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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Land Beneath Our Feet, Part III


The third book in my three-part review miniseries covers general land stewardship and responsibility, with most of the essays focusing on wilderness. Before reading this post, you may want to go back a few days and read some of the quotations I pulled from Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, edited by Michael Katakis, that will not reappear today.

It is not a criticism of any essay in the book to say that the anthology as a whole lacks balance. The number of essays on fly-fishing could have been reduced to allow for a wider range of topics, producing a collection more representative of different regions and different kinds of stewardship. Farming, sadly, is not represented here at all, the state of Montana heavily overrepresented. That said, there is some excellent writing in these pages, and many important issues are raised and explored. I am not going to try to cover them all. Instead I want to select a few writers and ideas that are important to me and connect them to my two previous posts.

The only farmer contributor to Sacred Trusts is Wendell Berry, and his essay here is not about farming but about Christianity--and, I would add, Judaism, though he does not say so--and stewardship. Basically, Berry argues that the Bible makes a clear case that all of Creation is holy, all life holy, and that only misuse of the Bible leads to abuse of nature. Modern Christianity, he claims, does misuse the Bible with its narrow emphasis on the salvation of individual souls, counting larger Creation and smaller community as unimportant and disposable. A case against Judaism’s failure of stewardship would take a different direction, and I will neither make the case nor attempt to refute it but will stick to Berry’s argument.

There was at least one other essay in this book that mentioned a lack of stewardship teaching in--I’m sure the writer said--Sunday school. This struck me. I took note of the charge because my own religious experience growing up was very different. Ours was a fairly conservative German Lutheran congregation (my parents chose this church over my father’s upbringing in Methodism and my mother’s mother’s Catholicism), and I recall distinctly the references to stewardship, constant reminders that the earth and everything on the earth was the Lord’s, ours to use but also to protect and care for, and this teaching occurred not once but repeatedly--as did the old Lutheran minister’s warnings about “half-baked professors” who would tempt young college students away from their faith! That was the first time I heard the term “half-baked,” and to this day whenever I hear it I remember that first reference. But the same is true whenever I hear the term “stewardship.” I was taught the concept in Sunday School long before hearing of it in a college environmental ethics class.

Well, a small point. I do agree with Berry that saving individual souls for heaven is a terribly narrow concern, hardly geared toward taking earthly responsibilities seriously, and he is right to say that many draw a sharp line between Creator and Creation, claiming to worship the first while feeling free to denigrate the second. Honestly, though, I would rather have had one of Berry’s essays on farming in this book. As the collection stands, it is woefully incomplete, lacking any discussion of agriculture or food production.

On to the strengths.

The opening essay, “Into the Trees,” by Mary Catherine Bateson, is outstanding. Bateson’s subject is death, the changes that medical technology has brought to dying and the danger of our apparent “victories” over death. Her subject is also forests, their complexity, the necessary presence of death in their midst and the terrible possibility that we could lose them.
I knew people in my childhood who died, and I saw their bodies laid out for mourners. I learned something of death by reading the poems of a friend who committed suicide and from the death soon after birth of a premature son. But I did not begin to learn about dying until the death of my father. He had been impatient for years of medical and dental care, so his body was a clear testimony to aging. At the end, his death was expected and accepted, awaited without tubes and monitors, shared as an extraordinary gift. If my own aging brings me closer to him, does it bring me closer to the trees and to the forest?

Every tall tree is my father now.

That sentence, “Every tall tree is my father now,” is repeated through the essay like a response to more detailed thoughts, almost like “We pray to the Lord,” spoken by a congregation at various points in a longer spoken prayer. Every other sentence occurs but once--for example, “Death is like gravity, shaping and balancing our lives.”

Last Sunday’s “Quotation Potluck” included Bateson’s observation that a forest is unthinkable without death, and later in her essay she refutes the idea that the simple replanting of trees by lumber companies ensures the continuation of a forest.
In this system no trees will be allowed to mature like the ancients, and the elders of the forest will not be permitted to die and melt into the ground.

Some of my photographic images on Sunday may have seemed strange to anyone who missed the connection to Bateson’s words about death. I had photographed broken limbs, fallen trees, rotting stumps, fungi and dead leaves.
It is hard to imagine how those who live by the rejection of mortality and fallibility can care for and protect our natural landscapes. Surely they may be tempted to turn them into manicured parklands, to remove the signs of decay.... Surely the temptation to cut and clear and destroy, the assertion of power, is a rejection of the inevitability of death....

In the life of the forest, nothing is lost. One day, I too want to be a tree.

My time will come to die, the writer says. Death comes to all things in turn, in time, and from death new life springs.

Another essay that stands out is, I’m glad to say, by a writer I know, poet and native Michigan son Dan Gerber. Dan begins “Walking in Tierra del Fuego” with a series of questions. Perhaps the most penetrating question he asks, and the one his essay attempts to answer is this: “What does stewardship mean in a world in which change is not only the condition but the definition of life?” Gerber points out, as did Bateson, the consequences of human beings’ failure to limit their sacrosanct “right to reproduce, to overreproduce.” He tells of his realization that places he first loved as wild country or simply as quiet human habitats (Key West on his first visit) had looked very different fifty years before and would look different to people coming upon them fifty years later. He writes of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the northernmost part of it a short walk from the house he lived in at the time he wrote the piece, and he recognizes the importance of having this beautiful shoreline accessible to anyone seeking even “the illusion, at least, of a little solitude.” I have written before of Sleeping Bear, Good Harbor Bay, and the old farms and woodlands now within the Lakeshore boundaries and how grateful I am to have that expanse of ungated, condo-free natural beauty.

