By Vicki Linton
One summer evening I was out at dusk, just as night was falling. Over the garden, just visible in the fading light, were bats–darting and swooping, soaring and fluttering. It was dinner time for the bats and insects were in the air above the flowers and vegetables.
This is someone else’s garden. Surrounded by ten foot high chain link fence, it cannot be entered without permission.
What is the value of someone else’s garden? This one is a community garden but all the plots are taken and only a long waiting list is available to anyone not already working a plot. Just whose community is this garden?
Toward the side of the garden is a sign reading, “Please do not disturb. Pollinators in action.” There are beehives there, a hint at whose community this is.
On an early fall day squirrels are snooping around the garden, looking for edible things to store away for winter. There are white cabbage butterflies flitting about the late blooming flowers. Crickets are singing by the fence posts. Undoubtedly earthworms are plowing through the soil helping the human gardeners maintain its fertility.
The garden is just an acre on a busy city corner. Yet it is clearly a community garden—a community of living beings of all sorts, from migrating songbirds to humans who plant the seeds and harvest the vegetables.
Just a few humans though, in a city of 600,000. What value is this garden to the rest of us? Why not pave it over? A parking lot is needed and the human gardeners will be offered plots elsewhere.
Environmental groups with big budgets can provide you all the information you need on the impact of pavement. “Just one inch of rainfall on one acre of pavement creates 27,000 gallons of polluted runoff,” reports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. One acre really does matter in a tangible way.
It matters in intangible ways, too. Or so it seems to me. Thousands of people pass by this garden every day. Maybe most don’t make a conscious note of the garden. Still it is there, part of the cityscape that we all encounter. The garden is full of flowers in the warm spring and summer sun. In winter its face is of dried plants withstanding the winds on chill days.
The garden is fragrant with green life: plants respiring, filtering the air through their living processes. Living beings sharing our city with us, life forms that give us sustenance and beauty.
Yet it is only one corner lot. There is another portion of the garden across the street. Parkland is nearby. What is one acre? The school needs to expand and the teachers need a place to park. The gardeners will go elsewhere and so too will most of the bats, the bees, the squirrels, the robins, the fluttering white butterflies.
And there is our world in a nutshell the squirrels cannot crack. An acre here, a grove of trees there; little by little, a new highway, a new shopping mall, a forest turned to agricultural plantation, fields become more city…
It is clear enough where this leads.
But today, someone needs a place to park.
Photo: Twin Oaks Community Garden north garden by Vicki Linton
A daisy that grows as tall as a tree. I was delighted to see this description when I read “High Above Sea Level, Evolutionary Hot Spots” by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times.
The plant, called Frailejón, though in the same family as daisies, doesn’t look like our common flower. It is a quite fantastic form of life in a unique ecosystem called the Páramos, grasslands at high altitudes in the Andes. Zimmer writes about how much scientists are learning about evolution in the unusual conditions of these mountain highlands. This reminded me of Rachel Carson’s belief, which I wrote about in my last post (Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation), that natural history is an important way of understanding the world.
Our world is full of distinctive areas that have been carved out over millions of years by the processes of geology, hydrology, atmosphere and climate, and biological evolution. We have so much to learn in all of them–but not only from scientific investigations.
We are of this earth and all of its places contain our story along with that of the earth itself and all its living beings. Those stories are vital to us in knowing who we are, how we have lived and how we may live in the future, and our relationship with our home, the earth. There are meanings to be found in the far-flung reaches of the earth, as well as right next door to us.
Observing the animals and plants, we learn how they combine with the physical earth to create the history of life and all its possibilities–our possibilities as humans as well as of all our fellow creatures. These are the possibilities that fire our imaginations and give our lives the forms from which we draw meaning and purpose. And these imaginative forms are where our art and literature and philosophy ultimately originate.
Learning from these earth places is a collective enterprise of humanity. We all know our own spaces but we cannot visit all corners of the globe. Remote landscapes like the Páramos most of us will never see.
This is where nature writing comes in. It can vividly transport us to these lands we otherwise would not know. In fact, in his article, Carl Zimmer calls upon an early nature writer, the European explorer Alexander von Humboldt to introduce us to the Páramos. Von Humboldt, part explorer, part traveler, part scientist, part imperialist, climbed to the Páramos over 200 years ago. His written descriptions of the nature he observed there inspired interest in these high mountain grasslands that still reverberates today.
