Synergy

This post is about two worlds. One world depends on diversity, the other demands uniformity. The substance of one world is mostly beneath the surface; it is deep and abiding. The other is pretty, but a hollow shell, empty on the inside. One is adaptable, resilient, and has lived eons. The other is vulnerable and ephemeral. One is low maintenance. The other is high maintenance. One has no use for the economy and is useless to it, except by exploitation. The other is a product of and lives in service to the economy. One is prairie. The other is that green mat we call the front yard. The story starts, as usual, just outside the back door of my parents’ house.

Beyond the door is a large slab of concrete. A dark brown stain gives it a more natural feel. On it lies furniture, and occasionally, people eating dinner together. There is also a grill, and some couches beneath an awning that doubles as a deck. Past the porch is the yard, where several shade gardens host a procession of perennial flowers during the growing season. There are close to a dozen trees, which shade both the gardens and the open lawn. Pecans, walnuts, and locust pods impregnate the ground each fall. Despite the trees, a vain attempt at a vegetable garden has been made on the south side of the yard, near the fence at the base of a west-facing slope. The tomato plants yield little, but what sunlight the plant collects, it sends to its few fruits, and the juices are densely flavored because of it.

Past the fence is the margins: a shallow stream veiled by densely packed trees and shrubs. It’s early October and the wood is showing its fatigue. The greens are pale, the browns are new and the leaves have been over-grazed. The forest is busy sending its energies below ground, ready to make one last show before its long winter slumber. Leaves are beginning to litter the Earth, and the soil is sweet with the scent of fresh decay. In the shadow of the trees the lawn stands green and bright and ignorant of the changing season.

“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America. In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of it across the continent, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“It must have been a little bit of heaven in its day, though for all the effort to create a wild and romantic setting, as a community Llewellyn Park couldn’t have been more artificial. It lacked almost everything that a real community needs to be organically whole: productive work, markets, cultural institutions, different classes of people.”
– James Howard Kunstler,  The Geography of Nowhere

European settlement in America brought about massive changes in vegetation patterns across the country. Seldom in the history of the world has one species altered the genetic composition of such a huge community of life so profoundly, so quickly. Together with the birds, trees and lilies, you and I are inextricably bound to an interdependent web of life. You can’t pick a flower without stealing nectar from a bee. You also can’t plant milkweed without giving food to butterfly larvae.

The history of suburbia in America is one of escape. Living conditions in cities in the mid-19th century were miserable. Industrialism had obvious environmental impact. Naturally, those who could afford to do so left. The men whose enterprises helped create those squalid conditions set up communities outside the city. Daily, these people took the morning train into the city to do business, then in the evenings, when their lot had been won, retreated to the towns which weren’t really towns, but just dwelling grounds, and had their leisure.

This pattern helped set the stage for the suburban sprawl we see today, and the problems associated with it. These planned communities were collections of people who depended on industrialism for living. They recognized the negative consequences of their exploitation of land and labor, but, instead of finding ways to clean the system, fled for greener pastures where they could ignore their mess. They still enjoyed the profits of industry, but left the cost to be dealt with by laborers of lower classes, and by the land itself. That’s the first problem: the men who claim profit from the degradation of our common home don’t pay the true cost. The other, I think is a problem of deception.

In these new planned communities, the land they lived on was no longer responsible for sustenance, only pleasure and leisure. Nature was forgotten as the ultimate means of life, and was cultivated to satisfy psychological desires instead of physical nourishment. They tried to engineer an Eden-like paradise, supported by the almighty dollar, inspired by the lawns and gardens of rich Englishmen who play croquet and drink their cocktails pinky out. They superimposed upon American soil the pretentious image of an English manor without considering local conditions, and in doing so, bulldozed ancient communities of life, rupturing the web of life that made Americans prosperous in the first place.

