Mother Nature's Son
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.