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Archive for Sunday, September 4, 2005

Nature defies human order

September 4, 2005

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When I look at nature running riot outside my door, the last thing that comes to mind is "intelligent design." Malevolent design seems more like it.

Nature doesn't only abhor vacuums. It also appears to abhor rational order. Nature abhors gardens, orchards and lawns. In fact, any attempt to impose one's will on nature is taken as an unforgivable insult. Nature will strike back.

Nature has smothered the trees I planted last spring under a canopy of giant ragweed, lamb's quarter and sunflowers, some with stalks as thick as my wrist. Nature has dispatched cocklebur, wild lettuce, bindweed, Johnson grass, crabgrass, sow thistle, fleabane and pokeweed into my yard. Peach borers have attacked the orchard. Voracious hornworms gnaw at my wife's tomatoes and some kind of bloated larvae devour her potatoes. They're nature's welcome guests.

The pasture around the house is overrun with hedge trees, thorny locusts, buck brush and noxious sericea lespedeza. A hateful kind of wild parsley leaves its tenacious seeds matted in my dogs' fur. The author of this splendid mess must love grasshoppers. Hundreds of them leap up like Bouncing Betties every step you take. Carpenter bees are reducing my shed to sawdust. I have found the organ pipe nests of mud daubers attached to the tractor's umbrella and inside my chest waders. The ticks, spiders, mosquitoes and flies seem to think they own the place.

Where did someone get the idea that nature is in a state of "exquisite balance" or that the lilies of the field don't toil? Nature is chaotic. The lilies are fighting for their lives. A famous gardener thought of Nature as a "formidable adversary" and of gardening as a "battle against nature." Nevertheless, eco-mystics persist in seeing nature as a benign book, a cathedral, a sermon filled with lessons and signs expressly addressed to homosapiens.

"Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay, "Nature." A farm, according to Emerson, is a "mute gospel." Woods are "the plantations of god." Nature "receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode."

I suspect that Emerson's rhapsodies arose at a comfortable writing desk, where he sat stroking his chin, rather than the actual world of fetid bogs and sloughs, stinging nettles and blood sucking bugs. His essay perfectly expresses our anthropocentric view of nature, the narcissistic illusion that nature was designed primarily for us. I'd like to invite Emerson for a walk through my wife's devastated garden and let him prattle on about "mute gospels" while the chiggers crawl up his legs. Let him preach about the meek acceptance of my dominion to the raccoon that wantonly decapitated my rooster and five of my hens or to the black snake that swallowed their eggs.

By midsummer, the growth I longed for so much in April has become a nightmare epidemic. The color green makes me ill. Still, I love to venture into the wild world on my ATV, weed sprayer in hand. I can't help being awed by the extravagant, inhuman energies at work, the walls of vegetation 10 feet tall, the impenetrable tangles of briars and the archipelagoes of weeds. Sometimes, I come upon a patch of iridescent flowers that seems like a coral reef or a bed of jewels. It's nature's disheveled garden, its rival to art.

Once or twice, overcome by the natural beauty, I've experienced a disorienting inversion of the two worlds, like Ishmael at the helm of the Pequod. The other day, overcome by an "unaccountable drowsiness," I mowed down a row of milo I'd planted, undoing in a few seconds hours of patient toil. To paraphrase Ishmael, "Look not too long into the face of the weeds." You may go crazy as Captain Ahab if you think you can conquer nature with a tank of herbicide.

South of my house, the trees along Coal Creek lean over the bean field like a rogue wave about to crash down on the cultivated rows. Sometimes I see the eyes and mouths of ravenous monsters in those profusions of leaves. I seem to have forgotten that I am a part of nature too. Insects, weeds and even viruses have a seat at nature's democratic table and humans have only one of the votes. Can I ever hope to grasp the key to nature's mysteries? Not until I learn the language of the mockingbird that harangues me sunrise to nightfall: kreet, geerr, chewdle brrt, porderly bree, raddle purr, chudely chum, errrk, gleek, ferrr.

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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