Land flows like water over the coursing of time. It is one thing, then another, and it’s shape and function wholly dependent on the circumstance of the climate, geological history and natural history of the plants and animals under which it flows. It is exemplary of gestalt: it is recognized as itself when it is whole and all it’s parts are at play synergistically. A desert is such, the alpine environment, the beach, the open meadow, the manicured lawn even. All are assemblages of these waltzing climatic, geological and living forces.
Yet one landscape can become the other. The first spark is often chance. Chance manifests as disturbance: a devastating process that changes the landscape, rewinds the ecological clock. A mudslide that cleaves a hillside exposing a massive swath of subsoil while burying the land downslope in a sarcophagus of topsoil. Even more dramatic is the clean slate left behind in the wake of a volcanic eruption, like the landscape surrounding Mt. St. Helens after the volcano erupted and blanketed hundreds of square miles in hot ash in 1980. The eruption killed thousands of animals, plants, and buried the topsoil so that even the microbial community was more or less erased.
These disturbed environments provide a canvas. Each fresh canvas is a clean slate for the pallet of weather, rock and life to paint on. This process is the facilitation of Nature’s great art form. This art form is called ecological succession.
It’s a predictable process if you know something about the environment. A farm is a perfect example of disturbed land in transition. Think of your garden. When you disturb the topsoil before planting you are able to anticipate the arrival of a very narrow variety of competing plants (weeds) which will grow in that soil. Though they may be very, very abundant in your garden they are not a diverse representation of the plant kingdom. They are only a handful of species from a very narrow range of plant families. We can name the most familiar offenders pretty quickly: pigweed, lamb’s quarter, purslane, chickweed, gallinsoga, shepherd’s purse, foxtail etc. These annual plants, which go from seed to seed in less than twelve months, are fast growing, thrive in dry, disaggregated soils, and do not exhibit (or require) mycorrhizal relationships. They are wholly suited to the environment you have provided by your initial disturbance of turning or tilling your garden.
Weeds are predictable across regions and although the species represented may change as we move from one region to another their ecological niches are all the same. They are pioneer species, early colonizers when a once green environment has been suddenly made black or brown or yellow by exposed soil, devoid of plants. They are the first plants to grow after a disturbance and they have evolved to thrive under the predictable conditions disturbances leave in their wake. You would be surprised to find goldenrod or dogwood growing first in a newly tilled garden. You would also not expect to see birch trees or oaks sprouting in your freshly prepared beds. Not with tending but through neglect will these higher order species establish themselves.
If you interact with your garden in this same manner every year you will continually reset the ecological succession clock back to zero. If you were to ignore your garden and allow those annual weeds to thrive you would see, even by the end of the first growing season, the establishment of some higher tier plants: biennials, perennials and some second succession (less ambitious) annuals, for instance plantain, dandelion, dock, brome, wild carrot etc. These plants establish themselves on the land a bit more slowly. Dandelion is more of a nuisance in your blueberry patch (perennial) than in your tomato patch (annual)… unless you adhere to no-till practices.
A farm or garden that is abandoned follows a steady, let’s say upward trajectory (figuratively and literally). Think of ecological succession as a staircase. The community of species that come to dominate the environment at the top of the stairs are called pinnacle species (pioneer species being at the bottom step). The change in species representation slows, and the land is said to finally be in a steady state. The most striking example I have ever seen is in the Sierra Nevadas among the giant sequoias. These trees are the most amazing species in a community that also includes tall jack and ponderosa pine, and a narrowly diverse mid-canopy and understory environment (even though they are at different heights in the forest these species are all at the “top of the stairs”). This community has been in a steady state for thousands of years but at some point (and today) disturbances large and small will set this process back to a place where the humble, annual weeds must lay the foundation for the stairs to be built again( i.e the regrowth of these aged giants).
In southern New England steady state forests are dominated by white pine, oak, beech, hickory, and maple. They are accompanied by muscle wood, hazel, birch in the mid-canopy and shad, inkberry, chokeberry, pepper bush, blueberry (and more) at shrub height, and finally a diverse array of wildflowers at ground level. Clear these trees, grind the stumps, plow the land and pigweed will grow. Almost immediately. For this reason pioneer species are sometimes called “nature’s scabs”. By having such fast growing plants available to root into the loose exposed earth much soil, and in turn nutrition, is conserved.
You can farm that land with the plow and fight with the pigweed for your whole life but when you leave your garden untended your grandchildren will, eventually, receive the forest again.
Interfering with this ecological trajectory, the ecological stair case, is part of the natural order. There is much opportunity within disturbance and, indeed, our entire agricultural (as well as much of our hunter gatherer) inheritance is dependent on it.
