Back to the Garden

At night, Woodhouse’s toads congregate at seeps formed from two slow leaks in our front yard water lines like fat tourists at popular foreign spas.  The highest number I’ve counted at one time is six, but I suspect more toads visit the puddles to replenish moisture lost during the day. Unlike lizards and snakes, toads don’t drink through their mouths. They absorb the water they need through their skins, so a toad may soak quietly for several minutes to quench its “thirst.”  Whenever we consider repairing those leaks we reflect on the toads, on how much they appreciate the puddles. 

An equally impressive contingent of Woodhouse’s toads inhabits the back yard where they oversee the health and beauty of our vegetable garden.  This summer —  our first living in Utah’s southeastern corner — our garden is the biggest we’ve had in many years, and it’s perfect.  By “perfect,” I don’t mean that its rows run ramrod straight, that it’s growing ahead of the neighbors’ gardens, or that its layout shines as being gloriously inspired.  By “perfect,” I mean that for the first time in … well, ever … my garden is pest free.  I have not had to dust, spray, or dispatch my nine-year-old daughter to pick off or otherwise persecute larvae like I had to do every summer I gardened in Utah Valley.

Next to the garden sits our well box, a weathered wooden exoskeleton housing the well’s pump.  A fence swift lives in this box.  During the desert morning when the sun strikes the earth in wide, cool angles, the fence swift emerges from the well box to bask and watch me work in the garden.  I have forbidden my children to harass this lizard.  The other fence swift, the one that lives at the corner of the house — that poor animal has endured three captures, once by me in a moment of nostalgia.  But the well box fence swift — I want it to feel safe to skitter to the garden for a quick bug snack should the urge strike it. 

Beside the two fence swifts, an elegant pinstriped lizard, the desert whiptail, prowls the perimeter of our house in search of food.  More nomadic in its hunting habits, the whiptail’s range takes in both fence swifts’ considerably smaller territories and all the toads’ turf, including the garden.  

A few days ago as I thinned the carrots I straightened to ease stiff muscles and found cliff swallows from the colony in the canyon a half-mile away swirling around me like leaves in a whirlwind.  Cliff swallows snap up flying insects while at the same time performing eye-dazzling acrobatics.  The swallows looped through my garden for more than half an hour, at times skimming only a foot or so above the plants. 

In the early evening, just as the neighborhood black-chinned hummingbirds belly up to the nectar bar (designed and crafted by my nine-year-old) to brawl with each other and sip sugar-water nightcaps before buzzing off to their nighttime roosts, the nighthawks sweep over the desert on boomerang-shaped wings.  Nighthawks fly like wizards, dipping, whirling, and diving while emitting shrill buzzing cries.  Occasionally, one descends the twilight to hunt through my garden, flying at chest level.  At the back of my garden stretches a pasture fence barely visible in the deepening dusk.  That is, I can barely see it.  After traversing my garden at high speed, the nighthawk flips itself up and over the fence with a single wing beat.

Other helpful predators help me dress and keep our garden.  As well as the reptilian dragons mentioned we have dragonflies large enough to cast shadows.  Two days ago I looked out the window in time to see a kingbird sitting at the top of a tomato cage leap suddenly into the air, climb straight up with a few casual wing strokes, nab a bug, then fall lightly back to the tomato cage’s top rung.  We tether our dog at one corner of the garden to discourage the gray squirrels, the black-tailed jackrabbits, and the cottontail rabbits that would have their way with the voluptuous vegetable plants if the dog wasn’t there to provoke them into thinking twice.

I am happier in this vegetable garden than I’ve been in any garden before, even though compared to the Garden of Eden it is a fallen place, indeed.  So many creatures hunting, killing, and eating each other.  But in my opinion, the unblushing innocence and still beauty of the Garden of Eden isn’t enough for humankind, anyway.  God knows it, and, regardless of the means by which man and woman leave it, God never intends the world to abide in easy and static beauty.  Peace of the sort that we romanticize exists in the big “G” garden arrests development.  Peace, defined as the absence of tensions and perhaps even of choice, keeps us childish and dependent. 

I say that understanding peace’s allure and benefits. After years of turmoil and emergency, when I walk into a nearby canyon, sit on a rock, and listen to a mourning dove’s traditional ballad and at the same time to a mockingbird singing near a desert spring striking its own watery notes, I feel restful and time-suspending peace descend like heaven in a kind of reverse rapture. Yet even while I enjoy its pleasant and restorative effects I feel a stronger call, a restlessness that testifies such pleasure is not enough and not my final destination. Peace: If you listen closely, you hear disquieting themes piping through its soothing melodies. 