I looked up the passage from von Humboldt that Zimmer briefly quotes and found myself experiencing the Páramos, seeing the Frailejón and the other plants that von Humboldt cataloged, feeling the dampness in the misty air, seeing the Andean Condor soar overhead:
We were sometimes so enveloped in mist, that we could not, without difficulty, find our way. At this height there is no path, and we were obliged to climb with our hands, when our feet failed us, on the steep and slippery acclivity. A vein filled with porcelain-clay attracted our attention. It is of snowy whiteness, and no doubt the remains of a decomposed feldspar.
…Every time that the clouds surrounded us, the thermometer sunk as low as 12 degrees; with a serene sky it rose to 21 degrees. These observations were made in the shade. But it is difficult, on such rapid declivities, covered with a dry, shining, yellow turf, to avoid the effects of radiant heat. We were at nine hundred and forty toises of elevation; and yet at the same height, towards the east, we perceived in a ravine, not merely a few solitary palm-trees, but a whole grove. It was the palma real; probably a species of the genus Oreodoxa. This group of palms, at so considerable an elevation, formed a striking contrast with the willows scattered on the depth of the more temperate valley of Caracas. We here discovered plants of European forms, situated below those of the torrid zone.
After proceeding for the space of four hours across the savannahs, we entered a little wood composed of shrubs and small trees, called el Pejual; doubtless from the great abundance here of the pejoa, a plant with very odoriferous leaves. The steepness of the mountain became less considerable and we felt an indescribable pleasure in examing the plants of this region.
Nowhere, perhaps can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful, and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants. At the height of a thousand toises, the lofty savannahs of the hills terminate in a zone of shrubs which, by their appearance, their tortuous branches, their stiff leaves, and the magnitude and beauty of their purple flowers, remind us of what is called, in the Cordilleras of the Andes, the vegetation of the paramos and the punas. We there find the family of the alpine rhododendrons, the thibaudias, the andromedas, the vacciniums, and those befarias with resinous leaves…”
Photo credit: Dick Culbert at Flickr Creative Commons
Text of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narratives of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America can be found at Google books. http://books.google.com/books
In my previous post, Empathy for Eels, I wrote about how I was inspired to be concerned about eel conservation by the nature writing of Rachel Carson. This got me thinking. How much of a role does nature writing play in creating sympathy for conservation efforts?
As a genre, nature writing is only vaguely defined. Thoreau and Muir are usually pointed to as early exemplars. More recent nature writing seems to blend into environmental writing and science writing.
I like to think of nature, science, and environmental writing as three different things. Rachel Carson’s work provides a good basis for differentiating the three genres. As I see it, three of Rachel Carson’s four books exemplify each category.
Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, is descriptive. It follows the lives of various sea creatures. It is informed by science but it is not about science. Rather than tell of the gathering of information, the studies and their results that is the stuff of science, it quite lyrically describes the processes of nature and its life forms as if observed from what is essentially an imagined perspective: an amalgamation of all the human vantage points from which knowledge of various creatures and habitats has been accumulated. This is a classic style of nature writing.
Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, I classify as science writing. In it, she describes the scientific understanding of the oceans. She details how scientists have studied the oceans, the questions they have explored, and the knowledge they have gained.
Silent Spring is the most famous of Carson’s books and is often credited with helping to spark the environmental movement. It belongs to and perhaps helped to create the third type: environmental writing. Silent Spring’s purpose was to sound an alarm about a threat to nature—that of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Environmental writing seeks to awaken concern about the environmental threats humanity faces and encourage action.
Obviously environmental writing plays a critical role in creating concern for conservation. However, it also, through its bleak warnings, may lead to what I wrote about in an earlier blog post: ecophobia. Ecophobia may occur as a reaction to environmental warnings, especially very dire ones which cry out that humanity is destroying the planet. People may turn away from this literature and from nature activities generally if they find themselves constantly facing messages that border on hopelessness.
