Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mother Nature's Son

There are some summer mornings, after a soaking rain, when your Grand Canyons, your Great Smoky Mountains, your Alps, your Mount Fujis, your Macchu Picchus, your Great Barrier Reefs, your Iguacu Falls, your Yosemites -- your usual full-of-themselves, preening, self-absorbed Beauty Spots -- can all just go suck it.

The Virginia Piedmont WINS.



That's the Blue Ridge this morning, seen through the gap in Short Hill where nestles the achingly pretty Eighteenth-Century stone town of Hillsboro. The Appalachian Trail runs along that cloud-kissed ridge.

Turn to your right from that spot, and this is the view:



Jingo Acres lies at the foot of that ridge, about five miles up, near where it plunges into the Potomac at the extreme north end, which you see on the right.

The place lies in a clearing in that forest that you see there, and that's what brings me to the point of this post.

I've said jokingly before that that forest wants all of my lawn and garden back, but this weekend, probably (I hope!) the highest point of the cool, wet spring Growing Season, I realized the extent to which this isn't a joke at all. It's very real indeed.

Except for most of the Eighties spent in New York City and a long-ago cup of coffee or two in some European and South American cities, I've always been a suburban boy. I've tried a desultory hand once or twice at gardening, and in my adult life I've been the Head Groundskeeper at the various incarnations of Jingo Acres -- which meant that I have some familiarity with the usual trappings of a boozhie homeowner: lawnmowers, rototillers, edgers, weed whackers and so on.

Up until now, the Outdoor Life for me has always been a process of trying to make things grow where they wouldn't naturally: trying to raise a manicured lawn in insufficient light through exhausted soil, or plunking in an azalea to spruce up a little bald patch near a driveway.

None of this has prepared me in any way for what I'm experiencing now.

Owning a clearing in a forest, you come to appreciate just how enormous a role light plays for plants. Since the clearing (in fine weather an absolute cathedral of green) is an oasis of light, everything in the deep, dark forest on all sides sends in tendrils to catch it. Sensing the presence of huge quantities of unfiltered, free light, the tendrils become twigs and the twigs become branches, all reaching, climbing over each other, fighting desperately into my clearing -- in the space of what seems to be minutes.

Boy, it really wants it back, doesn't it.

Which leads to this weekend's spectacle of a slightly crazed Neddie Jingo patrolling the perimeter of the clearing, lopping tool in one hand and chain saw in the other, like Beau Geste on the fortress ramparts, beating back a horde of invaders, and coming to some conclusions about rural life:
  1. The people who settled this country had a mighty complex relationship with trees. Lots and lots more complicated than we understand back there in mulched-sapling country, in Japanese-Maple-Land. Where we bourgeois think of trees as entirely desirable things -- can anything be more depressing than a suburban development where the builders slashed down all the flora in order to build, leaving a flat, featureless sea of mud? -- our forebears could quite as easily have seen them as deadly enemies to be tamed, logged, chopped up for lumber where they can't hurt anybody.

  2. Given healthy soil and favorable conditions, a forest will regenerate itself. A patch of forest that's been logged or burned will come back. If you want to build a log cabin in a clearing in a forest, your chief problem will decidely not be a lack of trees. Ever.

  3. The Gardening Life in the country is spent trying to prevent unwanted things from growing as much as it is trying to make wanted things grow. This is not so much of a problem in the ChemLawn Suburbs. You may think it is, but I can tell you right now: It ain't.

  4. In a contest for my affections between my potato patch and the branch of a volunteer maple that's growing to steal light from it, my potato patch wins every time. A maple's got lots more branches, and I've only got one potato patch. Off comes the branch. And if that amputation kills the maple (which it won't), so be it. There are more maples too.
I think I'm beginning to understand how rural folks come to view Nature as both a friend and an implacable enemy. I understand their contempt for us city types who rail against hunting, against logging, against exploitation of land for profit -- it's all very easy to denounce deer hunting in an armchair in Brooklyn, where the sonsabitches don't gnaw up your blueberries, and where rabbits aren't big-black-eyed, adorable floppy-eared pests. You'd kill a rat, wouldn't you?

