Several years ago I was working on a farm in the southeastern corner of Sicily. I didn’t have much prior experience with farmwork, but I relished getting back out to nature and doing some hard manual labor. Sicily in September is fine and warm, though it suffers from those twin banes of flies by day, mosquitoes by night.
One day I was shown to a patch of land about 10 feet by 15 feet. The owner wanted to turn the patch into a garden; as it stood, the entire area was heavily covered by a variety of weeds. The job would consist of pulling all of the weeds out by hand, making sure to get the roots, and then turning over the soil a few times using hoe and shovel.
The job took the better part of a day, and was a difficult slog against the weeds. The parasitc plants had roots that seemed to burrow endlessly deep, and wouldn’t be yanked out without a fight. I detested the weeds, with their long green leaves splashed with red; I saw them as ugly usurpers of soil nutrients, trying to pass themselves off as beautiful, valuable plants.
Slowly, the pile of torn-up weeds grew, until the formerly overgrown patch was laid bare and brown, with only scraggly stem remnants lying about here and there. I then went to work with the hoe and shovel, tearing and churning up the hard, light brown crust of the soil.
At long last I finished. I stood back, sweaty and tired, and gazed with satisfaction at what I had done. What mere hours before had been a tangled mess of useless weeds and cracked brown earth was now a perfect rectangle of soft, black soil, ready to welcome the seeds of lovely tomatoes, cucumbers, or any other fine, productive plants.
I suddenly felt that I had an insight into the force that led humankind for millenia to reshape the environment around him. There was a feeling of great power in taming nature, in ripping up the unruly and unfocused mess of natural growth and turning it into something controlled, that could be cultivated by the human hand. The bending of nature to man’s will. Over this 10′ by 15′ patch, I was the conqueror, the lord and master.
I was recently reminded of this experience while reading a collection of short stories by Australian authors, specifically a wonderful piece called “The Wasteland” by Frank Dalby Davison. The story concerns the narrator, an Outback farmer and rancher, and his relationship with the small, unoccupied piece of land that lies adjacent to his property. On the surface, the property is a wasteland, no good for growing crops or grazing cattle. Yet the narrator devotes many pages to describing his days and nights wandering amongst the rich natural beauty of the property.
He describes the natural land with biting irony, repeatedly contrasting its wondrous charms with its lack of value in the eyes of land-clearing settlers:
“Beyond the creek rose a high bony ridge, one slope covered with a pleasant but quite valueless forest of slender belahs…the ground life was thick; wallabies flip-flopped out of your way as you rode.”
“The other side was open forest, gum-topped box—a sure sign of worthless land—with scrolls of bark hanging from limb and trunk…fowl of the air, if little else, had a use for gum-topped box country. It was a rare occasion when snowy plumage and sulphur crests, or crimson bodies and blue wings were not to be seen…”
“Here—as often in our land—poverty of soil meant growth of wildflowers…a billow of cream and russet and pale green that brushed about you as you rode through and sent up gusts of warm, tangy sweetness.”
I feel that Davison’s observations can be applied to sedentary people across cultures and historical periods. That drive to tame the Earth is powerful indeed. It is all too easy to write off scrubland as worthless, and thus ripe for transformation into productive farmland, pastures, housing lots, or shopping centers. Yet what great wonders of the natural world do we destroy in the process? Are we truly taming the land and cleaning up nature, or are we erasing it and replacing it with a pale flicker of its former blazing glory?
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.