To me, this is where nature writing as distinct from environmental writing has an important role to play. Of course, in the 21st Century few people write about nature without bringing in some environmental warnings. But nature writing—descriptive writings about living creatures and natural processes, including human experiences of them—can excite people to appreciate nature. As with Carson’s magical tale of the eels’ migration, at its best nature writing can evoke empathy in its readers that may awaken when one hears of environmental threats to particular creatures or landscapes.
Of course, many books combine aspects of science, nature, and environmental writing. I find myself particularly fascinated by the writing that is primarily descriptive. Recently I went to the library to get a book called Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson. Williamson was one of Rachel Carson’s favorite nature writers. He was an Englishman who lived on the seacoast and wrote about its life forms in the early 20th Century.
Williamson’s style clearly inspired Carson when she wrote Under the Sea Wind. She gave names to her creatures as Williamson did and followed them through their life cycles much as he did. Williamson named his salmon Salar and described its journey from sea to river, detailing encounters with myriad other creatures along the way. Although this genre is considered non-fiction it is largely a work of imagination, inspired by many actual observations.
And it is extremely vivid. Here Williamson writes about seals:
“She hunted usually with Jarrk the bull-seal, and when not hungry they played together for hours, hunting one another around bases of rocks and chasing each other’s tails as they swished in bubbled circles that set long ribbons of weed waving and curling and little green crabs scuttling for shelter.”
Williamson’s writing contains a bit more anthropomorphism than Carson’s, still it feels as though it truly takes one into the waters with the sea creatures. The reader feels she has been somewhere she can otherwise not go and has an understanding of life and of natural processes she could not gain without such writing.
Understanding–this may be as important as empathy in creating support for nature conservation. Rachel Carson’s biographer Linda Lear says that Carson’s goal in her writing was to “promote natural history as a way of understanding the world.” For instance, Carson wrote of the need for seashore conservation “to insure that we ourselves and generations to follow, may know what the shore is like, may read the meaning and message of this strip between land and sea.” There is so much knowledge of the world to be found in natural processes and the lives of non-human creatures.
Carson wrote of
“…a new sense of perspective on human problems. When we contemplate the immense age of earth and sea, when we get into the frame of mind where we can speak easily of ‘millions’ or ‘billions’ of years, and when we remember the short time that human life has existed on earth, we begin to see that some of the worries and tribulations that concern us are very minor. We also gain some sense of confidence that the changes and the evolution of new ways of life, are natural and on the whole desirable.”
Understanding may promote sympathy for conservation efforts. At the same time, it is surely one of the reasons for conservation of nature.
How rich is our world when we share it with creatures like the eel, the salmon, and the seal. When a writer provides us with descriptions of the life of a fish or a bird, how much more we come to know about what is real and what is possible on this blue-green earth. What brilliant insights into life we gain from observing and reading about the life of a forest, a desert, or the sea.
I think we need eels. We need salmon. We need mountain forests, river estuaries, deep sea trenches and all of their living creatures. When we learn of them we learn of ourselves, of life, of nature. When we “read the meaning,” as Carson put it, we gain an understanding we would not otherwise have of existence itself.
I came across an article titled “In Japan, Captive Breeding May Help Save the Wild Eel” and began reading.
“Hitoshi Imaizumi pushes back the silver quilting of a tent at the National Research Institute of Aquaculture in Shibushi, southern Japan, steps into the pitch-black interior, and switches on a flashlight. A tall, tube-shaped aquarium emerges from the darkness. Inside, slivers of reflected light flicker through the water: Japanese eel larvae, hatched just six days earlier. With huge black eyes set in skull-like heads and flat, transparent bodies, they look like tiny visitors from an alien world—which in a sense they are.
“This is something you’d normally only see out in the middle of the ocean,” says Imaizumi, an aquaculture researcher at the center.”
I felt a pang of regret. But why? I realized it was because a thought had flickered through my mind, a remembrance of eels.
I’ve never encountered eels in the wild. I’ve only seen them in aquariums and on sushi platters. In neither case did they appeal to me very much.
Yet I felt a sort of empathy for the eels, reading of these scientific efforts to breed them in captivity. It was a feeling of regret for eels that may in the future no longer experience their lives in the wild.
My remembrance of eels was actually a memory from reading Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind. In a movingly evocative portion of that book, Carson writes of the journey of an eel she names “Anguilla” from its home in a freshwater pond to the sea to spawn and die.
