Monday, July 18, 2016

Tending one's Garden: Intimations of Hope in the Anthropocene

"We can see the country...we can see how the beautiness is still in the country...we can still see the spirit of the land glistening."  From Iwenhe Terrette - what it means to be an aboriginal person, Margaret Kemarre Turner.

Dispiriting.  Inspiring.  Between these two words lies a garden, one that I have attended to for the last decade.  Sixty years ago when a lot was developed and the house in which I live was built, a thick layer of dredged sand was trucked in to level out the yard.  This left a good-sized area to the side of the garage not suitable for growing much of anything.  When I arrived in 2000, this space was desolate, a wasteland thoroughly colonized by wire grass with a generous sprinkling of nut sedge.  Walking across the area barefoot, or even just bare ankled, was pure torture.  It turns out that the delightful name "nut sedge" hides the thorny nature of the so-called nut, a spike of sharpened needles more shrapnel than fruit that pierces effortlessly and stays painfully embedded in any flesh brushing against it.  The sand fill in which these plants were rooted was so compressed that not even scrub trees had a found a way in.  And cars speeding down the alley were increasingly encroaching on the land, their tires grinding into the earth what little diversity remained at large.

Catalpa Growing on the Berm with Jerusalem Artichokes to the right.
I took measures.  Over time nearby remnants of old telephone poles and fallen tree trunks were gathered to craft a low berm along the alley to discourage wayward drivers.   And then a surprise: taking advantage of the nooks and crannies found there, several trees, including some black locusts, a black cherry and even a catalpa, took root and are now thriving.  They are being pruned to grow laterally in hopes of an improvised hedgerow.  And surprise upon surprise: Last year catbirds built a nest in the black cherry, and this year robins.  Rhizomes of Jerusalem artichokes, dug up from a garden bed to make way for blueberry bushes, were also discarded on the berm.  They took root too, a thick stand staining the air with rambunctious yellow flower heads at the height of summer.  A lovely thought - the very wall built to keep automobiles out of the garden is becoming a garden in its own right.

Psychedelic Milkweed
But the larger garden on the side of the berm away from the alley is where most of my efforts have been focused.  Rather than importing top soil to simply throw over what was already land paved over with sand fill, I took to the earth with a shovel and compost.  Year by year new sections were dug out out, amended and planted.  At first the emphasis was upon natives that could make themselves at home without too much fuss - phlox and columbine, bee balm and beardstongue, Joe pye weed and yarrow, false indigo and echinacea, blanket flower and trumpet vine. Eventually a strip of plots dedicated to fruits - particularly blueberries and raspberries were added, along with an apple tree. Milkweed was given the run of a part of the yard, in hopes that monarch butterflies would show up (which they do only occasionally).  An area with marsh loving-plants took shape - including iris and marsh hibiscus, nettle and swamp milkweed, lobelia and cardinal flower. Finally several intensively cultivated beds of vegetables were shoehorned into the space.  Currently, tomatoes and chard, tomatillos and peppers, beans and okra with a smattering of onions and leeks are thriving there.  So too is a tower of scarlet runner, a bean originally cultivated by the Incas, that is actively adored by hummingbirds.

Once seemingly wasteland, the spirit of this little patch of earth is again, as Margaret Kemarre Turner would put it, "gllistening."  People walking by stop to admire and say thank you.  Even better, lots of critters, happy at a newfound habitat, are showing up and making themselves at home. While the voles and rabbits, along with Japanese beetles and stinkbugs, are irritating in this regard, so many others, including those hummingbirds, are positively inspiring.

Over a decade in, persistent efforts have transformed this little patch of earth and, as well, its gardener.  Margert Kemarre Turner would likely argue that the transformation was most assuredly not of the land, whose spirit, in its beautiness and glistening, was already waiting for me, but only of my own capacity to see again what had been hidden from untutored eyes. The land already knew what it was capable of.  Its gardener on the other hand, needed to figure this out.  In the process, he has found new hope to stave off a growing sense of dread that comes from living in a time of immense loss of habitat for an immense array of living kinds, a time that is being named the Anthropocene.

As a human of the Anthropocene, I take welcomed comfort in these endeavors to restore to the living kinds a small bit of country.  Certainly this alone will not be enough. Certainly systemic efforts are called for as well.  But loving the earth requires more than acting systemically.  It requires the touch of one's hands, close up and personal.

Fly Sunning herself on a Lily. 
Wasp Searching for Nectar on Echinacea
Sweat Bee Searching for Nectar on Flea Bane