LDS nature writers (if any) ought not to settle words upon calls to return to Eden or to lament its passing.  LDS ideologies support the concept of life as it is being more full than it once was yet still not full enough.  In such LDS ideas as eternal striving, LDS nature writers ought to find good ground to pioneer narrative pathways about the unfolding of human prospects in the likewise unfolding natural world.  Nothing about mortality is settled yet or has achieved the glory of its final form — not how life is, not the nature of our stewardship here, not the fiber or potential of relationships or the facts of our nature as revealed and explored through our relationships.  Simple relationships have gone unnoticed.  Complex ones unimagined. Science, like cutting edge mythology, enables the deepening of human engagement with the truth and with the infinite.  Religion, also in the business of exploring the infinite, cultivates communion and community, striving to balance the three-way tug ‘o war between the one, the many, and God.  Together, science and religion provide well-stocked ships and enthusiastic crews at heady and exhilarating departure points. 

Given our growing LDS scientific, religious, and cultural communities, LDS writers of nature literature ought to abound.  In fact, given the LDS perspective of there being a mustard seed God in each of us one would expect more LDS writers to be chronicling its development in the garden, where new and brain-orienting events and relationships blossom every day.  However, doing so requires surrendering all desire for peace as an end in itself and striving instead for the satisfaction of never-ending work and the confidence in and stimulation of creative powers pushing us toward the next good thing.  Lack of this element of stewardship — this constant change of heart that sees all things anew now and again — may be what makes LDS writers of fine and convincing nature literature as rare as toads along midsections of Provo’s University Avenue.      

Back to the garden. The broccoli and Brussels sprouts plants have never looked lovelier — broad, voluptuous blue-blushed leaves layering upward, all perfectly shaped and free of pest damage.  And the bean plants’ unbroken heart-shaped leaves, green as life.  Tonight my daughter said of the corn’s swelling blades, “I like what corn looks like.”  I gazed at the corn stalks’ chartreuse leaves fountaining up from our brick red soil. “Yes,” I said. “I like the look of growing corn, too.”

As I hurried to finish hoeing before darkness ended my work, I heard the weed barrier into which I planted my peppers rustle ominously.  Three big toads emerged from openings around the pepper plants and took stock of their prospects for the evening.  I knew one lived there, but two more prompt surprise.  Apparently, toads like weed barrier. Provided I see no ill effects upon our toad population I’ll use more next year to increase the garden’s popularity with our warty horticultural partners.  Only next time I’ll separate the sheet with paths.  Since the toads made their presence beneath the weed barrier known we’ve been afraid to walk on it, even to weed out the clever morning glories that grow in the dark beneath it till they find a place of emergence at the pepper wells.  I’ve used weed barrier before where I lived in Utah Valley but the toads had long gone. I couldn’t learn through experience about this interesting link between a human invention for convenience and toad habitat.  Weed barrier and Woodhouse toads.  Who knew?

Well, hmm.  I guess I know.  Now.

7 thoughts on “Back to the Garden”

  1. May Swenson, the nature poet, is a relative of mine. Which explains why my dad was reading a book of hers one day. According to my mom, when he was finished he commented, “May’s just too in love with this world to see the next.”

    I think that comment says a lot about why so few nature writers come out of the Mormon tradition. I know a lot of Mormons who don’t think twice about environmental stuff because they believe Jesus is going to come with his very own Super Fund in just a little while now. So why worry?

    And then there’s the idea Joseph Smith put forward that the world, in its perfected state, will resemble a big ball of glass. It seems that the majority of the ideology popular among Mormons these days leads us to be suspect of this world. After all, Satan has control over it, right? 😉

    And, the telestial kingdom is supposed to resemble this world. Meaning that there are at least two spheres more exhalted that this one.

    There’s also the idea that, as gods, were going to be big real estate developers in the sky, with no constraints put on our creative abilities. Which doesn’t lead one to think about resource management.

    Sheesh, I hadn’t realized how many ideas stand in the way of Mormons being environmentally minded. Much less potential nature writers.

  2. “According to my mom, when he was finished he commented, ‘May’s just too in love with this world to see the next.'”

    This is an interesting comment, Stephen. And it’s interesting that it can be turned around just as easily: Person X is just too in love with the next world to see this one.”

    And I love this: “I know a lot of Mormons who don’t think twice about environmental stuff because they believe Jesus is going to come with his very own Super Fund in just a little while now. So why worry?”

