Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, November 15, 2015

We’re All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America

1: Entering the Garden

I like gardening. I’m sitting here on an unusually cool and rainy summer morning, having returned from a walk where I had an epiphany: I like gardening. It makes me feel good. In this time when so much seems to be spinning out of control and going wildly, horribly wrong, seeing things I have planned and planted and cared for survive and grow and even thrive makes me feel better.

Garden at Versailles.

So I like gardening because it makes me feel like I’m in control. Everything else may be going to hell-in-a-handbasket, but I have made a garden and, in a season, it has grown and it is good.

Of course “control” is a relative term. As any gardener knows, and especially as novice gardeners know -- seeing a six pack of pansies looking pretty at the discount store and thinking they might look great in that dry, rocky spot where the grass has all died -- no gardener is really in control. You have to have the right plants. You have to have the right soil and the right location. You have to know how to plant and how to water. You have to take care of the plants. You have to know the difference between a plant and a weed. You have to weed. You have to deal with bugs and poor nutrient levels. You may have to apply pesticides and fertilizer, and if you do it wrong, you may kill the plants and sterilize the ground for generations to come. If you have never learned how to garden, it’s too complicated a proposition for most people. It’s also too complicated a proposition really for even experienced gardeners – it’s managing chaos, always on the edge of ruin.

And even for experienced gardeners, things beyond your control can go wrong: The weather may decide to turn as hot as it normally is 500 miles south and it may not rain for months. Or June may turn into March and it may rain solidly for a month, turning the soil green with unhealthy-looking moss and algae and encouraging plant-blackening fungus to thrive. Deer. Squirrels. Rabbits. The kids’ basketball game.  The drunken neighbor’s soil-plowing pickup truck. Gardeners know that you are at the mercy of nature, climate and the fickle finger of fate. C’est la vie, as the fatalistic French say. Forget control.

But when you’re a gardener, you know that there are odds you can play, and that there are rules that matter. You plant the right plants for your area, you put them in a place where they have the conditions they need to grow – the right soil, the right amount of light. You may like palm trees, but you don’t try to grow them in the winter wonderland of Maine and you don’t plant shade-loving caladium in the open spot by the driveway. Peonies will not make it in the desert Southwest. You plant things that go with what you’ve got, and you try to adjust conditions so that they will do even better, but you know that you can only adjust so much. You follow the rules of what we used to call “nature” and many of us now prefer to call ecology. These are real rules, no matter how much you want to deny them and if you break them there are going to be consequences.

But a garden is not nature and people tend to like a garden more than nature. The Judeo-Christian bible imagines the perfect environment for humans as the Garden of Eden, not the Jungle of Eden or the Wilderness of Eden. Agriculture – a selected, tended, modified, “unnatural” form of ecosystem that tries to emphasize what we like best in nature and eliminate what we like least – is really at the heart of human culture. Though modern city dwellers think they have left their “farm roots,” agriculture – farming, gardening – is still at the heart of our existence, a defining characteristic of our species and its modern, planet-dominating form. We’re Homo agriculturalus, not Homo sapiens – those guys lived in damp caves and ate mainly rotting, fly-covered meat that they could steal from the jaguars and hyenas. We plant fields and eat fattened animal products and live in big colonies and comfortable houses, all made possible by the planting of the fields.

A little historical digression: Contrary to popular conception, when Europeans invaded the Western Hemisphere about 500 years ago, conquering the land was not quite as easy as you may think it was.

True, they were able eliminate the potential competition of the previous human inhabitants thanks to their superior weapons technology and, even more, thanks to their superior endemic pathogens (smallpox, etc.), but even with those powerful tools, making it here was not a given. As you may remember from our Thanksgiving story about the pilgrims and the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the earliest European settlers on the shores of this green and verdant Eden all nearly starved to death before they figured things out.

These guys were used to making a living through European agriculture, based on the growing of Eurasian grains and vegetables and the raising of Eurasian livestock. They naturally brought these things with them, but when they tried to garden in the Americas, they found that much of their normal agriculture simply didn’t work here. While North America is in the same temperate belt as Europe, many of the winters were much colder and many of the summers were much hotter. Wheat and barley seeds planted in American soils often wouldn’t grow, rotting in the ground because of the different soil funguses and microbes. These were people dependent on agriculture and they couldn’t survive on wild game alone, a lot of which was strange and seemed inedible to them, as were the vegetables the Native Americans grew.

Eventually, as we all know, they figured out how to survive, and transformed most of North and South America into their own gardens, but a lot of work and a lot of compromise was involved. They learned to eat and like American plants and animals. They found that some Eurasian plants and animals – not necessarily their favorites, but ones that would suffice – were tough enough to invade with them. They learned what they needed to learn to transform the landscape into an agricultural one. When I look out my window now into the cutured woodland that comprises my backyard,  I see crape myrtle (native to China and Japan) ivy (native to Europe) and various species of oak, hickory, sweet gum and ash, all of which are native to North America, but not to this particular part of North America, which was mainly upland pine forest. There are a lot of wild plants (“weeds”) growing under the trees, but they are a mixture of invasive imports and natives, though probably not the natives that were here 500 years ago, as we have introduced in earthworms and other soil-changing organisms that have changed the soils and modified the ecologies that were here. 100 years ago, you might have looked out on this piece of land and found it covered with a deciduous forest that prominently featured the American chestnut tree, but those are gone now, thanks to a fungus we introduced.

All this may lead you to believe that we gardened and “controlled” the landscape to make it how we wanted it, but that isn’t quite right. We changed things, but we had to work with what the land, the climate and the ecology of the place was willing to give us, and we couldn’t even keep all the native things – like the chestnut trees – that we wanted to keep. We tried things out, we influenced things, but we were not in control. The ecosystem adjusted to us and we adjusted to it. We were not in control because there were rules that needed to be followed and they were not our rules.

So this, at long last, is the point that I am getting at – I like control in a garden, the reasoned manipulation of the world to make it turn out better, but I’m not really in control – I just work with the world as it is to try to find a way of being that makes me happier.

I'm SO in control.
It’s working with what you’ve got, it’s going with the flow, it’s negotiating an existence, it’s finding modest happiness. It’s not control. Forget control. And, sadly, while I may be able to manage life in the garden, in other realms I exist in – and that you exist in -- things do not seem to be going as well. Why things are not going so well, I’m not completely sure, but I have a suspicion that it has something to do with the fact that we have convinced ourselves that we are in control and we have forgotten that there are rules we do not get to make – rules that need to be followed if we are going to successfully work with the world, the universe, and negotiate an existence we can live with.

This is the opening gambit, the first in a series of essays I hope to write around and about this elusive topic. You may find that ecology – nature, if you prefer – will come up fairly often in these meditations, as I am finding that ecological thinking and principles seem to apply to almost everything I’m concerned with. It’s not that ecology impacts everything, but ecological principles and patterns – natural rules – do. It’s a metaphor I like because it captures something that’s just a little beyond our human will, the larger complexity that we are just tiny parts of.

So, morning has slid by, the rain has stopped and it’s nearly noon. I think I’ll go out on the deck and look at the garden. I’ll try to control my own happiness, but good luck with that.

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