All over my yard clusters of green spears poke out of the bare ground one day. Hostas have been growing here for decades, sometimes tended and sometimes neglected. Once an ambitious gardener brought many varieties into this landscape: greens, whites, and yellows in many combinations, small and giant, all sending up two-foot flower stalks in summer.
I have ministered to these forgiving plants: cleared out their competitors, fed them compost, divided and replanted them. They’re happy now – it’s spring.
In some spot around my house, according to a preference built into their genes, dozens of species have found a home, where they get the light and water they need to reproduce. The hostas and all the other perennial plants in my yard have evolved over millions of years into efficient propagators of their own lives. Every spring leaves reappear on the trees, baby seedlings pop up in one place and shoots from an underground mother plant in another. By now in May, the showy flowers of the daffodils and crocuses are already gone, and the bulbs begin their slow effort to gather energy for next spring.
I’ve lived many springs, but I still love the surprise of the first shoots sticking out of the winter’s debris. I can help this process along with labor and nutrients, but there is nothing I could do which compares with the reemergence of natural life in my garden. I anticipate, nurture, and admire this life, but I can’t create it. That’s a good thing.
Ever since I moved here five years ago, I have been moving plants around and bringing new ones in, trying to create little scenes of beauty. I have had some success, but I have also created havoc. Every time I take plants out, prolific weeds invade the newly open spaces. Just the other day, I put a coleus in a too sunny spot, and its brightly colored leaves wilted and washed out.
My whole gardening effort is unnatural. Without constant human intervention to develop these artificial arrangements of plants, very different processes would take over. Some plants are implacable foes, like the dandelions, whose little flowers do not overcome my irrational distaste. Even repeated applications of poison cannot defeat the dandelions, who come back every year through cracks in my driveway and everywhere else.
Other plants need more specialized conditions. This spring thousands of maple trees have sprouted in my gardens and lawn. Twenty years from now there might be a maple forest here if I did not intervene with my tools and fingers. Last year it was the water grass that spread through lawns all over town.
We cannot control life. We cannot even get human societies to stop killing each other. We are much less successful with nature. For every success, such as the creation of domesticated corn or the propagation of tulips in every possible color, we have released devastation by chemical poisoning or just by ignorant interference. We are very good at making specific changes in specific plants, but not so good at understanding the natural systems that have developed over the Earth’s lifetime. So much that humans have done has destroyed rather than enhanced these systems, often out of ignorance, but sometimes due to misplaced priorities. The private drive for profit, unregulated by any dedication to social well-being, has done long-term damage to natural habitats across the globe for short-term gain. Even when our leading minds have been motivated by the best intentions, colossal mistakes have been made in caring for our Earth.
I am distrustful of both commercial gain and human knowledge as guides to the control of natural life. Human societies exhibit far too much self-confidence in our ability to understand, alter, and control the living systems which have been created by natural processes over millennia. The short-sightedness of our vision and the arrogance of our science are not to be trusted to control the most fundamental processes of creating new life and conserving existing life. Our science, as advanced and remarkable as it is, is too often like a kid with a new toy: eager, but clumsy.
Before I would trust giant corporations and government agencies and scientific laboratories to replace our foods with artificial creations or to tinker with human cloning, I would like to see them fix their existing mistakes, especially the dangerous warming of the planet. Before I would welcome the human creation of new life forms, I would like to see humans be better at preserving the life forms we inherited.
I’m getting better at tending my little gardens. But I’m thankful each spring for powers much greater than mine, pushing new life out of the ground. We have a long way to go before humans are ready to do more than cultivate that life all around us.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 10, 2011