For some reason, I cannot stop ruminating on the delicate balance between the natural and the cultivated landscape. I do not know if it is because of the long, hard winter, my walks up a snowy hill from the farmhouse to work every day, or the publication of a new biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” stories. Unlike Almanzo Wilder setting off for school on a wintry morn, I do not walk up a path cut in the snow by bobsled runners. My path follows tire tracks left behind by an old tractor, but my imagination converts the tractor into a team of horses and a sleigh with wooden runners.
As I walk to the office amongst the burr oaks and past the White Park cattle that overwinter in our fields, between savanna and areas grazed by these hearty cattle all year long, I see two landscapes I have known all of my life. For me, they both define the American identity as much as the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her brilliant new biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, author Caroline Fraser examines delicate balance between the two worlds – the balance between autobiography and fiction (are the Little House books the original fake news?), but more importantly for me, she examines the balance between a young girl’s passion for the wild, uncultivated landscape (a love shared by her father) and her connection to the cultivated landscape from which at times her family was able to scrape a meager living.
Since my arrival in Iowa, I have been dipping in and out of Wilder’s books and discovering my love of the prairie and its inhabitants, from the prairie rose, wild and untamed in its beauty, to the stands of Monarda fistolosum along the roadside that I drive by in my German car (I imagine they have even more magic when seen from the back of a Conestoga wagon). But I see in in conjunction with a second landscape. The oaks and wild grasses are set up against endless cultivated fields, now barren and snow-covered, but alive with corn and beans when the season comes on. Others may see them sitting in opposition to one another, but for me, there is a serenity in their balance. As I take the long road up from the Mississippi River Valley on a snowy day and pass the spartan, utilitarian farms of the present day, which call to mind the farms of our forbears, I see something much different from the gentleman farmer landscapes of northwestern Connecticut. I see farms that have to them a leanness and practicality that compliment my vision of the American persona. They are clean and orderly, managed, and beautiful in their utilitarianism. And while this farm landscape appears to be in opposition to the uncultivated landscape that surrounds it, these two worlds are in alignment, for each in its own way succeeds in supporting the inhabitants who depend on it for their livelihood.
As I continue to read Fraser’s biography of Wilder, and its examination of fact and fiction, of truths and whitewashing of experience, a carefully crafted identity of the American pioneer surfaces, one that highlights the triumphs of these brave folk and minimizes the vicissitudes of their struggle to make a life for themselves. And it is in this retelling that the complexity of the American identity comes clear for me. For, like Wilder, I see the beauty of the land which she and her family cultivated, but also a more complex narrative that blends together the stories of the indigenous people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of her family, of the plants and wildlife that had, in conjunction with these peoples, functioned as a working landscape and ecosystem, and of the ongoing challenges of a changing world.
As I look more deeply, these two worlds represent the different ways we utilize the world around us. And while it is easy to see the values and virtues of one or the other, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it is the land somewhere in between that we all inhabit.
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.