Sense of Place ~ The Layers Part Two
Wendell Berry, among others, writes about love of place. If you love a place, you’re not likely to destroy it. In the first of this series, I wrote about love of place as a child loves place, knowing place as a child knows place. To know place and to love place are not the same thing, yet they are inextricably interwoven. To love a place is to know that place, and to know that place is to love it.
Part Two continues to address the question, “How do you come to know and love place?” Many windows of discovery open onto this question, making it hard to know where to start. But I think I’ll continue with a basic principle of permaculture. Observe. Don’t do anything. Simply observe, over the course of the seasons. That’s easy to say now, six years into our move to northern New England. In 2007 my husband Jim and I – desperately trying to accomplish the move from southern Maryland to rural New Hampshire before the first snow – arrived in mid-November.
Being not at all observant, we parked our haul-everything truck along the east flank of the house, out of the way, we were thinking. As it turned out, we were right about that. Out of the way of everything but the snow, which, once it began its constant winter descent from the metal roof, buried our truck for the next six months. We bought an ancient snow-blower from Craig’s List, and when, after just a couple weeks, the first of several parts broke; three weeks later we were still waiting for its replacement. A lot of snow can accumulate in three weeks. After losing access altogether to our front door, we learned too late to shovel our outdoor steps and pathways on a regular basis. We learned a few other things that first winter having to do with tires, cell phones, flares, dry gas. We learned that it’s not smart to cut a hole in the outdoor wall of a house mid-February to run the stove pipe, especially when the snow-blower is broken and our driveway impassable.
We didn’t do much better come spring. New Hampshire has a strong permaculture community, and although we weren’t yet connected in a human-to-human way, or even a human-to-non human way, certain admonitions floated their way through grocery lines, hardware store conversations, garden catalogs. “Do no planting in the first year. Simply observe.” Track the path of the sun, winter, spring, summer, and fall. Watch where the groundwater gathers and runs off. Note the part of your yard (if you have one) that is the first to warm; note which part stays frozen. Given that we were dreaming of fresh peas and spinach, pole beans and yellow waxed beans, squash both summer and winter, tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, eggplant, sweet peppers, and cauliflower, that was not welcome advice and so we summarily dismissed it.
When it came time to choose the spot for our garden, it was a little like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. We turned around a few times and then pointed. There. There’s our garden. We roto-tilled deeply and were ecstatic to see dark, rich, loam. I planted a row of beans in April. A week later they succumbed to the frost. I planted sweet peppers (starters, not seeds), egg plant (seeds – hah!) which either froze or never germinated. I waited until the second week of May to plant tomato starters; they froze before the end of the month. I planted cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower – a pre-dinner snack for the slugs and cabbage moths. I planted vegetables that drowned in standing water, vegetables that burned in the sun, seeds that simply stayed in the ground. I planted dinner for the slugs and cabbage moths.
The weeds, however, thrived; the rototiller had brought them into the light. We hadn’t thought much about the deer which had gorged all winter on our sunflower mix. They ate the lettuces and the leaves of the beans. They ate the swiss chard and kale. They ate the tops of the beets. They even ate the tulips!
Jim threw together some posts and wire, in the shape of a rectangle, and developed a Rube Goldberg kind of watering system with sprinklers and hoses – just a temporary fix – which, of course, now six summers later – is still in place. We slaved over that garden.
But observe? Not a chance. Mere observation, however, isn’t enough; more is required. To know a place through observation is to open mind, heart, and spirit to receive – to ingest – what we are seeing and perhaps hearing. It’s about breathing in the data, breathing in so deeply that what our senses have noticed becomes part of our blood stream, part of our life energy. We don’t have to do anything with it other than receive it. It’s really about baby steps – coming to know our human selves as part of all that surrounds us, of all that is under our feet. It’s to know that we share the same air and the same water with all things not human.
Part 3 will begin here, with what it means to receive, what it means to allow the subjects of our observations to speak to us, to reveal their own secrets – not fully, of course. Never fully, but in ever deepening relationship.