Tuesday, February 14, 2006


When you buy an older home you’re buying decades of other people’s good and bad decisions, maintenance and neglect. No matter how nice the home, there’s always something rundown or curiously designed. For us and the house we bought last August, the odd spot is an area in the far back of our lot. It appears to have been built as a dog run and used occasionally as a trash dump. There is very little grass and absolutely no aesthetic appeal.

If it were left up to me, it would have stayed unkempt and unseen. But I am married to a woman who, had she not become a physician, would have done well as a landscape artist. And she has a vision of how to transform this wasted bit of land into something not just usable, but beautiful.

My task in all of this was to dig. First, I dug a long path that we filled with river stones. Then I dug a sandbox large enough to fit my son and his entire daycare class. It was hard, monotonous labor that left my white-collar hands raw. The earth here is difficult to move. A shallow layer of clay and endless chunks of limestone conspire to slow the shovel and strain the back. To make my task more arduous, someone had dumped hunks of cement all over the area.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this dig. But I did.

Throughout the project, I kept thinking “this is my land” and it felt good to work it, change it. I’ve never owned dirt before. The first home we owned was a co-op unit, six-stories in the sky. We owned walls and floors but no dirt. No land.

And while I know that two days of digging up the back area of a suburban home in no way makes me connected with the Earth or even particularly “outdoorsy,” I did gain a greater appreciation for how an active participation in our environment is key to preserving our environment. After all, while it’s just fine to want to save something because it’s pretty, it’s much more motivating to save it because it’s useful.

This “save it because it’s useful” impulse is why hunters and fishermen tend to be very conservation minded. And it’s why I think cleaning up our air is much more pressing than preserving some Alaskan wilderness none of us will ever see. And it’s why I think national lands are most useful when they are made into parks where we all can not just look at but actually experience the land.

Raw beauty is useful in its own way. But our Earth gives us so much more than that. I sometimes think the environmental movement went astray when it began deifying the Earth. We shouldn’t be preserving the planet because it’s somehow more pure than us or because it’s more important than us but because it is us. Our active engagement with nature, not our landscape artist’s admiration of her is what makes us human.

I am glad my wife made me dig in our backyard. Before that, my backyard was just a piece of property. Now it’s a piece of me as well. Corny? Sure. But enlightening as well.


Blogger Tom Strong said...

If you haven't read any Michael Pollan, you should. He's all about the idea of gardening-as-environmentalism.

3:10 PM  
Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

I have a similar experience when I sit on the porch smoking a cigar, drinking coffee and blogging while the Mexican guys put in shrubs and trees.

Okay, maybe not quite the same.

7:54 AM  

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