Is agriculture natural? Nature and natural are quite tricky words to define and opinions differ whether or not, for example, to include humans within a natural definition at all. Surely we are solidly understood to be within nature’s pantheon but most of us consider “nature” to be a place you go to, inhabited by things you are not, and not someplace you are or am. Nature is someplace, some-thing, we are best suited to observe, not disturb. It is something that modern human’s seem incapable to live in harmony with. Once human beings get involved in nature it is widely regarded we do little but muck it up, pollute it, desecrate it. After all don’t we live in a world that’s very geological epoch is defined by human disturbance (i.e. the Anthropocene)? At best, we believe, we must strive to do the least harm, which of course means we fully expect to do some harm: a perpetual, inescapable biting of the hand that feeds us.
So what is Nature?
It’s a stretch for common parlance to include a concrete city sidewalk in a definition of a natural environment, even though it is not so different from the landscape left behind in the wake of Mt. St. Helens’ eruption. The city street? No, not nature (or natural) most would say. However we wouldn’t hesitate to describe a farm as a natural place or, maybe, at least a place where nature resides. This is despite the fact that ecological succession, the natural order, the stair case I tried to describe earlier is so often aggressively circumvented on farms as a matter of course. Land that is being farmed is trying to build that ecological staircase again and the farmer prevents it. The farmer’s job is, in a sense, to push back. The farmer’s methods and systems dictate just how hard they have to push yet it is all in service to maintaining a step on the staircase where the plants and animals we want to raise can best thrive. How effectively we do this either makes us an industrial farmer or a regenerative farmer but this distinction for this discussion is not important. Either way managing land for agriculture is by degrees a fight against entropy, something Nature always has the final word on.
In the last ten thousand years, across the planet, there is nothing more natural than an environment impacted by human beings. Another way to say it is there is nothing so unnatural as a landscape not influenced, either big or small, by human beings.
In New England for instances we might consider our forests to be something of a static representation of our regions natural order but this is an illusion. The vast, virgin forests of the precolonial period that live in our imaginations did not really exist after humans took up residence on the east coast thousands of years in the past. Precolonial indigenous peoples managed these landscapes heavily, clearing huge tracts of land with fire and creating something of a park-like panoramic. Early colonists complained of not being able to locate timber some twenty miles from the coast in some areas. The re-foresting of this environment coincided with the removal of indigenous peoples and the eventual abandonment of farms in the ninetieth century as Europeans moved west. Stone walls were built in our area only because there was not enough timber left for fencing. The forests and wild places of New England are not a representation of what has always been here, or even been here for very long. Even the species have changed dramatically in the past hundred years. Our landscape is an evolving inheritance that has been hugely influenced by management practices of indigenous peoples over thousands of years, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and ninetieth century colonial history, and the unique impact of the modern world with exploding human populations, invasive species introduction, chemical contamination, and climate change.
Nowadays our landscape is essentially a mirror image of the proportion of forested land to open land that would have been seen in the colonial period of the eighteenth and early-mid nineteenth century. Eighty-percent of New England is wooded, twenty-percent of it is cleared. One hundred fifty plus years ago it would have been almost exactly the opposite.
Discussing loose terms like nature and natural provid plenty of pitfalls. Moving into the metaphysical realm requires much more patience and latitude, comfort with the murky place around powerful words. We’ve established that land can change though we might struggle with whether it is natural or not. Inevitably this argument is based upon our own prejudices, principles, and our guilt. Our ideas of how Nature ought to be is indelibly tied to our own aching desire for it to stay the same, unscarred, unsullied. Consistency is something human beings get very sentimental about and it is the antithesis to any natural system.
I mentioned earlier in the example of the farm that nature was trying to rebuild the staircase, to move from the pioneer first step (pigweed and quack grass) to the pinnacle top of the stairs (white oak and beech). It is typically unforgivable in the academic world to speak about plants trying to do anything. Wants and desires are a teleological illusion that we place over other living things. We’re told we should speak about living things in terms of instinct, of mechanisms. Plants are the extreme example. Since a plant does not even have a central nervous system insisting that it could have wants, desires, or aspirations sounds ludicrous to any respectable scientist. Instead we must talk about plants, if we truly want to understand them from this academic point of view, in terms of hormonal responses, environmental cues. An entire landscape isn’t even a single thing, never mind a thing without it’s own compartmentalized nervous system. It strikes a materialist as absurd that a landscape could have wants and desires. The predictable development of the ecological staircase isn’t a want, or an intent, you could say. It is simply a predictable, mechanical process.
It is difficult for one who works with land everyday to accept that it is merely an impartial bystander. Seeing what a landscape is capable of, how it organizes itself, nurtures living things, fosters dynamic relationships and bends toward equilibrium is something that one can’t help but feel moved by emotionally and left awed and curious about. The fact that nature seems to have a range of functionality that can best be described as healthy and unhealthy always leaves one wondering about these more teleological aspects.