“Aesthetically, lawns enhance the quality of life, contribute to social harmony and community pride, increase property values and compliment other landscape plants.”
– The Lawn Institute

Turf has its benefits. It cools our environment. It sequesters carbon, absorbs pollutants like sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and traps dust and smoke particles, thus cleaning the air. Dense turf reduces runoff by slowing surface water and absorbing it into its roots, reducing flood risks and soil erosion in streams. Surface soil erosion is also prevented by root systems that hold the soil in place. The opposite of runoff, infiltration, occurs in grassy lawns. The infiltrated water is purified by the soil, and recharges ground water, which is then used as drinking water. It also reduces noise and air pollution. Finally, according to The Lawn Institute, a 50’ x 50’ lawn of fine turf grass can produce enough oxygen for a family of four.

Environmental effects can also be felt at a personal level. Security, for example, because no danger can hide behind a four inch blade of grass. The dense turf provides sure footing. Short grass prevents itchy ankles, and allows for easy movement, which must have provided a hunting advantage for the early bipedals. Then there’s the matter of food security. Green flesh indicates available energy, and a productive ecosystem. There must be something our instinctive selves remember about the ability of the land to provide us with food. If the grass is green and strong, its foragers will grow strong and healthy, and thereby provide us with a substantial food source. The depth of our memory proves our ancestry.

The other party in this partnership, fescue and bluegrass, also receives its fair share of advantages. At its behest, we sweep aside native grasslands, regrade the land to cradle turf, till the soil, sow far more seeds than what will eventually be grass, nourish the ground with artificial fertilizer, unleash rivers of water upon it, and terminate would-be competitors. In its name, we pair armies of men with internal combustion to produce an environment that facilitates its growth in places where conditions would not otherwise allow for its success. There are many reasons to believe that this partnership is mutualistic in nature, each providing the other with benefits, and the relationship seems to benefit the greater network of organisms of which we both are a part. That is, according to a website dedicated to spreading the good word of lawn maintenance. The truth is, the “ecosystem services” I described earlier were pretty much a description of anything that isn’t concrete or asphalt, and it turns out turf is really only a half-step better.

“Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive, on average, more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any crop grown in this country.”

– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“The Earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass.  It is a body – has a spirit – is organic – and fluid to the influence of its spirit – and to whatever particle of the spirit is in me.”

– Henry David Thoreau, Journal

“LEVIATHAN. A clump of big bluestem penetrates deeply into the subsoil and carries some nutrients up and deposits them and hauls others down and stores them; the old passages of decayed roots open the soil to percolation and aeration; the brief cycle of an individual plant accelerates the process, while the thick surface network of rootlets (something that can hardly be washed or blown away) sponges up moisture and foods: in these ways the tallgrass builds soil from rock debris. As a whale surfaces for air, so big blue comes up for sunlight, but it too belongs mostly to a netherworld.”

– William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

“Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers… The pyramid is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts.”

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“We can see that it is the landscape of monoculture in which both nature and humanity are most at risk.”
– Wendell Berry, Home Economics

When I was in college, my house was a short distance from the country. I would tour miles and miles of empty country highway by bicycle. As I rode across the hills, the variety of nature was unmistakable. The tall grasses of the lowlands practically howled with insects. The shorter grass of the uplands revealed plovers dancing in the wind, which moved like a coursing river. Things grew according to place. I knew which grass would sing which bug song, which would hide the birds, and which revealed an approaching corn field. I knew I’d find shortgrass on the uplands and cornfields in the lowlands. I’d ride in to town near sundown. There’s so much space there, the sun can do what it wants with the sky, and it likes to make a show before it sets. I’d watch the red paint flood the horizon as I rode north into town under the cover of darkness.

It was during that time that I learned to love prairie, and the native things thereof. Grasslands, though they might seem plain, house extremely diverse ecosystems. A result of their diversity is their resiliency. In the event of adverse disturbance, a diverse system can draw upon its massive store of biological memory and respond accordingly. When soil is laid bare, some plant in the seed bank of the soil has adapted to exposed conditions, and it grows quickly to hold the naked earth in place while the slower growing plants are germinating and sprouting. In the rainforest, the diversity is obvious, and mostly between the tops of the trees and the first couple inches of soil. Prairies, on the other hand, are like icebergs and strong women: most of what’s there lies beneath the surface.

