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My wilderness

From Gene Logsdon (1990)

In human culture is the preservation of wildness.
-Wendell Berry

I used to say that it was but a few steps from the world of my garden to the world of wild woodland, but now I realize how that statement reflects one of the most invidious errors we humans have been making.

It certainly is true that my garden borders woodland. It is also true that a pronounced change in my mentality occurs when I slip from my workaday garden into the wilder haunts of the woods. I am transformed from Mr. MacGregor worrying about Peter Rabbit into Tarzan rallying the jungle animals against the excesses of human civilization. Nor would I deny that my garden serves the side of my rational mind that demands MacGregor-like order in a chaotic world, while my woodland provides me with the wilderness that the mystic, wild side of my nature yearns for.

The error is in thinking that these contrasts represent different worlds. Vegetable gardens are perhaps more human-controlled than are wild woodlands, but the difference blurs with close scrutiny. Every effort to impose an order that would sever the garden completely from wild nature ends in silly futility or catastrophe. One year a neighbor of mine decided that, by God, he was going to get rid of every weed in his sweet corn patch once and for all. He drenched the soil with atrazine above the recommended rate. No weeds for sure, but nothing else would grow there either for three years. At the other extreme, we preserve “wilderness areas” as if we could store nature away like a can of pickles to satisfy momentary cravings. I went to a wilderness area once and got trapped in a colossal trafifc jam. The only wildlife I saw was elbow-to-elbow campers emitting mating calls from portable stereos.

If gardening has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t separate ourselves from wild nature. Even in a hydroponic greenhouse I recently visited, a cat was kept to control mice, and shipments of ladybird beetles were unleashed to eat the aphids. We live in union with a wilderness fundamentally beyond our control or we don’t live long at all. We don’t have the choice of moving from a human world to a nature world, but only from one footstep to another. As Theodore Roszak put it so well in Where the Wasteland Ends (1972):

We forget that nature is, quite simply, the universal continuum, ourselves inextricably included; it is that which mothered us into existence, which will outsurvive us, and from which we have learned (if we still remember the lesson) our destiny. It is the mirror of our identity. Any cultural goods we produce which sunder themselves from this traditional, lively connection with the nonhuman, any thinking we do which isolates itself from, or pits itself against, the natural environment is—strictly speaking—a delusion, and a very sick one. Not only because it will lack ecological intelligence, but because, more critically still, it will lack psychological completeness. It will be ignorant of the greatest truth mankind learned from its ancient intimacy with nature: the reality of spiritual being.

I had to step back and forth from garden to woodland many times before I realized that the line between them was too fine to draw, that the “reality of spiritual being” dissolved the difference I had imagined. Amid the jungle-like fernery of the asparagus patch, for example, nature plays out dramas of eating and being eaten as wild as those that occur among the bulrushes of the woodland creek: the chipping sparrow flits from her nest in the strawberry patch to prey upon larvae of asparagus beetles with all the grisly intensity of the black rat snake snatching into its gaping mouth a field sparrow bathing at the shoreline of of the creek. Wren battles wren for territorial rights to the birdhouse in the apple tree as ferociously as two bucks in the woods battling for supremacy of a deer herd.

The difference between the larvae of lady bird beetles attacking aphids on the lima beans and cheetahs attacking wildebeests on the Serengeti Plain is one of scale only. I learn to measure my progress as a gardener not by the size of my tomato harvest, but by the degree of calmness I can maintain when I abruptly meet a garter snake hunting slugs.

There is only one accurate way to describe the roiling, moiling, toiling scene of the healthy garden: it’s wild! Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of species of bugs, birds, worms, and animals move in and out of it, all eating and being eaten. Yet most of the time, this banquet table of soil provides enough food for me, too. The real need to “protect” it comes only when nature’s normalcy has been thwarted, either by its own seemingly chaotic workings or by that of humans.

An ecology-minded world would not need to protect gardens from rabbits because gardeners would understand the continuum of nature and ensure the natural habits and habitats of owls, hawks, foxes, and other animals that feed on rabbits. All else failing, humans would eat their rabbits themselves, with the same gusto that they eat Big Macs. Cabbage patch and wilderness would be one. Tarzan understood gardening better than Mr. MacGregor.

I walk from one part of my property to another as through a continuous wilderness. The vegetable rows, the woods, the pasture, the creek bottom, the little grain- and hayfields are all “garden.” They are all part of the Great Garden that once covered the Earth and might cover it again. As I walk, I pass only from one realm of the Great Garden to another. The more indeterminately the borders coalesce, the more assuredly I achieve the oneness of the natural continuum. The vegetable garden, the most humanly shaped realm, becomes a kind of decontamination chamber, a place where I can slough off the fretting cares of civilization while I pull weeds—lamb’s-quarter, purslane, pigweed (wild amaranth), and sour grass—some of which I realize, wryly, are nearly as tasty as the salad plants I grow.

Then I step into the woods by way of a glade that also serves as backyard lawn. I leave the yard deliberately unkempt so that the mower freaks who visit me can’t tell where lawn ends and wood begins. Who can say whether I should mow here or not—whether I am obeying the strictures of lawn neatness that our rural middlewestern mentality teaches? Raspberries at the woodland edge further blur the border between civilization and wilderness. Are they part of the garden or the woods? I ask the same question of the hickory nuts hovering over them.

