I intend for this to be the first, introductory installment of a brief series of pieces --to unfold in coming weeks-- on "Restoring Good Order to a Disturbed Land."
The context for this series is my recently having just moved back to a place in the mountains of Virginia, a place where my family and I lived for ten years and then rented out for the past six. Our tenants neglected and abused the place, and we are working hard to repair that damage and restore its beauty.
It is a labor of love because we love the place.
I spend a large portion of my waking hours trying to restore good order to the disturbed land in which I live.
No, I’m not talking about my work writing about the moral/political crisis in America, though the shoe fits there as well. The disturbed land I am referring to is my several acres on the western flank of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. After our six years away –six years during which the place was neglected and abused by its tenants—we have returned to find the land poised between two states: if we were to do nothing at all, in time it would become forest; with hard and skillful work, we can make it once again something of a garden.
Now, it is neither. It is disturbed land.
A couple of friends, looking out from our just-repaired deck onto that clearing we still call the orchard, though the peach trees have all died, and the Lodi apple blew over a couple of years ago in a big windstorm, have suggested that we should go with the “meadow” look that the once-grassy clear places between the remaining trees have taken on. But April and I have decided to do otherwise.
For one thing, the plants that have started taking over in this “meadow” are not so lovely: the one that dominates the view because of its height and its persistent white flowers is named “snakeroot,” and I’ve always sought to limit its foothold on my place. (This is a plant that, the story goes, killed the mother of Abraham Lincoln after she drank milk from a cow that had consumed the snakeroot.)
For another thing, this stage is but an interim stage, not a resting place, in the process of ecological succession. Soon it would be the cedars and the pines and the moosewood, some of which are already nibbling away at the edges, and these in time would be followed by the chestnut oaks and red maples and tupelos and hickories. All this would take many years, but the present condition is only transitory.
Where the land of the orchard stands now, the shape and order that humans gave to it are sufficiently deteriorated that what is growing there marks the land as “disturbed,” the way that poison ivy, for example, thrives in the wake of the human disruption of the natural order and a human failure to create a good human order.
So we’ve begun the process of trying to reclaim that orchard, and the various parts of our property here that we claimed from the forest, by making it more of a garden.
America is of course also, in its own, “disturbed” land. Its good order, too, has broken down in recent years. And it, too, stands in need of restoration.
But in one essential way, the disturbance of good order in America is very different from that on our property.
On our land, given enough time, our doing nothing would allow nature to create a good order: the forest. But in our nation, there is no good order that simply creates itself. With civilization, the only alternative to the good order that requires our work to establish and to maintain is disorder and deterioration. It is not a choice between two good living orders but between an order that serves life and a disorder that is part of death's domain.
(This difference between the systems of nature and of civilization is one of the main themes running through my book, THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES: THE PROBLEM OF POWER IN SOCIAL EVOLUTION, particularly through that part of the book entitled “The Natural and the Unnatural.”)
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