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  • Writer's pictureJoseph R. Goodall

We Make, We Observe

Updated: May 18

I know precious little about seeds. But I’m learning to identify the wild plants growing in the open field that stretches between the house I live in and the stream winding through the neighborhood. Aster, jewelweed, woodsorrel, and summer grape all sprang up unbidden this past year after I decided to stop mowingpartially out of busy-ness, but also out of curiosity. Plants which I’d stunted or fought the previous year exerted their brilliant dominance, their seeds dormant in the soil now producing a diverse, thriving meadow.

Anchored by pecan and pine trees, the field’s level ground turns marshy when it rains and is liable to flood in a heavy storm. All the better for the menagerie of vegetation which took up residence where I’d previously only let grass grow. In the summer, towering ragweed swayed along the stream bank, providing perches for roaming birds. Come autumn, aster shrubs laden with tiny white flowers were a popular haunt for bees. But fast-growing kudzu vines also thrived in this field. Originally introduced to prevent erosion on roadway construction projects, the vines now aggressively overtake and constrict other plants across the region. They weave into bright green curtains, scaling trees which shade the creek below.

I and my neighbors were also "introduced" to this landscape. Recently it has been affected by gentrification, with rising housing prices and a demographic shift of more white residents and fewer black residents over the last several decades. A couple generations ago the area was farmland, grazing pasture for cattle. Then a shopping plaza with a department store and a motel boasting modern amenities sprang up. Red brick ranch houses allured beneficiaries of the GI Bill to adopt a suburban lifestyle. Several generations before this, a Civil War raged in this landscape, with battles being fought in the nearby forests and settlements over the practice of enslaving fellow humans and the way of life which had been built around that brutal economy. Before this, the Indian Springs Treaty of 1825 forced the Creek and Cherokee Indians to cede their right to live on this land. Before I was born, numerous generations have lived with and struggled against this environment.

One recent winter morning, after the cooler weather had beckoned green foliage to turn brown and lay down to rest, a crew of workers arrived to clear out the remaining underbrush and install a swath of black fabric barriers through what used to be a wild meadow. I knew this would happen eventually, I just didn’t know which day. The local government had contacted us several years ago about their upcoming effort to replace the sanitary sewer line running parallel to the creek. This fragile riparian ecosystem is also a naturally occurring corridor at a consistent downhill slope, ideal for concealing and conveying our human waste stream. Replaced underground pipes would hopefully mean fewer contaminating leaks and overflows into the waterway, another movement in a tenuous dance between municipal function and ecological stewardship.

The winter respite also provided me the opportunity to install a bluebird nesting box in the side yard. After the construction crew cleared their path, I dug a hole for a post near a willow tree sapling I planted a year ago. When the spring arrives, the tree will re-leaf and the new wooden box will hopefully be used by a cavity-nesting bird to nurture their young. With forests being cleared for more development and old, decaying trees being removed to avoid property damage, there are fewer habitats for these types of birds. Foreign bird species from Europe have also become predators to the native bluebird. As with many arenas, humans have acted as both antagonist and conservationist.

I brace myself for the reality that the new nesting box may remain empty, that some component of my artificial habitat will prove undesirable. What's more, the space I cleared for the bluebird box and the young willow tree may impede on the growth of other plants. But I hope that it will be a pleasant environment. I will be more likely to check on it, knowing I have partially shaped the spot to my will. If I turn a blind eye, advancing kudzu may choke out the native species. Other critters may try to claim the wooden box. So I continue to look.

There is a government record somewhere listing me as part-owner of this land. But in reality I have been more of a periodic witness to the work of seeds I had no hand in planting or watering. An observer of a small ecosystem that hosts, filters, shades, feeds, cleans and shelters without much of any input from me.

These reflections aren’t meant to undermine the importance of planning or to speak ill of care-ful living or property ownership. But no matter how much we plan, train, exert ourselves or give consideration to every potential occurrence and consequence, we can’t cause seeds to grow. We can only cast them. And many times we don’t even need to cast seed. The wind is more than capable of this work.

But what are we if not creators? Seed bearers, continuing to generate, though not all we put our hands or minds to will be successful or survive. But still we can make. This gives us hope. It is what we share in common with the rest of the beings on this generous, wild planet.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Most importantly, we can observe. We don't need to have a title to a property to do this. We need only to use our senses. If we pay attention, season after season, we may notice the affects of our interjection and influence on nature’s cycle (of which we are a part). And then, if we are wise, we can apply what we learn to our next action. We can’t guarantee its fruitfulness. Only that we are bound up in its destiny.

While we are still breathing, we can keep making. We can keep looking and then try again.

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