Berkshire Garden Style: April showers bring... human-engineered swales?
I know. It’s spring. But you know what? These days, I’m not particularly fond of spring.
Sure, there’s the gentleness and the regrowth. There’s the return of my friends, the plants (and the people — the gardeners! — too). But for some reason, I’m feeling more anxious than ever. I used to be so excited about getting down and dirty, about getting my hands into the soil. Whereas that excitement is still there, it’s overridden by this paralyzing anxiety about just how concentrated our growing season is. Everything has to be timed just so, like an epic performance that I’m directing, and the curtain is beginning to lift on opening night. And from where I stand, I can already see the long days ahead and all the labor they entail.
The key to not feeling anxious is to moderate. But it’s hard to moderate when it all starts to happen at once. A core value of Berkshire Garden Style is respect for the process. Spring commands respect. It commands patience. And as a gardener, I find myself challenged to juggle patience with planning. Perhaps what I struggle with is how to balance nature’s pace with humans’ pace, nature’s indifference to temporal limitations with human desire to make the most of our brief, bright, glorious growing season. This time of year, when everything is beginning, I am constantly trying to redefine my role in all of this. It’s exciting. And daunting.
These thoughts about humans’ role in nature were sparked a few weeks ago, during one of our premature spring thaws. A friend and I were standing in my backyard watching water flow. Recently, I had hired people to come build a swale on my property. Drainage soil had been installed to capture water that flows out of the hillsides and divert it away from my house. “I’ve never seen that flowing before,” my friend noted. She pointed out how the water trickled together to form a rivulet. Technically, she said, what I had was an intermittent stream.
Naming it that — a stream — and the fact that it is twelve feet away from my house, got me wondering whether the conservation commission might need to get involved in something like this. It made me consider: does a pond constructed by humans receive the same protections a “natural” pond does in regards to the Wetlands Protection Act? I looked it up and yes, it does, but I’m still not certain about my intermittent stream.The streambed where the water now flows was made by humans, but the water is still water, is still nature, still has a source and a destination and, I figure, ought to be treated with the same protection as water anywhere should be.
All this got me thinking further: I hadn’t initially thought of my swale as a stream because it had been made by humans (and machines). I’ve been conditioned to believe that something touched by human hands is artificial, not natural. Why? Why does something that is made by humans get too much of a bad rap? Aren’t humans nature, too? We live on land that has been trodden by humans for so long that it’s hard to tell what is human-made and what is wild. How do we treat the land when the boundaries are blurred, when a stream might be a little bit wild and a little bit not wild? Is it not still a stream?
Part of the philosophy of Berkshire Garden Style is to question the binary structure that still seems to dominate gardening thought, that species are either “native” or “invasive.” I prefer to interrogate the idea of pristine landscapes, that land left untouched by humans is inherently better. For too long we’ve been wrapped up with what belongs and what doesn’t, what’s “natural” and what’s “artificial.” We become afraid of things that are new, introduced, and often lash out with the knee-jerk reaction of getting rid of it.
Take Asian jumping earthworms, or invasive Asian jumping earthworms, as Cornell Cooperative Extension calls them. These worms are not human-made–at least not that I know of!--but are equivalent to human-made features in how they’re seen as “wrong.” Everybody is worried about these lively worms. I’ve read a dozen gardening articles dedicated to how to kill them: Drop them into a jar of rubbing alcohol. Handpick them and put them into a garbage bag and leave it out in the sun. But I wonder: are they really that bad? Or are we still just figuring out how to live with them? I can’t help but speculate that in a few years from now we’ll look back on all of this hype and wonder what we were worried about. And is part of our alarm because the worm has habits we’re not used to? Do they wriggle too much? Is part of our dislike because they are “invasive” “Asian” worms, i.e.–they “don’t belong” here?
The land I now live on was clear cut over a hundred years ago and was likely pasture. But with the exit of farming from New England and into concentrated industrial agriculture hubs–so out of sight and out of mind for us Berkshirites–my land has been left to slowly regenerate. It’s gone through different phases and now exists as a mixed forest. Is it natural now because it’s been left (somewhat) untouched? Is a forest the be-all end-all? It’s often what it feels like, as “untouched” seems to be the favorable state of nature. If that’s so, then what does that mean for white-tailed deer, a prevalent species in our landscape, and its penchant for edge habitat, where the forest ends and an open field–maybe a meadow, maybe a cornfield–begins? Does the deer not belong? What about the northern bobwhite, the only native quail to the east, famously disappearing and preferring open farm fields? The farm pasture might be considered not natural because it was created by humans and is maintained by domesticated livestock. Yet, this “unnatural” setting has become an important habitat for a threatened native bird.
As the spring brings rain, rain, and more rain, I count my lucky stars that my human-made swale keeps the water out in nature rather than flowing into my basement. I think of what belongs and what doesn’t as one of the first plants to green up the landscape is the infamous invasive, garlic mustard. And as I start to see those wriggly wrigglers, the jumping worms, I will be confronted with the dilemma of what to do with them. Of course, I’ll be cautious about moving plants. I am not going to spread or encourage the worms, by any means. But instead of stocking up on garbage bags, I think I might wait first to see what happens.