    Certainly, Jesus is in the business of cleansing things. But redemption appears to be a two-way street. In order for Jesus’s clean sweep to “take,” the beneficiary has to repent. Heh, any problems the Earth has might well end up being part of our own individual acknowledge, confess, make restitution and don’t repeat offend processes, kinda like how a molested child is innocent of the crimes committed against it. It’s the abuser that both the laws of heaven and of “the land” turn attention to.

    Or how’s this for poetic (which in this case means “ironic”) justice: people who foul this nest might just end up being consigned to the telestial kingdom, which some, as you say, believe “resembles this world.” It could happen.

    And then there’s all that stuff in the scriptures about love. Love’s great stuff! How people can pick and choose the objects of their affection baffles me. For instance, some people assume that if you hold Nature in high affection it means that you don’t love people. My deep dark secret: I love people more than any Woodhouse toad I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (no matter how cute). Writing about Nature is in part a confession of this love. If I were forced to separate my affection for Nature from my affection for people I couldn’t do it. The thought of having to do so causes me to feel panic.

    Now I’ve gone and violated Blake’s advice to “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love.” Ah well.

    “It seems that the majority of the ideology popular among Mormons these days leads us to be suspect of this world. After all, Satan has control over it, right?”

    This has to be one of my all-time favorite reasons for abdicating responsibility. It falls in to the “It’s out of my hands” category of abandonment rhetoric. At the same time, I admit this belief has a certain spark to it that I admire.

    “There’s also the idea that, as gods, were going to be big real estate developers in the sky, with no constraints put on our creative abilities. Which doesn’t lead one to think about resource management.”

    Whoa, the creative powers of Godhood perceived as big spending without end. Talk about your Manifest Destiny.

    If you want to know the truth, while in particular cases it may irritate me, in general I don’t worry too much about the rhetoric of such language as you’ve laid it out. What such language says to me is that some people have not yet found or taken responsibility upon themselves to produce better language. Once better language strikes them, many people sit up and take notice. Things change. And they will change.

    So don’t let all that stuff get to you, all you potential nature writers (if any). Go for it.

  3. Patricia, I loved this essay, by the way. Your focus on nature (which I’ve also been finding in your excellent book The Pictograph Murders) is very appealing to me. I’ve never seen myself as a nature writer (science has never been my focus, although I certainly have a lay man’s appreciation for nature), but I am so glad to find that the torch is being carried in capable hands like yours.
    Stephen, for those looking for a doctrinal source on enviormentalism, people need look no further than the “keystone of our religion,” The Book of Mormon:
    “Yea and it shall come in a day when there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth: there shall be murders, and robbing, and lying and deceiving and whoredoms and all manner of abominations; when there shall be many who say, Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, for the Lord shall uphold such at the last day. But won unto such, for they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity.”
    Now I know some may say that that the “pollutions” referred to are the list of sins that follows. I think that’s only partly true. I believe that the startling prophetic image of “pollutions upon the face of the earth” is also part of the list of sins.
    Adam and Eve were commissioned as a gardeners, to tend and take care of nature. Patricia, I think you are following that commandment admirably, both with your hands and with your pen.

  4. Mahonri, thank you for your generous comment. But I wonder, if you don’t mind saying, what effect nature writing has on you. That is, what correlation exists between your layman’s appreciation for nature and your reading of nature writing?

    BTW, when it comes to nature writing I’m in heavy duty learning mode m’seff. While I’ve relied upon nature for images and metaphors in my writing all along I only recently began writing what would qualify as “nature writing.” I wish I could take science classes. I wish I could enroll in a college offering a degree in environmental studies or that at least had a faculty member whose own interests in literary science and nature writing were profound enough he/she could provide meaningful direction. In order for nature writing to rise to be truly productive rather than merely self-indulgent it must braid scientific and lyrical insight together with bright ribbons of good reasoning.

    I hope there are LDS writing students out there … somewhere … searching for good programs to help them cultivate their interest in writing literary science and nature pieces. It’s not just a matter of “saving” this, that, or the other, it’s a matter of engaging the world more responsibly, chronicling previously unperceived relationships, and perhaps helping the human species to develop a little farther. Better things are out there for us.

  5. Mahonri wrote:
    Stephen, for those looking for a doctrinal source on enviormentalism, people need look no further than the “keystone of our religion,” The Book of Mormon:

    I reply:

    It’s a good point. I personally don’t need a doctrinal source on this issue. What I was trying to point out with my comments was that the overriding paradigms of current popular Mormon thinking just isn’t flowing in the direction of environmentalism. Which is certainly keeping with mainstream American thinking (including my own – my gosh how much crap I have gathered together over the past five years that I now have to get rid of somehow.)

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