Chapter one in Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein is titled ‘Unbecoming a Gardener.’ The word unbecoming is left undefined but context allows of many meanings. It can refer to the horticulture Stein describes, of today’s suburban yards and gardens, their foundation plantings, few trees, ground covers, lawns. Such is unbefitting a gardener because ill suited to maintain fecundity. It tears apart and eradicates the complex biological communities which assure fecundity. Such horticulture is unwise even for toil demanded of the gardener. He now must stake the cultivated ornamental whose wild counterpart was stiffened to withstand wind and rain by competition and poverty of soil. He must rely on arsenals of pesticides to keep at bay the aphid which earlier was food for ladybugs. Unwise also, because the sanitized land “needs feeding, watering, planting, cultivating and pest control, whereas before it managed all these things itself.”
Unbecoming can also refer to journeys of undoing. Stein describes clearing their parcel of land, a plot of unkempt appearance where “footsteps stirred up flights of grouse” only to realize that bird and bullfrog, moth, butterfly and turtle, woodchuck and fox were taking leave. Landscaped grounds, stylish garden, and daylily border had ended as faunal desert. That realization the beginning of a second journey, a second unbecoming. Might we be able, Stein asks, to “bring back some portion of the missing animals lists,” to reverse the process of habitat destruction which suburban development has wrought across the land? Could we be successful producing bounty of food in yards and gardens which are also habitable to creatures of the wild?
Slowly but steadily each year, since my own journey on a bare-but-lawn, one-acre suburban subdivision lot began, more of the missing creatures visit or stay. A decade passed until, with hazel- heart- and other trees producing nuts some squirrels moved in. Then chipmunks found the stone wall, and brush piles under which to tunnel up, from which to make forays for the leavings under bird feeders, and announce springtime with insistent chucking sound. A droppings corner in the barn revealed some creature’s wintering quarter, probably that of the possum mother I met in the sheep’s grass area, three babies clinging to her back.
Bringing back songbirds to a yard bare of cover involved a long, early period with post-mounted nesting boxes. Hundred forty trees of some 40 species later, with cover and food in hedge and shrub and vine, birds now nest in branches and the boughs of hop vine, in the soil sieve by a compost bin, in coral honeysuckle and on the lamp by a little used door, in vitex hedge and on the barn’s bat house. Bluebirds adopted a woodpecker’s nesting hole in the trunk of a dead maple luxuriously covered by Virginia creeper vine.
Return of birds also involved much discovery learning. The vitex hedge planted as nectar source for honey bees proved a winter granary for birds. Buckwheat planted as cover crop and nectar source in unused garden beds, and accidentally left after bloom, drew throngs of birds to clean off the nutlet fruits. Four Carolina buckthorn trees whose first, heavy bloom in June of this year coincided with the basswoods’, caused overtime work frenzy for the two hives of bees. On October 20, a flock of migrating robins stopped for one frenzied hour to feast on their load of black berries.
Pileated woodpecker, sharp shinned hawk, brown creeper, indigo bunting, screech- owl pair and juncos are among occasional bird-visitor delights. The now regular seasonal or stays, from ruby hummingbird and towhee and bluebird, to the mourning doves, chickadees, wren and nuthatch, titmice, sparrows and finches, woodpeckers, cardinal and others are no less enjoyed for beauty, cheerfulness and song, and constancy of presence or return.
When the barred owl’s occasional night call is hauntingly near, do the pine mice shiver which scavenge under leaf mulch in the orchard? And the white footed mouse in the duck barn? And the rabbits, which claim grazing right to the sweet-potato bed in summer and leave tracks throughout snow-covered paths and beds in winter?
Garter and other snakes have visited; a black snake clan has permanent residency. One or other of the garden’s compost pile yields up a cluster of eggs, or of young snakelets, almost every summer. Elders’ outings are forever intensely watched and announced by blue jays, crows, other birds, with chorus of protest.
Not always is face-to-face encounter a public affair. I had privilege of four private meetings with elder black snake, during one week, two summers ago. Accidentally found her coiled on a hay bale in the sheep barn. Went for rendezvous again at the same time, the next day, and three days after that. Two punctual presences. Then, on day five, the witnessing. Between pallet board and hay she freed herself to glossy new form. I took the scaly old skin, still moist, measured it. Sixty-two inches. It is still intact.
In Mary Oliver’s rendezvous, related in New Poems
The black snake -- jellies forward -- rubbing -- roughly -- to take
off the old life -- I don’t know -- if she knows -- it will work.
At the back of the neck-- the old skin splits.-- The snake shivers --
but does not hesitate. -- He inches forward. -- He begins to bleed through -- like satin.
Butterflies have arrived. On milkweed and nightshade weeds, currant bushes and butterfly bush, vitex and sunflower and vegetables, and wildflower weeds in bloom. Admiral, monarch, and skippers, sulphurs, whites, and coppers, swallow tails and others. Along with them, on the bed of four o’clock and on bee balm, buckwheat, rugosa rose and tansy, chives and thyme and scarlet runner beans-the hummingbird sphinx moth, tussock and other moths, wasps and bee and bumblebees, ladybug beetle and praying mantis, ants and flies of many stripes. How much of beauty, of competing and diverse life can a small plot still bear, how generously nature still rewards small opportunity.
The extraordinary richness of visiting life on milkweed plants was this season’s most enjoyed discovery. What abundance of golden aphid and abandon of lady bug. What comings and goings. Oh nectar filled cup.
The season’s other discovery was the bullfrogs’ opportunistic spreading to new territory. From the small artificial duck pond they had inhabited for several years, to an old claw-foot tub moved under a downspout this spring as rainwater reservoir for garden watering. Even well-mulched beds, with such droughts as have lingered in east Tennessee in recent summers, need every drop of water they can get.
A three-some of bullfrogs took possession of the tub after the first rain, and never left until hint of frosty nights. The gardener’s intent thwarted. A stump placed by the tub as stand for watering cans became instant perch. A board put to float on the water’s surface to prevent bird and squirrel drowning became so as well. From these posts-and even from the tub’s slippery rim--the bulls defended their new territory, foiling water withdrawal. But how do they maintain sureness of footing on bare, slick, enamel rim?
For a homesteader, the question of produce yield remains, of course. Will bounty of food be assured from the garden when milkweed, wild mallow, plantain, clammy ground cherry and other weeds are allowed some space and pesticides and other poisons kept out? The answer, assuredly, is Yes. Sara Stein affirms the fecundity question thus:
“We sow seeds and think we know something about growing plants, yet the number of seeds we plant are a spoonful compared to the oceans of seeds planted by other animals that in their combined feasts and feces, travels, tramplings, burrowings and stashings clothe the world in greenery.”
Bounty to stock a pantry is only the material reward a gardener can reap. Bounty of greenery and creatures, beauty, song, life, is the other.