This time of year I can't wait for spring; to get my hands into the dirt, plant some seeds and wait for them to grow. I love this connection with the outdoors, hearing the birds just returned from afar and my face getting nipped by the gentle chill of a spring breeze and feeling like i'm doing something productive. Isn’t this pretty much as close to nature as things can get?
But, really. Is it?
Growing food seems like it would be an act of nature. But would the plants survive and be productive on their own? For some of them, definitely not. Tomatoes, peppers, and beans perish in a frost. Others whose seeds may survive our winter, like squash and peas will not have the good sense to space themselves apart in neat, even rows for the fruits to be predictably harvested. The pole beans will not supply themselves with sticks so they can grow upward toward the sun. None of them can pick up a shovel to toss on some compost for needed nutrients throughout the season. And without compost or nutrients they will be stunted and unlikely to produce, shirking from a genetic disposition to be fruitful.
Growing vegetables first required clearing the land of what was here before. Here, was forest. Trees of all sizes sending their roots for long distances, traveling under or deep into sand and occasional pockets of clay. This sand and clay heavily encumbered with stones, rocks, boulders and even ledge. Trees had to be felled, stumps yanked, followed by years of degrees of tillage- because the ground is reluctant to make this change- and adding yards of organic matter. Not to mention frequent monitoring of soil ph and nutrients because these, too, are not the same as for the forest.
And if we turn our backs on this garden, on all of this work, forest will soon re-install itself. From acorns to seedlings to saplings the trees will grow and the ground will return to its original ph and its resistance to tillage. And the trees will then sustain themselves on their own, without us.
We process nature to make of it something it would not be. What other creature in the animal kingdom does this stuff? What creature removes its original habitat and digs and weeds and cultivates beds of soil? I think we are alone in this.
Growing things in neat, even rows is not natural. Nor is isolating a plant to a row all to itself. In nature, plants mingle, seeming to thrive on diversity. A prairie is an example. There are grasses, wildflowers, clovers, and other plants all mixed together, roots entwined and stems supporting each other. We cannot eat prairie. And there’s little in the forest we can eat (pine nuts, for one thing are lovely for making pesto if we can find any left behind by the squirrels).
The garden must be tended. Planting, weeding, soil testing and adding nutrients, mulching, harvesting, cleaning up in fall, the work goes on. Is this nature? Isn't nature something that is self sustaining? Gardening is an invention of humans and an artifice. It’s unnatural.
I'll do it anyway. Because I love being outdoors, and feeling the good energy of hard work, and hearing the birds. I love the feel of the soil that's built up humus over the years and seeing new seedlings popping up through it. Spring is coming and I’m looking forward to gardening. We have our forest for its trees, and our tilled soil for our food supply. Unnatural as it seems, it’s the work we do to raise our food. -jmm