The roots of tallgrass prairie plants like big bluestem, goldenrod and Indian grass can grow as deep as three times the height of a man. From those depths they do business with other life forms. Some fungi mine the bedrock for minerals and collect nutrients in exchange for energy from the plant, earthworms eat decay, insects eat roots and there are carnivores and omnivores and a complex web of life, as long as there are roots at the base. All of this activity makes for robust, thriving ecology. The soil is teeming with life. By rule, the blacker it is, the more alive it is. Living soil drinks to replenish ground water and prevent flooding, breathes to clean air, and digests and recycles nutrients. The life within the soil is only as deep as its food source grows, and can only be as resilient as its food source is diverse.

Food webs are like pyramids. The stability of the system relies on the stability of the base. The base of almost all food systems (including our own) is the organisms who fuse a few common elements of the soil and air with the energy of the sun to create life (photo-synthesis). These are called producers. Primary consumers eat producers, secondary consumers eat the primary, and so on. Each level has to be supported by the one beneath it. If the base of the pyramid is diverse and healthy, so is the ecosystem it supports. Native prairie grasses and forbs live most of their lives deep within the ground. They surface only for air and sunshine. Below ground they are the base of the pyramid that is the life of the soil.

Soil supports the necessary conditions for life only so far as it is alive. As a system, life in the soil (symbiotic bacteria and fungi, nematodes, earthworms, insects, living roots, decaying roots, etc.) alters the properties of soil to produce an environment that facilitates growth and health. It absorbs water, breathes air, digests poisons, retains nutrients, helps plants absorb nutrients, and provides conditions that improve the wellness of growing things above ground.

The reason Midwest soils are black and fertile is because they have such a rich ecosystem that has been fed by a diverse array of deep rooting grasses and forbs for thousands of years. A naturalist friend once told me Johnson County was eighty percent prairie before European settlement. That was before it became the sprawling development we see today. Most of the old prairie grasses have been replaced by non-native turf grasses like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass. The roots of most of grasses in our lawns grow about four to six inches deep. The eclectic buffet of living and decaying grasses two stories deep in the ground was replaced by a sad tuft of surface sod about as deep as a beer can. The pyramid of life in the deep black Earth could not be supported by its newly fragile base. Deep, rich, life-giving earth was put to rest in favor of a bright green facelift, whose beauty is, literally, skin deep.

“Mowing the lawn, I felt like I was battling the earth rather than working it; each week it sent forth a green army and each week I beat it back with my infernal machine. Unlike every other plant in my garden, the grasses were anonymous, massified, deprived of any change or development whatsoever, not to mention any semblance of self-determination. I ruled a totalitarian landscape.”

“Our lawns exist less here than there; they drink from the national stream of images, lift our gaze from the real places we live and fix it on unreal places elsewhere. Lawns are a form of television.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“We feel the human fragility of the huge one-class housing development, just as we feel the natural fragility of the huge one-crop field… Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins.”

“And we should not neglect to notice that, whereas the monocultural landscape is totalitarian in tendency, the landscape of harmony is democratic and free.”                             – Wendell Berry, Home Economics

Few things force me to reminisce on my childhood like the smell of fresh cut grass. I absolutely love that smell. I love the feeling of grass blades flossing my toes. I love the sight of an open field, and especially love making good use of that field with the help of a frisbee or football. Most of my happiest memories from boyhood are of times on wide open, level planes of good turf. I also learned to work on good turf. My father taught me how to cut the grass straight and true. He taught me that work done right gives a man certain pleasures that normal recreation can’t provide. Those are lessons I carry with me in all of my work, and I learned them cutting turf. Lately, though, I’ve had a hard time convincing myself of the dignity of lawn maintenance.