Eels begin life in the deep ocean and develop into larvae which metamorphose into “glass eels,” (also called elvers) tiny transparent beings which migrate to the mouths of rivers and then hundreds of miles inland where they live in freshwater until instinct prompts them to descend once again to the open sea.
Carson describes an eel’s life in its fresh water home:
“Anguilla had entered Bittern Pond as a finger-long elver ten years before. She had lived in the pond through its summers and autumns and winters and springs, hiding in its weed beds by day and prowling through its waters by night, for like all eels she was a lover of darkness. She knew every crayfish burrow that ran in honeycombing furrows through the mud bank under the hill. She knew her way among the swaying, rubbery stems of spatterdock, where frogs sat on the thick leaves: and she knew where to find the spring peepers clinging to grass blades bubbling shrilly, where in spring the pond overflowed its grassy northern shore…”
In the article on captive breeding, author Winifred Bird writes that this middle portion of an eel’s life has been reproduced in human aquaculture for decades. The glass eels are caught by the millions in the wild and raised in holding pens until they are big enough for the dinner table.
That life in human-constructed enclosures replaces the wild life in a fresh water pond which Carson details. And it precludes that phase of the eels’ life of which she wrote so vividly that it glowed in my mind when I read the article. That phase is the journey to the sea. Carson describes it:
“At dusk, as the owls began to hoot in the woods, Anguilla left the pool and traveled downstream alone. Soon the stream flowed through rolling farm country. Twice during the night it dropped over small milldams that were white in the thin moonlight. In the stretch below the second dam, Anguilla lay for a time under the overhanging bank, where the swift currents were undercutting the heavy, grassy turf. The sharp hiss of the water over the slanting boards of the dam had frightened her. As she lay under the bank the eel that had rested with her in the pool of the waterfall came over the milldam and passed on downstream. Anguilla followed, letting the current take her bumping and jolting over the shallow riffles and gliding swiftly through the deeper stretches. Often she was aware of dark forms moving in the water near her. They were other eels, come from many of the upland feeder creeks of the main stream. Like Anguilla, the other long, slender fishes yielded to the hurrying water and let the currents speed their passage.”
Once the eels have arrived at the edge of the sea they migrate to deep water and spawn. The stages of life in the deep sea—the beginning and the end—are so complex that scientists have so far been unable to replicate them. Until the mid-20th Century, it was not even known where the eels went once they had migrated into the open sea.
The difficulties that scientists face in developing captive breeding hint at how deeply the eel’s wild life cycle is a part of its very essence.
Bird writes of the scientific efforts, interviewing University of Michigan scientist James Diana for her article:
“The challenge, he explains, is getting fish through a number of ‘bottlenecks’ in their life cycles. Sexual maturation, for instance, is triggered by a complex set of environmental cues including light levels, temperature, and salinity. Meeting the nutritional needs of larval fish is tricky too, because their diet—made up primarily of plankton—is completely different than the adults’.
‘No matter how long you keep a juvenile eel in captivity, it will not mature spontaneously,’ explains Imaizumi. To make matters worse, most farmed eels turn out to be male, even though the gender balance in the wild is equal. Mimicking the natural conditions that determine gender and trigger spawning has so far proven impossible.”
Carson may have added much from her own imagination into her story of the eels’ migration, given the state of knowledge of eels at the time she wrote in the 1930s. But the outline is clearly true to the eels’ life in the waters. Carson writes:
“At last Anguilla neared the mouth of the bay. With her were thousands of eels, come down, like the water that brought them, from all the hills and uplands of thousands of square miles, from every stream and river that drained away to the sea by the bay. The eels followed a deep channel that hugged the eastern shore of the bay and came to where the land passed in to a great salt marsh. Beyond the marsh, and between it and the sea, was a vast shallow arm of the bay studded with islands of green marsh grass. The eels gathered in the marsh, waiting for the moment when they should pass into the sea.”
Scientists are racing, like the eels to the sea, to find a way to re-create the entire eel life cycle so that it no longer includes the long journeys to and from the deep sea. It is because eels are threatened in the wild, their populations in rapid decline, that this complex work is being done. If they do not succeed at this, there may come a time when there are no eels in the wild.
