Monday, April 25, 2011


This is the flood plain of the Delaware River. This small bluff is the first of several as the land rises abruptly to an elevation of about 200 feet above the river. This is where we live, in these heavily wooded hills, in a land of many intermittent streams where water rushes downhill to the river with every rain, every snow.

Turning onto Federal Twist Road from River Road at sunset, I took these shots with my phone camera, as a reminder, imprecise evidence of the landscape in which my garden exists, a part of the natural landscape and yet something entirely artificial and different.

But only artificial in the sense of using artifice to create something new.

And what does natural mean? This landscape isn't natural in any sense of the word. It's a cultural landscape subject to the actions of humankind for centuries. The native Americans may have had a gentler tread, but they used the land and left an imprint too, however light. Colonial agriculture and its successors cleared these woods many times, changing forest to farm and pasture and orchard, building grist mills and saw mills, then the woods returned again, and again. And the river itself was one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution. Today, the heavy deer population is destroying the forest, preventing growth of new forest trees.

So what is natural and what is artificial? We need enlightened management of the land, something we're far from achieving. My artificial garden isn't natural, any more than the wooded landscape is natural, but it's certainly more intentionally managed. So what is natural, and what artificial? The words need to be redefined, and used more mindfully.


  1. Natural landscape - doesn't exist anywhere now. I read years ago that even the wild corn/maize at its remote source in Mexico is contaminated with GM.

    'Natural' is now a compromise, trying to support and maintain diversity. Using the plants that the surviving wildlife needs. And trying carefully not to tread on the toes of those that HATE native/indigenous plants ;~)

  2. Natural is a compromise, perhaps. Perhaps it's now a fantasy.

  3. I'm glad I get a better idea now, James, of the landscape around Federal Twist. 'Natural' to me equates with good health, balance and with happenings/places/lives evolving from inner directives, not outer ones. Inner directives embody harmony, and outer directives embody discord. Everyone has a sense of what 'natural' is, even if words escape us and the concept elusive or variable. Nature itself is always in a state of renewal, whether human beings participate/observe or not. And I reckon there is a great deal of what I'd call 'natural' still in this world.

  4. James,
    Your post reminded me that about 100 years ago New Hampshire was about 80% cleared pasture land. As it turned out, much of the land did not make good pastures and has returned to nearly 80% woodland. Here in New England, a field will becomes woods in about a dozen years and succession begins again. It is not virgin forest but it is natural in its own way. It is this instinct for the land to become reforested that prompted me to create my woodland garden on my property. In New Hampshire, if it is going to have a sense of place" it will be woodland.

  5. Faisal, perhaps Billy Martin's borrowed term "pseudo-ecological" is what I'm getting at. A garden, for example, designed and planted to grow "as if" it is part of nature. Nature is always changing, and to call that changing nature "natural" is to acknowledge change, including changes wrought by human beings and other living things.

  6. Michael, yes, I agree, this is a story we find in many places. The time scale of forest succession, forest grown to maturity, is so different from human time scales that we have to remember, or live very long lives, to see such changes first hand. So many of us tend to take it for granted that what we see today always was, and is the "natural" state of things, when change is the more "natural" way.

  7. Billy Martin say's all is natural including the plants in wastelands in cities etc. The natural of today is not the natural of say 500 years ago etc.
    The industrial revolution and the recent rapid mass colonizations have been fast an furious but past climatic events have probably changed nature to a far greater extent. i think that because we can 'see' changes in one lifetime puts a different spin on our perception on the beast. I like the term P.E. largely because we tend to fancy ourselves as doing 'nature' a good turn by creating private landscapes for the benefit of wildlife etc etc..but ultimately our indulgent western lifestyles (the new heavy handed agriculture) out weighs that positive.
    My end note for my lost Vista lecture in London 2008 was 'Has nature left the room?'
    I suspect it has not but we have left the room of nature and cannot recognize it much anymore.


    The Billy Martin

  8. I challenge the term 'maturity' in a forest situation..that is OUR concept about forest.
    Forests and we too are about birth/life/death and so on..a death fertilizes the young..Mmmm do we?

    The real

  9. Can't disagree. The sidewalks of Brooklyn sprout Mugwort and Epazote like a gritty cornucopia. Life adapts and endures. It's like theater, or like a dance. We create our own part, but the stage on which we play is far broader than the bounds of our little lives.

  10. One of the useless books I would write if I could be bothered would be about 'urban' nature. Chimneys would be another..they were in some respects the 'forest' of 'our' success and the opposite for the real deal! I regard 'rebar' as the post modern replacement for the nature of pre industrial revolution..the forests of rebar inherit the earth.
    Plants are only bit players in nature as are we..but they are capable of molding us just as we the same for them.
    Natural is both real and unreal and it is inly our intellectualizing of natural that is not..but then again..............Mmmm did I really write all that..thanks James for nudging the brain cells.
    Do we think more about natural these days than ever before?

    the real

  11. I think we've been talking about nature, what it is and what it isn't, for millennia. Since our brains evolved to think about it, I'd say intellectualizing about nature is part of the big picture, and we can talk about what it all means till the cows come home ... and thereafter. May not make any difference; maybe it will.

  12. A thought-provoking post James. The local woods that I visit regularly feel wonderfully "natural", but it has been managed woodland for centuries, and the management is what makes it such a wonderfully rich environment for wildlife. Land stewardship is something we tend to do really badly on the macro scale, and yet achieve wonderful things on the micro level, like your own garden which sits so well in the surrounding landscape and has such a strong sense of place. The lost Caledonian forests of Scotland have given us the Highland landscape I love so much, but that degree of de-forestation nowadays would cause a public outcry. I suspect we use "natural" to mean a sort of romantic loveliness rather than free from artifice. Maybe the question should be "what do we want to achieve"?

  13. Janet, I read your post on visiting those woods. It was in my mind when I wrote this post. Actually, I should have linked to your post since I was thinking about it at the time, thinking that we have nothing like that over here.



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