As I mow my parents’ lawn each weekend, I sometimes wonder just what it is I am cultivating. It’s not food, or health, or shelter, it’s not even stewardship. I think… it’s a feeling. I’m cultivating this green carpet which yields an experience not too different than if I was seeing it through a TV. I sit back and look at the full, thick, clean cut lawn I just mowed and am no longer impressed. It seems my efforts have been in vain. It’s an illusion; it’s cultivated fantasy, calculated homogeny. I ruled this lawn with an iron fist, and do not enjoy its uniformity. It lacks in anything curious or worthy of close attention. It’s a product of force, not skill. A word to describe the experience of this undulating monotony: numbing. What type of person is to be made of such an experience?

At best, one who is bored, and believes nature is somewhere he must go to, other than where he is, and dreams of it only in books and movies, and is more entertained by video games than what is outside his front door. At worst, it makes a man who sees nature as an object of his will, to be controlled and manipulated for profit, regardless of destruction. How is a man who is used to such a relationship with nature going to treat his peers? His employees? Women? Our desire to control and produce uniformity in nature comes from the same unnatural but human desire for control and uniformity in culture. Both reveal an affinity for surface level pleasures in exchange for the deep things that make life wholesome and rich.

When we reduce nature down to our superficial expectations of her, we reduce ourselves down to those same expectations. If prairie is like a strong woman because of what can’t be seen on the surface, the American front lawn is like a girl who fills her lips with silicone to look like a movie star. It’s the man-boy skipping leg day to do curls at the gym, more worried about inflating his muscles than the health of his body. It’s an imitation of a standard cast into our mind’s eye by marketers and movies that is both superficial and unrealistic. Like the facelift, the result never quite lives up to the desired effect, and can’t hide the fact that it was forced. The real beauty is resorted to the margins, the weeds and the scars that are reminders of the futility of our efforts to control nature, and of the original beauty in the body we are given. They remind us of our troubled past, and of the dark things that lead us to take refuge in skin deep pleasures and superficial places.

I said before (and I’ll say it again) that the key to strength and resilience in nature is diversity. I think the same is true about the key to strength and resilience in human community. In times of disaster, a community must rely on its store of cultural skill and information to respond to adversity. One-class communities have limited backgrounds and experiences to draw upon to support themselves.

Uniformity deprives us of the pleasures of having neighbors with diverse perspectives and ancestries, of learning their ways of cooking, gardening, crafting and working, and of taking care of the land we depend on. When disaster strikes, diverse communities have vast supplies of cultural information to draw upon to find sources of strength, ingenuity, support, and love. Wild communities aren’t strong despite individual differences, they’re strong because of individual differences.  Uniformity undercuts strength because it goes against the laws of nature. Diversity is an essential part of the world, and to seek uniformity is to disparage the gift of life.

“We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not… To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution to intelligent tinkering.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“Gardens also teach the necessary if un-American lesson that nature and culture can be compromised, that there might be some middle ground between the lawn and the forest – between those who would conquest the planet in the name of progress, and those who believe it’s time we abdicated our rule and left the earth in the care of its more innocent species. The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“There are, I think, three questions that must be asked with respect to a human economy in any given place:
1. What is here?
2. What will nature permit us to do here?
3. What will nature help us to do here?”

“The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the division between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins – lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like – are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.”
– Wendell Berry, Home Economics

“Gods may rise from oceans and clouds, but I’ve heard of none rising from grasses, and this is peculiar because, unlike oceans or heavens, grasslands so evidently die and are reborn, and because, although less evidently, they are the place where our kind was made.”
– William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

“I find it good to remember the eternity behind me, as well as the eternity before.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Journals

“The garden was large, and in Harry’s eyes, exactly what a garden should be. The Dursleys wouldn’t have liked it – there were plenty of weeds, and the grass needed cutting – but there were gnarled trees all around the walls, plants Harry had never seen spilling from every flower bed, and a big green pond full of frogs.”
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I’m only a young man dipping his toes into the deep waters of the life I’ve been given. Knowing that the current is swift, I heed Bilbo’s advice, “if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.” Up here, with the current still at my toes, I find it good to pause and look around a while. From here I see both the narrow, rocky streams that few find, and the wide, easy rivers that many take. I see a thousand streams moving in a thousand directions, all in one grand direction, to the sea. Knowing that I might be swept into currents and blinded by the white waters, I want my future homeowning self to remember a few things:

I think of progress as an outward movement, a thing moving us from a place we are now to a place we ought to be in the future, some far off destiny to which we never arrive. It forces us to know ourselves and the world not as we are, but as we are in our dreams, and blinds us from who we are as ourselves, and from the beauty of the world as it is.