Creating anew the eel life cycle as one controlled by humans is necessary to allow wild populations to survive, given the human pressure on eel populations from fishing. This radical change to the very essence of an eel is what stirred an emotion in me when I read Bird’s article. I entertained an idea that something was being taken from these eels—something vital to their very being. Somehow with captive breeding they are being denied the experience of eelness—what truly defines them as eels. The thought pained me.
The article on eels by Winifred Bird is published at the excellent Yale Environment 360 blog, a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, which you can access at http://e360.yale.edu/
Years ago, I used to like to wander in a back part of the National Zoo that was just labeled “hoofed stock.” There obscure deer and antelope grazed on enclosures with grassy slopes. Somewhere beyond the muntjacs and the bongos, you would find Pere David’s deer.
I think there was a sign reporting that Pere David’s deer was a rare and highly endangered species. This seemed appropriate, in a way, for an animal named after one individual. Inevitably, you had to wonder, “Who was Pere David?” “Why is this his deer?” But the enigmatic animal behind the fences gave no answer.
Pere David’s deer has stayed in the back of my mind all these years as something odd and mysterious. The other day I came across an article about the deer on the Nature Conservancy’s blog. When I read “Saved by Chance: The Incredibly Strange Story of the Pere David’s Deer” by Matt Miller I finally learned its story after all these years.
It turns out that Pere David was the European who first learned of this species. The deer was already reduced to a remnant population in the mid-19th Century in China. The few left lived in the Emperor’s Hunting Park. Pere David, in China as a missionary, learned of the animal and visited the Park. He communicated to Europeans about the species. It was arranged for some of the deer to be sent to game preserves and zoos in Europe. Thus Pere David’s deer, while dying out in its native China, has lived on in a captive state in Europe and the United States.
Reading this story made me wonder: what is it like to be the last of a species, all that is left of a once flourishing life form? Silly thoughts, of course. The deer simply live, however differently from their ancestors in the wild. Their days are filled with the usual details of living—eating, sleeping, sensing the world around. It makes no difference to these animals that they are members of a rare species that has survived only in zoos and parks.
But it matters to humans. It matters to us that Pere David’s deer continues to live. And it also matters to us that the deer no longer lives its natural life in the wild. Miller writes in the article, “You might say that today’s Pere David’s deer has become something less than a Pere David’s deer. How did these deer shape the land and how did the land shape the deer? That we no longer know. The deer’s complex interplay with native plants, marshes, with predators—these are lost to time.”
Is Pere David’s deer of less value because of this? Why do humans keep it—and other species nearly at the point of extinction—going? What is it about a species that makes us not want to lose it? Pere David’s deer has long since ceased to be a part of a natural ecosystem where it might have a role. Yet humans continue to perpetuate its existence in artificial circumstances.
The deer, though, are not artificial. They are as real as white-tails in your garden. But they don’t determine their own fate; we do. And this deer with the unusual antlers is something we do not want to lose.
In another recent article on the Nature Conservancy blog, conservation scientist Jensen Montambault wrote, “So much of conservation feels like gardening. If a cavity nesting bird requires predator excluders on every successful nest site, is it wild? Will we have to light and tend prescribed fires in perpetuity?”
Montambault was writing about the Whooping Crane whose continued existence has depended on very close management by humans. A recent study has shown that Whooping Cranes over time are becoming independent of human intervention once again, giving hope to the project of re-establishing captive species in the wild. Such efforts are also underway now with the Arabian Oryx and Przewalski’s horse, both considered extinct in the wild until reintroduced recently.
There seems no such hope for Pere David’s deer. Humanity does not even know how these deer lived in the wild. The possibility of re-establishing them as they once lived is likely gone forever.
Yet Pere David’s deer lives on. Maybe we feel there is something to be learned from it. Maybe science can study its living genome and find useful information. Or maybe we just appreciate it as its own special thing, a living thing like no other that has lived before or ever will again. I do not really know. Still, I am glad Pere David’s deer still shares the earth with us.
Photo Credit: Matt Miller/TNC
Science seeks to objectively report on life and other natural phenomena. As I wrote in a previous post (Savoring What We Cannot Know), the subjective experiences of other living beings are left a mystery to us. Is there any way we can peek inside this unknown world?