Gerber brings another critical facet to the discussion, however, and that is the mind of the seeker of wilderness.
Often when I walk out from my house into the hills surrounding it, I discover after twenty minutes or so that I have taken the house with me, have taken the unanswered letters and telephone calls, the windows that need caulking, the slights I suffered last week, the things I should have said but didn’t, the things I plan to say next week but probably won’t. ... It doesn’t matter whether the ground I’m walking over is planted alfalfa or wild knapweed, whether the trees are virgin or second growth. If I am not aware of them, not conscious of their consciousness, nature doesn’t exist for me, though I may be walking in Tierra del Fuego.

Oh, doesn’t this hit home? The times I have left the house to walk across fields and through woods and realized to my dismay that “I have taken the house with me”! And yet, I also find a happier possibility here. In the same way that I might fail to be aware of nature’s existence in Tierra del Fuego or the most magnificent virgin forest, I can also lose myself in nature though it be only an old two-track between orchard and woodlot or a well-worn trail through a tract of public land. What are those lines from William Blake’s poem? “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower”?

Since 1993 when these essays were published (coincidentally, the year Dog Ears Books first sprang to life on Waukazoo Street in Northport), Dan Gerber has left Michigan for Montana and is, I’m sure, very happy there, but for those of us still here, Michigan continues to offer a host of opportunities to experience nature’s power to those who bring an open heart to it.


Another writer in this book whom I know somewhat (and why not single out those whose lives have crossed mine?) is Guy de la Valdene, who tells here of the 800 acres of northern Florida land he manages for bobwhite quail. (His full-length book with the same title, For a Handful of Feathers, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1955.) In former times this rolling land produced cotton, cattle, tobacco, peanuts and corn. What Guy plants now is not intended for market but to enrich bird habitat. He uses heavy equipment or fire, as necessary, to accomplish desired changes; his land, though tailored to the needs of wild birds, is managed, modified, “sculpted,” and he makes no apology for what he does.
When all is said and done, it boils down to this: the farmer in me grows an annual crop of wild flying delicacies, and the hunter in me harvests a percentage of this fruitage; the businessman in me recognizes a losing proposition, and the child in me doesn’t give a damn.

Here is a lover of nature who plans and works (and hires others to work) like a farmer but with very unfarmerlike attitudes. I am not passing judgment: There are many varieties of stewardship, and I would love a chance to visit these semi-wild red hills, where it seems likely that this writer comes face to face with nature on his managed acreage.

Many contributors to this anthology, if not all, seek solitude and crave wilderness. The reader discovers one after another who desires to live without neighbors and to be the only fly fisherman on a stretch of wild river. But such solitude is increasingly rare, particularly as a way of life, and so, while one form of stewardship is devoted to preserving wild tracts of land, these writers also realize the paradoxical irony of doing so. Any preserved wilderness will attract great numbers of solitude seekers, and crowds of visitors, however well-intentioned and well-behaved, would seem to mitigate against a solitary wilderness experience, especially if we cannot manage to “leave the house behind” and “see eternity in a wild flower” and not get all bent out of shape when we encounter others in the same “wild” space, looking for the same experience we are there to find.

When I mentioned Sacred Trusts to a friend the other day and observed that there was an awful lot in it about Montana and fly-fishing, he smiled and said that fly-fishermen are in the forefront of wilderness preservation. Okay, I won’t argue. I do think, however, that “stewardship and responsibility,” the purported subject of the anthology, is much broader than wilderness preservation and requires more than that civilized human beings set aside preserves and refrain from despoiling nature.

I think back to the farmers and ranchers in Lisa M. Hamilton’s Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness and to the urgency of the case for topsoil conservation made by David R. Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. I reflect on farming’s essential role in the continuation of human life. And I remember the necessary intermingling of life and death in productive, fertile land. Yes, I too love forests and wild, uncultivated, unmanicured landscapes, but when it comes to stewardship and responsibility, the acceptance of cycles of life and death and rebirth, the importance of letting land rest and welcoming wild plants and animals to fencerows, it seems to me that the best farmers and ranchers in the world, those men and women committed to caring for their land as their grandchildren’s legacy and committed to their communities as permanent neighborhoods, are the foremost exemplars of those virtues. Who is more a steward of the land than the responsible farmer? And what greater responsibility to the earth and to life can there be?

4 comments:

Susan said...

Very nice, Pamela. I don't aspire to be a tree, but I'd like to be part of the compost on the forest floor in which seeds take root to eventually become trees.

Whose lovely barn is that, and can I visit, too?

P. J. Grath said...

I think that's what Bateson meant about becoming a tree, Susan.

I've only seen the barn from the road. I'll send you an e-mail with directions.

Anonymous said...

These thoughtful essays on land and stewardship that you've been posting are lovely. They should be in print as well as online. Do you have a collection coming?

P. J. Grath said...

You are too kind, Anonymous (A. Nonnie Mouse?). An essay collection would need to be much more polished than these blog posts. Thanks for the encouragement, though. I'll warm myself with your words this winter when I plunge once again into working on short stories, though that is an entirely different kind of writing.