Wendell Berry:

“People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world–not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is.”

Rather than measuring ourselves by how close we are to a world that’s never been, let’s measure instead how well we’ve taken care of the only home we’ve ever had. The only Earth we’ve always had is the one that finds its way beneath our fingernails when we ground ourselves to plant. The only choice we have is to take care of the land we are given during the time that is given us.

I agree that prevailing social and economic standards are not to be ignored. I’m not suggesting we all let our lawns loose to nature and forget about culture. I am suggesting that a lawn in Shawnee, Kansas shouldn’t look the same as one in Littleton, Colorado. Not because of different levels of prosperity, but because they are completely different environments that support entirely different communities of life. I am also suggesting that prevailing social and economic standards often prevent us from living healthy, wholesome lives, and that living your life strictly according to those standards will leave you feeling empty and without purpose.

Wendell Berry, again:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

I would like to see a quiet revolt against those who would have us ignore the destruction of development. I think this post was inspired by those who have been partaking in this revolt for years, centuries, and ages. It’s a peaceful revolution about knowing your place in the world. It’s accompanied by the stillness of knowing that even when fortunes in time are against you, the forces of eternity offer a more fulfilling reward.

Know that development is destructive, and know that you are a part of it, and laugh when laughter calls you, and love yourself and the ground you know. Do the things the economy wouldn’t have you do: feed what is underground; love the company of moles (even if you have to kill them), love the sight of unfamiliar plants, and know that each new plant you meet holds within it some secret of Creation; know that you are not the first to live here and you won’t be the last; count the fallen leaves and dried grass, fresh decay becoming new soil, as profit; count the company of bees and monarchs as dinner with royalty; cook yourself dinner; cook a loved one dinner; think circular, not linear; forget inputs and outputs, see cycles; share your surplus tomatoes with a neighbor you don’t know; count the landscape as your portfolio, then diversify it; know that your life can only be led forward by death, and that your death brings forward life.

Plant native plants. Big Bluestem, Lead plant, Indian Grass, Goldenrod, switchgrass. Plunge into the black depths some life giver to the netherworld. Reawaken the ancient communities deep underground that are the fertility of the soil. Bring to life the ground beneath your feet and nurture the health of the land you walk on.

Ask the right questions. Instead of asking how to overcome local conditions to make what you want of the land, ask what you can do that local conditions will support. Learn to use what is available to you in place, and how to use it without diminishing its quality over time, so that your grandchildren might use it too. Don’t throw away parts whose use you don’t understand.

Learn to recognize quality in nature, and remember that our own health is bound to the health of the ecosystem of which we are a part. Quality starts with diversity. Remember that healthy soil is living soil, and that we can only be as healthy as world we depend on.

Once you learn to recognize what diverse, abundant ecosystems look like, incorporate them into whatever piece of land you cultivate. Your green lawn will begin to look sad and empty. You’ll want to use your mower only sparingly. Keep your pathways, and the patches where kids can play, but in the margins, where no feet tread, plant some grass of a netherworld to keep eternity close by.

Take care that nature can do its work in the margins that preserve life, testaments to the indefinite past and future. In your garden, let the disorder of the world mingle with the order of your mind. Let the seasons dictate growth and greenness. Love the soils built from grasses who lived, died and lived again, in an equilibrium established before Adam, Eve, and the moment in the garden.

You will learn to love the colors of the seasons as they pass, and no longer be fooled by the always green grass. You will begin to feel the presence of another life around you, yours and the life of the land, and you’ll know that of the two, yours is the smaller and the less important. You will grow uncomfortable with uniformity, you’ll find it unnatural and numbing. You will begin to embrace diversity as a source of strength, beauty and health, both in the community of life that is your back yard and the community of humans with whom you share a life.

One last time, Wendell Berry:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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