a place to reflect and meditate. They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics, and have since added an Indigenous peoples program and two Indigenous women to their board.

The site runs on donations and proposes ways people can help mitigate the climate crisis.

Mr. Jacobs said that people have to love the Earth before they save it. Love is the key. We don't do that.

An eco-village on the isle of Mauritius is one of the 190 St. Kateri Habitats on five continents.

The first yard in the country to include non-native plants that birds and insects love was the one owned by the Jacobses. A pile of fallen branches has become a home to generations of chipmunks, as leaves are left in place for insects.

As the number of St. Kateri habitats grew worldwide, many of the Jacobses' neighbors seemed to take the opposite tack.

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A bird is visiting.

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A butterfly is on a bush.

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Ms. Jacobs has a flower.
Old trees were felled in nearby yards to make room for new ones. Rakes, fallen leaves, and outsourcing landscaping became common as noisy machinery replaced them. The popularity of pesticides increased as concerns about tick-borne diseases grew. The Jacobses began moving monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillar to special nest inside their home to protect them from parasites and drifting chemicals.

If a substance is designed to kill one type of insect, the Jacobses think it is bound to hurt others. Did people not know about the insect apocalypse?

Ms. Jacobs said that she was a type of person that had a hard time seeing things die, and that she raised her voice over the din of the blower.

Mr. Jacobs sees ecological deserts that don't feed wildlife or the human soul, and he looks at all the pristine lawns. He said that most of us don't know about poverty.

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The Jacobs home is different from the lawns of neighbors, who are more typical of the neighborhood.

The Jacobses' thriving habitat is a topic of conversation among the lawn-owning Wading River set. Some neighbors have complained that rats join the parade in the Jacobses' yard. Mr. Jacobs said they like birdseed and other neighbors' yards too, and that he just invested in new compost bins.

Mr. Camp said that lawns like his involve far less work than the Jacobses' garden. The other landscaper did not respond to requests for comment.

Linda Covello, who lives down the road, and who has also kept a dead tree in place, described Ms. Jacobs as "some sort of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings."

Ms. Covello said that the lady of the woods was the goddess of the woods.

The Jacobses had to concede that their approach to nature wasn't catching on.

William McCaffrey, a magazine marketing executive, bought the house across from them in 2020 and moved in with his miniature pinscher.

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Virginia creeps.

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The flower is a Cardinal.

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After meeting the Jacobses, William and his dog started working on expanding his flower beds.

From the beginning, Mr. McCaffrey was taking photos of himself and his friend as they walked by the Jacobses garden. He told Ms. Jacobs that he wanted to grow wisteria and gussy up his place. Ms. Jacobs said that wisteria was an invasion, smothering native plants and starving them of light.

Mr. McCaffrey said that she told him she could show him alternatives. I never thought about it. She educated me.

He planted seeds from her flowers with other native species. There were monarch butterflies and pairs of goldfinches between the Jacobses' garden and his. Mr. McCaffrey is going to expand his flower beds to include 30 other types of native plants, according to Ms. Jacobs. He has two cars and thinks about what he can do to offset their carbon dioxide emissions.

It made me think about how and what I pick for my garden works into the whole cycle.

He is seeing the land in new ways. One of his favorite trees is a soaring locust. One day, Mr. McCaffrey realized he could see the shape of a woman in the branches, and now he spots her every time he looks.

He pointed up to the tree and asked if he could see her. A ballerina.

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