I’m going to start off my semi philosophical / ranty / musing post with two quotes from Richard Manning’s book Grassland:
“Our science, our poetry, and our democracy fail because they lack specific information of the plants.”
“The culture of plants is the same as the culture of people.”
That last one is around a discussion of Aldo Leopold’s idea of a land ethic (and if you’ve not read A Sand County Almanac, exactly what are you waiting for?). In all my thinking and writing, and sometimes in my doing out in the garden as I plant or photograph, I’m developing a land ethic. It is not one that is in response to the land—not as a manager, caretaker, or gardener—but one of learning from the land the cycles of life, of creation, of existence beyond myself, which in turn makes me more aware of my own creation.
Recently there was a video, which I posted to my blog’s Facebook page last Friday, showing a massive swarm of starlings shifting and pulsing like bed sheets over a lake. Superimposed on the spectacle was loud music, which destroyed the birds, the lake, the moment. I wonder why we have to push ourselves so much on the world, why we can’t or won’t or don’t shut up and listen and be in it (why do college students surgically implant ear buds into their ears?). Maybe we’d be less apt to get angry, be jealous, and want something else, that promised land over the next horizon where life must be better, where we won’t be so human. Oh, the history of our pioneers.
Here’s more from Manning:
“As the colonial culture of the west, we [European Americans in general] have no culture, which is just the same problem as having no story that tells us how to fit in the place…. We need more stories that will settle us to the land, not more stories reacting to those who would and do destroy it, but as long as the destruction goes on, these accounts of our struggles will be our only story.”
“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
I wonder, can the garden be the story Manning calls for? Why don’t we tell stories of the landscape on its terms, instead of pushing music as the narrative vs. a flock of starlings, or milkweed instead of lilacs? What power are we losing when we impose our senses on the landscape—senses influenced by desire, doubt, envy, grief, and even ecstasy and love? Do we elevate nature, or do we devalue it? Are we nature, and are we native or exotic?
Manning says that only 20% of land in the Great Plains could maybe, possibly, be able to again one day support native ecology. There are a lot of conditional words in there, likely because our idea of nature is one—for good or not—of a gardener and a garden, just as how a painting or sculpture or musical composition subliminally reflects the artist.
“What we see at the roadside is not nature, but a face we have painted for nature. The leafy spurge, crested wheat grass, and penned bison are our own images reflected through a fence.”
What do we see out of our windows? Whose nature is it? Does it matter? What land ethic arises from a lilac or a bunch of switchgrass? One-third, or 6,600 plant species, are exotic foreigners to North America. They won’t be going anywhere, and the new native, the new land ethic, will be a story full of shadows and echoes.
I planted morning glories in my garden as a reminder of my mother, our relationship, and the stories of her childhood and family that have redefined how I look at people in nature. Just like us, the morning glories spread like crazy, uncontrollable, yet are so precarious that the slightest frost withers them away. In autumn they are invisible, overshadowed by the faded bones of indian grass, liatris, wild quinine, aster, and rudbeckia. Maybe if we know the culture of plants as being the same as the culture of people, we will know the land, know our humanity, and be less apt to destroy either. Maybe.
* If you like this kind of post, would you tell me? If you don’t, tell me that, too. I don’t want to be in left field all by my lonesome.
© 2011 – 2012, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us