We all know nature is cruel. Yet we can also tell when it is right versus when it is wrong. When it is unhealthy versus when it is healthy. The wolf pack that competes with another and fulfills it’s goals of reproduction and “wants” for full bellies versus the white-tail deer family dead on a Rhode Island beach with stomach’s full of sand. One is right, within the landscape’s care or the landscape’s gestalt. The other is clearly wrong and wrought of a system disarticulated in some critical way.
If landscapes operate in these ways, in these complex patterns that seem to develop into healthy, right, and good systems can we reach into a messy place of words and say a landscape might, collectively perhaps, desire for such a thing to be so?
Can land feel love? If a landscape is trying to build it’s staircase to the pinnacle, to the white oak and beech forest, than is it a sacrifice if it should be redirected? Can land willing make sacrifices, be able to choose among it’s constituents (trees, rocks, elk) which can be harvested, dynamited, killed? Is there a way of disturbing the land in which the land may approve of?
It’s easy for us to think of loving houses, meadows, beaches, bars, and churches. It’s more difficult to think this feeling could somehow be reciprocated. It’s a very complicated proposition to think about because if you say the land loves you than you are actually talking, depending on the acreage, about millions and billions and trillions of things. As individuals they all have different priorities, different struggles. The amoeba that engulfs the bacterium, the sand particle that is aggregated to the humic acid in the soil, the worm that drills the pores of the ground, the bird that eats the worm. Billions of things having billions of interactions. But if we allow our minds to fuzz the reduction of all these things into individual parts and instead mold them into a single gestalt (a single, functioning thing composed of many) than we have something broad, something amorphous, something we typically consider as unfeeling, certainly not kind, and unconscious. This fuzzy place is where metaphysical and religious language might bring us closest to appreciating what this natural gestalt’s wants may be.
In Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black she describes a form of divination (Ifa divination) that the farmer’s use when interacting with the land*. Asking permission in order to clear a field, cut down a tree, or put in an irrigation pond are requests put to the land and a reply is given back. Yes or no. Assuming that it is the land itself or some natural force that inhabits the land there is a higher perspective overseeing the wishes of the farmers guiding them towards, let’s say, healthy choices. It’s ends may seem anthropocentric at first, transactional even. If the land grants the clearing of a field, or the pouring of a foundation, it is to the benefit of the humans and their goals. But if healthy disturbances are made than the overall gestalt will benefit and it will be a gestalt, a natural gestalt, that includes the people within it as contributors of good will, not selfish exploiters.
I would venture to say that most people do not interact with land in this spirit of reciprocity. It took me several years to even begin to learn what best suits my land, what it wants, and how it’s goals coincide with mine. In the process the land nearly kicked me off a couple times. It was as if the land said to me “if you intend on growing vegetables here we need to reach an understanding because how you are doing it is not in line with my goals.” Bending to the gestalt of the land has made my life much more satisfying and much more predictable. For example the drought that rocked the country in 2022 was not felt so severally on my land. That is because the land communicated to me in 2017 that I needed to think more holistically about my soil health. Now, after five years of undisturbed permanent bedding over five acres of vegetable fields our water holding capacity provided us with all the water we needed (after establishment of the crops… some water was used immediately after transplanting) for the majority of our vegetables. This was during a summer where we received zero rainfall from late June until mid August.
I wish that I was the recipient of a religious tradition that allowed me to communicate so literally (so “saliently” as Penniman puts it) with my land as the farmers do at Soul Fire Farm (Penniman’s farm in NY). It probably would have saved me much time and at least some gray hairs. I think however that without having this conduit there are many ways to intuit the process of a landscape. Some of the messages will be subtle. Some will be deafening.
I was told that my land loves me by someone who means this quite literally. Someone who claimed to feel the love of the landscape, my small little farm, for me and my family. Does this mean perhaps that I am finally working in concert with the land? Does the land approve of my actions? If so I can hardly think of a greater source of pride than the approval of this small, revitalized eleven acres of northern Rhode Island land.
I think it’s healthy to think of ourselves as fox that come onto a place and make a home of it. A person is no different, just a visitor, a temporary resident, but one with the potential for an enormous ecological impact. Like the beaver the person becomes an engineer of the landscape and while they have their time there they can help become part of the lands gestalt or they can push and push against it until both they and the land are exhausted.
And maybe it is (also) simple. My mother in law said to me the other day “I love my living room.”
“Do you think your living room loves you?”
“Of course,” she said without hesitating. “My room loves me because it is me.”
Whatever comforts or squeamishness the idea of animals, plants, rocks, or macrostructures like forests and deserts being able to feel and understand love might bring us this tender insight left me feeling comforted. My land loves me because it is me.
*Penniman describes Ifa divination as follows: “Practiced among Yoruba communities and throughout the African diaspora, the Ifa divination system was inscribed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2008. She refers to the book Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World by Professor Wande Abimbola.