One person who tried to do this was Rachel Carson. Carson was a scientist who did research in marine biology. Before her involvement in science she was a writer. Eventually she combined her two occupations in works devoted to communicating the wonder of the natural world.
In the 1930s, Carson set out to write her first book, which was eventually titled Under the Sea-Wind. She had studied the ocean and its life and received her Master’s in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University. She was armed with a multitude of data gleaned during her employment as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she did not want to write simply of the scientific facts. She wanted to convey what it was like to be an animal whose life was lived in the ocean.
“To sense this world of waters,” Carson wrote, “known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.”
What is needed to do this is something that so far as we know is uniquely human–imagination. Can imagination—a space inside the minds of humans—show us what Carson sought, “a true picture of the sea?”
The truth found in scientific explorations and the world imagined in the human mind—aren’t these two vastly different things? How can a writer bring to life a vision in which, as Carson put it, “my readers…feel that they [are], for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures,” unless she relies deeply on imagination? But doesn’t such imagining lead one away from the real world to one that is solely a human creation?
Carson spoke of her own experiences of beginning to understand the life in the sea in explaining how she wrote Under the Sea-Wind. She recalled her first trip as a scientist to the Woods Hole research station. “Probably,” Carson wrote, “that was when I first began to let my imagination go down through the waters and piece together bits of scientific fact until I could see the whole of life of those creatures as they lived them in that strange world.”
Much can be gained by compiling scientific facts into an objective picture of sea life. But how much can we really understand about the sea or other facets of non-human nature without engaging our imaginations?
It is something of a paradox but Rachel Carson made a convincing effort to use both science and imagination in Under the Sea-Wind. She wrote of fish and the environment they inhabited:
“The ebbing tide carried the mullet through the deeper green glooms and over the white sandy bottom of the channel, scoured clean of living things by the strong currents that raced through it twice each day. Above them, as they moved, the surface of the water was broken into a thousand glittering facets that shone with the sun’s gold. One after another the mullet rose to the shimmering ceiling of the sound. One after another they flexed their bodies in a quickening rhythm, gathering their strength and leaping into the air.”
She described the experience of comb jellies:
“At the first ruffling of the surface calm the comb jellies began to sink into deep water. Even in these simple creatures, which consist of little more than two layers of cells, one inside the other, there exists the counterpart of an instinct of self-preservation, causing them in some way to sense the threat of destruction which rough water holds for so fragile a body.”
She seemed to go inside the mind of a bird:
“As the two sanderlings probed the wet sand for small, thin-shelled crustaceans, they forgot the long flight of the night before in the excitement of the hunt. For the moment, they forgot, too, that faraway place which they must reach before many days had passed—a place of vast tundras, of snow-fed lakes, and midnight sun.”
She imagined “seeing” with a fish’s senses. She spoke of emotions such as fear and excitement when describing birds and crab. She wrote of the memories of migrating creatures. Had she stepped beyond science or had she made science more penetrable?
Of this she wrote: “I have spoken of a fish ‘fearing’ his enemies…not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened. With the fish, the response is primarily physical; with us, primarily psychological. Yet if the behavior of the fish is to be understandable to us, we must describe it in the words that most properly belong to human psychological states.”
A scientist may study how a sea animal’s blood flows and under what circumstances it quickens, but without imagination what can these objective studies really convey to us about life in the sea? Nerve endings may be found to quiver but if we do not imagine excitement or fear, what really do we understand?
“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are nearly as eternal as any earthly life can be.”
Still Carson uses the word “strange” repeatedly to describe the undersea world. It seems most apt, yet with this word she reveals that, after all, she is seeing from a human perspective. That sea world is not strange to its own creatures. It is strange to us, the human creatures of the land. Our research and our imaginations can only take us so far.
Painting: “Seascape at Dusk” by William Trost Richards
Rachel Carson quotations are from the following:
Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson Edited by Linda Lear
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear
In a coign of a cliff between lowland and highland
At the sea-down’s edge between windward and lee
Walled round with rocks as an inland island
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea
There is something entrancing about an overgrown garden, no longer maintained. It speaks of times past when someone planned and planted, when blossoms sprang forth along well-tended paths. As Swinburne wrote in his poem, “Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping, Haply, of lovers none ever will know, Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping years ago.” A lost garden tells of what once was and, perhaps, of what could be again.