In the woods I become a sort of high-tech Tarzan. Loincloths unfortunately are not approved of by rural middlewestern Germanic souls of propriety any more than unmowed lawns, but my belt holds a knife and more (magnifying glass and hand pruners). With binoculars around my neck, I can watch for what food, spiritual or corporeal, this wilder garden has to offer today. I find a luna moth—an endangered species in this region, where even woodland is sometimes mowed—newly emerged from its cocoon, still not ready to fly, glistening pale green and purple. I hold it in one hand and study it through the magnifying glass with the other. I am transfixed by its beauty. Of the unlimited arrangements of color and pattern that moth wings could take, why these particular ones?

I am face-to-face with mystery I cannot fathom, appearing over and over wherever I turn my eye. I begin to understand the meaning of “reality of spiritual being.” Here is knowledge that science has not yet imagined, not visible to magnifying glass or the most powerful microscope. The moth flutters away. It soon will mate and lay eggs if a bird does not catch it first, and then it will die shortly, its magnificence “wasted” if not for my chance meeting with it. Perhaps wasted. In the realm of spiritual being, perhaps is the most necessary word in any language.

Leaving the woods, I enter my pasture, a miniature version of the Serengeti Plain, another mode of the Great Garden. Here, wild and domestic life mingles even more intensely than in the vegetable rows and orchard. I once sowed “improved” grasses and clovers here, believing the universities, which told me these improvements would be better for my cows and sheep than the herbage that nature grew. Nature laughed at such pride and sowed more enduring plants. In almost every case, the wilder ones have proved better for the livestock than the university-improved ones, not to mention for the birds and insects that also live there. Even the “weeds,” except some of the more noxious ones introduced from Europe by pioneers who also thought they could improve the native landscape, make good grazing. If I mow occasionally, the pasture takes care of itself.

Meadowlarks sing from fenceposts, bluebirds nest in the houses I have set atop some posts, kingbirds sit on the fence wire between the posts, bobolinks burble and spin up over the fence and into the grass again, barn swallows dart at bugs rising from the grass, field sparrows crouch over nests of eggs at the base of bull thistles. Cowbirds perch on the back of the cow and the sheep, watching for flies. I rake the meadow with my binoculars and gather the whole scene into a spiritual harvest.

I pass into a third realm of the Great Garden: my fields of corn, oats, wheat, and clover hay. Red-winged blackbirds walk the cornrows, stolidly hunting cutworms. I turn over a lump of barn manure that didn’t get worked into the soil at planting time and uncover two ground beetles, a species that also feeds on cutworms and wireworms. I lift another manure clump and find two more. The reason for these unworked clumps is that a killdeer had been nesting there at planting time, and I dodged her with the tractor and disk. In the wheat plot, a path of trampled stalks leading into the stand tells me that raccoons or groundhogs are probably in the field, digging burrows that the growing grain stalks already hide from view. I scowl, the Mr. MacGregor in me asserting himself.

I pass into a fourth realm of the Great Garden, the grove of trees through which the creek winds. I sit on the bridge I built across the stream, my legs dangling over the side, and gaze into the water tumbling over the rock dam the children built. The sound of water over the stones is spring’s best music, next to the meadowlark’s song. Along the bank, almost in the water, a wild iris blooms. It appears to have been deliberately planted there, I catch myself thinking, still needing to remind myself that nature was planting flowers long before humans and can do the job just as well.

Suddenly, a fish flies between my dangling legs. It leaps from the water under the bridge in an arc up over the dam into the upper pool. I can’t believe my eyes, so I wait. Another one! At least a dozen dance over the dam as I watch. How did these common little shiners and larger suckers (as we call them) learn to leap dams built by children? There are no natural rock dams in our world of mud-bottomed creeks, far from the salmon runs of the wild Mackenzie. And yet, is the “real” wilderness any more spiritually vitalizing than this humdrum remnant left in these Ohio farmlands? If all the land were kept as part of the Great Garden, there would be little need for wilderness parks.

But all land is not kept this way. I walk into a section where, as far as my eye can see, there is nothing but plowed soil. I come here to hunt flint arrowheads and stone hammers left by the Tarzans of another era. I search a while, but the stillness, the eerie emptiness of hundreds of plowed acres stretching into the gathering dusk, overwhelms me. No barns, houses, pastures, woodlands, or fencerows are visible. I have entered a strange planet, one which man has almost succeeded in severing from the full life of nature. Ironically, the men who create these moonscapes for money use the profit to vacation in far-off wilderness areas.

I shiver from some vague fear. A vision of nature decapitated spreads before my mind’s eye: a future in which this countryside is slowly but surely turned from its original Great Garden into a desert stretching between lonely roads, a no-man’s-land between cities. I see whole townships and counties where a virtually limitless variety of plants, insects, animals, and humans all in their allotted niches once lived—field, pasture, woodland, farmstead, and village—now turned into empty spaces of pulverized, eroding soil producing surplus corn, rootworms, poor-quality food, and an unhealthy society. The Indians left their flints to mark the passing of their culture. I have only a hoe with a shiny handle to mark the end of mine.

I retreat back to country where the Great Garden is still remembered. A wood thrush sings as I approach my tree grove, renewing my hope. The dark vision cannot come to reality, the thrush seems to be telling me, because the coninuum of wild nature is even stronger in humans than the continuum of greed. Even the agribusinessmen will understand, once the wilderness areas they escape to are all paved with traffic jams and populated with deanimalized bears eating human garbage. Then everyone will be convinced that the only “escape” is to make all the Earth over into the various realms of the Great Garden.

~
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream (1990)
Image Credits: Deer © Mike Rogal | Dreamstime.com
Beetles © Rusty Dodson | Dreamstime.com

OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts

Editorial Notes: Thanks to Dave Smith, publisher of OrganicToBe.org. -BA

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