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Archive for Saturday, September 8, 2001

Nature doesn’t always come naturally

September 8, 2001

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— It's time to leave. The light has changed, filling the cove with the clarity of a thousand autumn watts. The blackberries that fell abundantly into my hands just two weeks ago now cower in secret September spots.

The bags that I will carry onto the boat are packed full of props for my other life. A laptop fills one. City costumes and makeup proof that we are only acting on the urban stage fill another.

For my last few minutes, I retreat to the porch, coffee cup in hand, feet in their railtop groove. This has been my post, my observation tower this vacation. I am at home on this porch, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither domestic nor wild. It's been a borderland that I claim as my own. But now it has new meaning.

Over these languid weeks, away from the demands of work, I have embraced the country dwellers' conceit. For days on end, I pride myself on living off the land, eating what nature had to offer: the mussels from the rocks, the striped bass from the cove, the tomatoes from the garden, the lobsters from my neighbor's traps.

But this morning, in transition myself, the line between natural and artificial, between civilized and uncivilized, between what is touched and untouched by human hands, seems much less certain.

Over the porch railing, I see our fingerprints across the land. Yesterday, we cut back the sumac to make more room for raspberries to grow. We hacked away space for the "wild" rhubarb that we recovered from some old farmer's patch.

The lobsters that our neighbor "catches" are, in fact, "ranched" across the bay, an oceanic range covered with thousands of pots whose bait feeds and raises the next generation. The striped bass we catch are kept or released, according to regulations.

Indeed, the clams we eat are licensed, the tomatoes we plant are hybrids, and in what has to be an oxymoronic moment, we cultivate a wildflower garden.

The truth is that our own species is in charge of evolution now. In the Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest, we are the big players, choosing roses over bittersweet, eggplant over crabgrass. We now decide what is fit for us.

This summer, nature seemed to dominate the discourse. The future of the wilderness in Alaska and the future of stem cells in medicine engaged our attention in some natural duet.

The House of Representatives voted to violate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil. The president, home to the heartland in an air-conditioned truck, interrupted his vacation to address the nation on the biology of human nature.

These issues come before us again this fall and again. We set the path for everything from the fate of vast wilderness acres to the microscopic stem cell.

In "The Botany of Desire," the engaging book that decorated my porch reading this vacation, Michael Pollan writes: "All of nature is in the process of being domesticated, of coming or finding itself under the (somewhat leaky) roof of civilization. Indeed even the wild now depends on civilization for its survival."

The young bald eagle that soared over the cove this summer doesn't know that its survival was threatened and saved by our interest. The embryonic stem cell that became a blood-making cell under the auspices of biologists at the University of Wisconsin has no consciousness to wonder why.

But Pollan is right. Humans now live uneasily, sometimes unwillingly, with the knowledge of our own role. We are as in control as the traffic signals that I will return to.

I will carry memories with me down the turnpike to the city. This year, my 2-year-old great-nephew arrived from Paris knowing the word for every truck in two languages, but needing to learn that he could eat from a bush. An old friend with half a century of politics behind him had never seen asparagus growing. Nature doesn't come naturally.

Soon the boat will leave, so I desert my post, collect the half-ripe tomatoes I cannot bear to leave behind and stash a handful of yellow periwinkle shells in my pocket where I can use them as winter worrybeads.

"Well, back to civilization," I sigh to my husband as I get up, and he answers, "Is this uncivilized?"

In the country or the city, here or there, we live now in the borderland. The world has become our porch. Now we must become its keepers.

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