I also understand how this adversarial relationship with Nature is exploited by cynics who turn it into an ideology, into a kind of perverted populism that drives a wedge between urban and rural proletarians. It's used to create cultural touchstones (musical, artistic, religious) that seems to turn the city-dweller's contempt for shitkickers back on itself: If you ain't Country, you ain't Shit.

It's a lie.

7 comments:

handdrummer said...

I have to agree with you about the VA Piedmont, but I'd extend your gloat area to include the entire Appalachians, up and down the Eastern seaboard. I love the Appalachians and wouldn't live anywhere else. These old eroded mountains are soul satisfying in a way no where else is for me.

People who visit my area (Central PA) come away just as convinced of its overwhelming beauty. We have the added advantage of being in the interzonal between the southern deciduous forest and the northern one. The mix of trees and flowers in the wild is staggering here.

We constantly hear visitors in our bookshop saying that they'd never been someplace as beautiful, especially during late May and June or during the fall leaf season. The drive from Harrisburg to up US 322 to our town (State College) Is one of the 10 most gorgeous drives in the US.

Neddie said...

As you'll see from my post from only a week ago, Handy, I had the great good fortune to drive up the Susquehanna valley on Rte 15 from Harrisburg to Lewisburg and the Bucknell campus two weekends ago. Indeed it was lovely. The unbelievably skeezy adult bookstores mingling with the Amish buckboards in Harrisburg's outlying 'burbs only added a reminder of the Grand Pageant of Humanity that inhabits this country.

Bob Dwire said...

I'd love to spend an hour or two commenting on this post, some pro, some agin. But mostly (as ever) you've hit the nail on the head and I don't need to. Just a couple of observations.

How in heck did those first farmers here in Yurp and also over there, ever clear the sonsabitch trees in the first place? Lord that must have been hard work.

And secondly, all gardening is about simply making the life and death choice of what grows where. A weed is a flower in the wrong place. So is a maple sapling, unless it is the maple sapling you bought and paid for.

In conclusion, as a city-boy turned country now stuck with a lemon in a pot on a blazing balcomy, I hear you.

Neddie said...

Bob (love the name!):

Another thing that has struck me very hard since I moved out here is that the people who cleared this land were amazingly strong-willed bastards. See my post One Hardscrabble Sumbitch, in which I discover Egg Path, a trail that goes straight up Short Hill and straight down the other side, which the local farmers used to carry eggs, milk and such into Harpers Ferry, where prices were better in the taverns. It's an unbelievably difficult hike -- and they did it as a complete matter of course every couple of days. For pennies.

Strong people.

From what little I know of Yurp's sordid past, the Iberian Peninsula, and quite a significant part of England's Pleasant Land were completely denuded of trees owing to their respective shipbuilding industries -- employing, let's note, those very selfsame strong-willed sons of bitches who cleared America. Nothing like an economic incentive to drive somebody to destructiveness.

I have had some more thoughts on this, on the cultural implications of the city and rural mentality, and will try to formulate them soon.

Vache Folle said...

As a genuine Appalachian (grew up in NW Georgia and now live a quarter mile from the AT in New York), I am qualified to certify that you have hit it right on the head. Keep in mind that at the time of settlement, the native forest contained much bigger trees and that clearing land was a monumental task. (Joyce Kilmer park has a stand of virgin forest worth visiting to get an idea of the dimensions.) Between the stumps and the rocks, your back would be broken by the time you put in a crop. Happily, my ancestors had metal tools and domestic animals to assist them.

I have a "demilitarized zone" beyond the fence that encloses the meadow I call my yard, and I just keep it clear of trees and let the ground cover alone. As for pesky lagomorphs, I find that an oversized pit bull and a Ruthenian Shepherd deter them from raiding the garden patch. Even the deer stay out of the enclosure, and I have great luck with plants where my dogless neighbors have had theirs eaten up.

Employee of the Month said...

Appalachian Treasures Gateway:

http://www.zanesville.ohiou.edu/library/appalachia/

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