Years ago, I used to visit a hidden and overgrown garden. It had been created decades before but now its paths had fallen into disrepair. While there was some maintenance of the meadows, and flowers still bloomed, thickets strewn with vines threatened to overtake them.
This was Dumbarton Oaks Park, a mysterious place behind the famous gardens. I’d go there on weekday mornings when no one was about and walk along the winding path next to the little creek. I’d wonder about the crumbling stonework. What had been intended for this place? Who created it here hidden just off bustling Wisconsin Avenue? I’d climb to the top of the meadow and sit with a view that reminded me of a Monet painting I loved. What was this garden like when it was maintained? Why was it abandoned?
I read recently about another lost garden at Vassar College. According to the New York Times, it was “a native plant garden that was cultivated by botany professors and students in the 1920s…and then forgotten for decades.”
In the 1990s, another Vassar Professor discovered the overgrown, barely recognizable, garden. The Times quotes her describing her discovery, “I start seeing these spring ephemerals, but it was only later that I realized they had been planted.” More and more she saw plants she realized had been grown there intentionally. She researched the history and learned that botany professor Edith Roberts had cultivated the garden for many years. Roberts advocated planting native species in gardens decades before it became popular.
Working with her students, the later Professor, Meg Ronsheim, documented “the many survivors from the 1920s, including red osier dogwood, alder trees, royal ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits,” the Times reported.
That story reminded me of one I read in an old nature book. I dug out the book, Flowering Earth by Donald Culross Peattie. Peattie, who wrote popular books on trees in the mid-twentieth century, told of a garden he rediscovered.
He had moved to the West Coast and rented a house. After settling into the new dwelling, he went outside to look around. He surveyed the garden on his rented property. It was bounded by a hedge. Encouraged by a botanist’s curiosity to see what might be growing beyond, he pushed through the hedge.
On the other side, he wrote,
“I stood in a circular garden where every flower was blue; it was dry and sun smitten; fallen corollas, faded petals lay on the walks… The place seemed to belong to a ground bird with a lizard in his bill, who ran before me through an opening in a farther, higher hedge.
“So I went his way, down a walk of abandoned topiary, into a little garden where every flower was red. Three steps down, and I stood in a third garden, long and stately…. It was all weedy and dreamy and strange with an accent of far places, and I stooped dazedly to read one of the labels which, I realized, I had been seeing without heed all along the way. Like the others, it was weathered to no more than a cryptic anagram with half the letters missing.”
Then an elderly man with a watering can appeared. Peattie apologized for trespassing and asked, “Whose garden was this?” With a smile the man said, “This is your garden.”
The fading garden was part of the grounds of the house Peattie had rented! The elderly man was the only one left of a staff of gardeners who had once worked there.
Peattie tells much more about this special place that was now in his care. He learned of all the plants that grew there and worked with the gardener to revive the garden.
So a forsaken garden was renewed. And now that is just what is happening at Dumbarton Oaks Park. A conservancy has been organized and has raised funds to restore the original vision of this little landscape hidden in the city. And now I have learned the story of my secret garden.
It was originally planned as a wilder-growing adjunct to the formal gardens now owned by Harvard University. It fell into disrepair when it was split off from them and given to the National Park Service. It was designed in the 1920s by Beatrix Farrand to include a stream with multiple waterfalls as well as meadow paths with benches among groves of trees. Beatrix Farrand was a prominent landscape architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who designed many gardens on private estates. She was the first female professional landscape architect in the United States.
Now work has begun to restore Dumbarton Oaks Park, one of the few examples of Farrand’s work which has survived. The Dumbarton Oaks Conservancy has received funding to restore the old stonework and has organized volunteers to begin the work of removing the invasive vines and bushes that have overgrown all parts of the park.
I visited the park today. Although overgrown with porcelain berry, English ivy, and Russian olive, it is still a spot of beauty. To walk along its stream path is to find a peaceful refuge in the city. That it is being reclaimed is a blessing for us all.
Photo by Vicki Linton