The Self-Taught Gardener: A river runs through it
Now back in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, after traversing the country from coast to coast, I realize I have stopped focusing on what separates blue states from red states, the South from the North, and the Wild West from the cultivated east, but look instead to what binds us together. The most revelatory moments I had on my journey involved water’s ability to change the landscape. In so many places, water is the key player –from the Grand Canyon (perhaps the largest water feature in a landscape known to mankind) to the falls at Yosemite, to the flooded grasslands of eastern Colorado to the landscape along the Missouri River, where the line between the river and the fields that surround it is indiscernible and hundreds of farms have become one with the river.
On my way back to Massachusetts, I stopped to hear Pete Buttigieg announce his candidacy in South Bend at an old Studebaker plant that is being converted into a tech center. As we stood in the sleet and rain outside waiting to be let in, I found myself thinking about how weather impacts us all. Because I grew up in a family with a weekend house on the Michiana border, I remember an occasional late April snow in this region, but this weather now seems different and more harsh than what I remember. I appreciated Mayor Pete’s references to weather disruption, even as the rain permeated the leaky windows of the upper transom of the factory, ensuring we were as cold and wet inside as we had been outside waiting to get into the hall packed with a diverse crowd that had came together for something that they believed in. I liked his choice of the phrase weather disruption because it offered something to everyone: not an argument about humankind’s role in global warming, but something we can all respond to together, on both sides of the aisle. Trying to figure out the impact that humans have had on the environment has its place, but why argue with one another about the past when we should be spending or time and energy planning for the future? To paraphrase Mayor Pete, “who has time for the blame game?”
Walking along the arroyos carved by seasonal flooding into the landscape in New Mexico, or seeing the results of years of erosion in the Mojave, or the millienia of work performed by the river at the base of the Grand Canyon, one can see how weather change and seasonal patterns have created the world around us. But one can see something else: lessons for how to manage the landscape and the weather disruptions that are increasingly a part of our day-to-day lives. I have written about how the extreme rains of California have led to the super bloom of the desert this year, and the possible fires in Southern California as the grass-covered hillsides dry up in the seasons to come. But what can we learn from nature and from our fellow citizens in order to prevent the conflagrations that could amount to the environmental equivalent of the destruction of Notre Dame? What role do we play in caring for the earth?
As I stood awed by the majesty of the power of water at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, I could also see how destructive that same force could be of the lands in Nebraska and Iowa that we depend on for food. As I drove across the plains, I remembered how our greed had turned them into a Dust Bowl in the last century, when we turned these grasslands over in an attempt to grow ever more wheat, only to allow wind and rain to carry the soil away and devastate both the land itself and those hoping to farm it. I wondered how we can become smarter about caring for our farmland, gardens, and the world around us.
An answer lay to my side as I crossed eastern Colorado. After passing cultivated fields that had been depleted by drying winds in arid years and washed away by heavy rains in wet years, I looked at the winter landscape of the Pawnee grasslands, where a matrix of plants held the soil in place. These forbs, grasses and meadow plants were just emerging from dormancy, but even in their semi-somnolent state, they were doing what we failed to do: holding it all together, using their collective roots to hold the land that they cherished in place.
When I arrived back home in the rain-ridden Berkshires, after seeing the destruction of the land abutting the Allegheny River, I asked myself how I too can put down roots that will hold it all together. And I‘ve got to have faith, calling to mind the George Michael song playing at Mayor Pete’s announcement event (thanks, Chasten, for the great music), that by working together, across the nation and across political parties, we can make a difference and protect the land we all love so much. And this was just the right thought to have as I stepped into my garden to see what winter had left behind for me to deal with. I realized, once again, that gardening offers me the happy opportunity to look to the future with hope, and to work for a better world.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.