Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A collaboration, or a battle, with nature?

The pond at 6:04 a.m.

I've been thinking of my garden as kind of collaboration with nature. My pond, dug this spring, has no liner. It's just a hole in heavy clay. The soil that came from the hole now fills in behind a new dry laid stone wall surrounding the base of the house.

I have thought of this as sustainable garden practice, a collaboration with nature. But is it really? Can one really collaborate with nature? The pond isn't natural; it's man-made, even without a liner. I'm thinking this idea of collaboration is a false concept. What I'm doing is really a kind of battle with nature. Not the kind of chemical-laden battle a farmer does growing a corn monoculture in the American Midwest, but a battle nonetheless. A gentle battle. Nature, or nature's saturated clay in winter, kills monarda; I plant something else. Rudbeckia maxima thrives; I plant more. I can only do what nature allows. Nature bosses me around.

Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden Little Sparta contains many references to war and conflict: images of machine guns, battleships, hand grenades. Up to now, I haven't been able to understand what all the militaristic imagery is about. I think I'm beginning to get the point.

One can try to do no harm, but collaboration is out of the question. Nature is in control, unless we destroy it; and we may succeed.


  1. A few years back I was working on a 'Garden Personality Test'. (I ran out of time to do it right, so it sits half done.) One of the scales I used was Naturalist vs. Conqueror. I don't think that anyone is one or the other. But I think we all fall at different places on that scale, and it's reflected in our gardens.

  2. I have been thinking I'm on the Naturalist end of the scale but I just may be delusional.A reminder to retain some humility.

  3. I think it all falls into place when we remember we are part of nature.

    Saying it like this sounds horribly trite . . . but I expect you'll understand what I'm getting at.

    Lucy Corrander


  4. Lucy,

    Thanks for the reminder. I agree we are part of nature. Actually, for me that's a strong argument for allowing ourselves to use alien plants, not just natives. We humans do get to make some choices.

    But nature is full of battles (predator and prey, Tennyson's "nature red in tooth and claw") so by being in nature, we take part in all that nature is. (Where does this argument go from here - original sin? - just joking, I think...)

  5. But it's also a very freeing feeling, don't you think? To be part of something.

    Just about every creature sets about modifying its environment.

    We have freedom to be more imaginitive in the way we do it than, say, a wasp; and we are powerful - so we have to police ourselves.

    But to want a pond where there wouldn't be a pond otherwise, that kind of thing . . . well, it's the 'natural' thing to do.

    And if you wanted . . . you could modify things for the sake of the monarda.

    I've a horrible feeling I haven't really understood this post. It seems to be saying we aren't part of nature . . . we are in a battle with it . . . and in this battle, nature will always win . . . (unless we do something so dreadful, we zap it completely).

    I admire your garden from a distance because it seems to be so much in harmony with itself. And here I am thinking . . . yes, humans can choose alien species . . . that's part of our nature.


  6. Thank you James and commentors for such thoughtful post. Your ideas awakened me to question what are my learned attitudes about man vs nature and what I truly think.

    Are labels like "alien" plants and "conquering" nature just our limited scope of looking at things? Is that what Hamilton is getting at with his carved words in Little Sparta? Packaging nature in a frame of reference that is rather basic and often fear based? Is there comfort in the order and control of ideas like us vs them, native vs alien.

    Can I destroy nature - or do I just destroy myself by creating a situation that nature naturally responds to with an environment that is different from before that may be less habitable for me? Am I important enough that Nature considers me a foe? Does nature care if a glacier made a lake or a human made it; or if a beetle from Asia is now eating Pine trees in North America? Should I be taking up so much of James's Blog Comment space?

    Nature is full of a lot of things and battles are just a tiny part of it, but I think tiny humans are full of battles and we are projecting that on nature.

    Thanks for making much

  7. Lucy and West coast island gardener, I was listening to a gardening podcast last night while driving, and I heard the phrase "collaboration with nature." That set off this stream of thought - whether we can collaborate with nature, or whether such a concept is just sentimental "feel good" thought. If nature could care, I don't think it would care whether a pond was made by a glacier or a human. In practice, I do want a garden that's "in tune with nature," to use an overused phrase, and I am rather strict about using plants well adapted to my conditions. I find comfort and beauty and peace in nature. But eventually, bad things happen - at least they are bad from our limited human perspective. For example, all things pass, all things die. And some of the deaths (the praying mantis eating her mate, for example) are not comforting things to contemplate, at least from my limited cultural perspective. But it's perfectly natural. I don't mean to deny the wonders in nature, only to record my sudden recognition that it's not all necessarily wonderful all the time. Of course, there is no "bad" or "good" in nature; that's something we, as a conscious part of nature, bring to the discussion.

    And Lucy, I think I could have been clearer. I'm disturbed by your saying "I have a horrible feeling that I haven't really understood this post." My post was written hurriedly this morning before I left for work and it wasn't clear. I needed an editor, but didn't have one at hand. Thanks for seeing this contradiction in what I wrote. At least it got us talking.

  8. James, I need the editior, not you:)
    Your erudite blog woke up my thoughts that still came out a bit sleepy on the page.

    I wonder if I felt like Lucy excuse my presumption Lucy, in that your post is understandable and what is great about it is that the meaning it raises is a real good ponder.

    It is understanding my own struggle with the commercial stereo-typed, white picket, constrained nature,flower beds pesticided perfect, fit in with the neighbours which I am conditioned to and I do want kind of sometimes(the conquering bit); versus being influenced by the natural world to cultivate the feeling and mystery of a garden imbued with nature and naturalness without slavishly copying it (the collaboration bit). But is my creative influence mere arrogance and not truly worthy and should I just let nature rule. That is the stuff I haven't sorted out in my head yet and don't understand.

    Oh damn and blather -I promised myself I would be succinct this time -Where is that editor?!

    I appreciate the discussion your blog generates.

  9. James I think I just had an a-ha moment reading your comment...

    I want a garden that is in tune with me and I want to be in tune with nature.

    That's it. Eureka! That is what I have been struggling with for the past 5 months in my garden. This may have nothing to do with your blog but it is big realization for me. Thanks

  10. That's what started me on my post - an a-ha moment in my car Tuesday night.

  11. IHF had humility by the bucket loads. The most misunderstood garden on the planet.

  12. there is no 'collaboration/battle' etc with nature. WE are nature if only our brains would allow us to be.

  13. I agree. But in fact most of human culture is in battle and has been for centuries, and it may be the end of us.



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