A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There’s a large creosote bush colony in the desert that has survived for 12,000 years by cloning itself. It does this under brutal conditions. Not that it is unique. There’s a quaking aspen colony in Utah that has been cloning itself four times longer. It comprises over 100 acres. There are also other earlier examples of successful cloning by plants themselves. Human history suffers by comparison in terms of durability and economy of effort. People’s agriculture only began about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, when it was wet and the soil was rich. Thus life became easier for those who lived there, at least in growing food, although we know the political system was oppressive. Same old story.
Pat and I will head out with the brush mower before too long, and I’ll ask him to cut down what competes with the Larrea tridentata (creosote bush) in the easement area where our road begins. Management was neglected up there, so I filled the void and took over because I like everything I see to fulfill its potential to look good. Creosote bush is evergreen and has a nice shape, like an ice cream cone, only feathery. Rains provide it a modest little yellow flower. When the neighbors next to the road bought a tiny-house type shed, which has more eye appeal then the double-wide they live in, they moved an old shed that was coming apart to nearby our road. It is faded pinkish with a faded gray roof, and the sides are beginning to balloon out. Our old satellite dish on the roof would add a touch of humor, but it’s not worth the effort. There are some stakes at the side of the road, because before we moved in they were going to put up a fence, but they changed their mind. No one likes someone else using their land, but we proved not to be what they had feared.
The venerable plants and animals deserve more respect for their rugged attributes than than they receive. Creosote bush deserves our respect for its ability to thrive under almost unimaginable stress. It can utilize even a half drop of water. When it’s dry it curls its waxy coated leaves to half size. I’ve never seen it drop many leaves, even one year when the fluffy rain clouds ignored us and flew over to rain on New Mexico. The bush was maligned by never to be trusted conventional wisdom, which posited that it prospered by poisoning other plants. Not true. It uptakes water better and utilizes what it takes in better; it’s like an Adam Smith type capitalist; it competes fairly. It is simply more efficient. During the monsoon, we usually get more rain than it requires, so I’m hoping to grow some to about 12 feet high. That would actually make it an impressive sight, and the only one in that particular area. Everything else looks stunted.
I’ve had a foot operation and have to sit in a wheelchair while I recover. My nature is to move about, and immobility has been hard. However, since the pain is abating, I’ve been thinking about how strategic certain plants are, some of them smarter than others, like people. Another smart and strategic plant, one that drives me close to crazy, is Johnson grass, which is not a grass. It’s name comes from the farmer in Alabama who grew it. People who like movies might remember that Hud’s grandfather, played by Melvin Douglas, mentioned that the cattle were probably sick from eating too much of it. It got started on our land when we dropped a load of broken concrete on a fast-eroding area far from the house. The concrete was a real bargain because it had to be moved quickly and no one else was readily available to take it. When it comes to soil I am fierce. I want every bit of soil to stay put; we paid for it and we want it, even if it’s where we rarely view it. I’m aware that such possessiveness might seem strange to some of you, but there it is, and I can assure you it’s not that odd; it is human nature. About three weeks ago, Pat and I dug some of the Johnson grass out because you have to keep it from seeding or there is all hell to pay, and since it it’s been raining the last few weeks, it’s probably seeding right now while I’m immobilized. How frustrating. It’s roots grow deep down and it is rhizomatous horizontally. It ruthlessly surrounds clumps of grass that I want to keep, and it’s hard to get all of the horizontal parts of it out. If you leave a fragment, it will be back. What I fear is not being equal to its stubborness and determination. As it happened, there were a few very small creosote bushes in that area, and Pat and I left them there, hoping they could ultimately stand up to the Johnson grass, but we took out the declared major enemies of small tarbush and catclaw acacia. Long ago I declared war on them, and war is war, but I fight with honor in not using Round-Up on them. A lot of people around here buy big containers of it. Some even used to claim it was safe for you to drink.
Pat grew up in Vermont. He likes running the brush mower best, but, of necessity, we usually wind up digging things. Right now he works an unpleasant local job that pays something like Wal-Mart wages, as does almost every civilian job here. Forget benefits. He works at that often smelly job as many hours as he can tolerate before he might explode in frustration, and I think he finds working outside in the open air as therapeutic as I do. His father was a teacher and coach; his mother was a grade school teacher who was not afraid to challenge the system. Like his father, he went to one of the best private schools in the East and then to Cornell. Probably he was athletic; he watches football and baseball with Gene occasionally, especially baseball. He pays close attention, and Gene says his comments are on target. What was to set him on his path to southern Arizona was fate’s punishment for driving recklessly while under the influence. Fortunately he only hurt himself, so he does not have nightmares about killing or maiming someone else. After the VW bounded off the road into a tree, he was not expected to live. He spent a long time in the hospital. His mom resigned herself to caring for an invalid. To prove he was not a person who was not valid, when he returned home from the hospital he refused all help and crawled up a flight of stairs into his bedroom. He conditioned himself to the point where he could work sorting packages at UPS for several years, and then he worked some other jobs. He also bought an old (or what’s now called vintage) ice cream truck, and this is the vehicle he drove from New Jersey to Bisbee for five days at no more than 50 miles per hour, sleeping in the back of the truck at night. He had decided he wanted to live in Bisbee because he saw a magazine with the story of the hippies coming to Bisbee 20+ years ago, when houses were selling for a pittance. He camped out in a scruffy RV park between Bisbee and Douglas for a couple of years and gradually became a familiar figure, establishing an ice cream route and biking almost everywhere he went. He also spent some time in Mexico learning Spanish.
Gene and I came to know him through a tightfisted woman nearby who had made a deal for him to work for her in exchange for shelter in her old, rickety RV. Probably to avoid the problem of ever giving him any cash when he was short, she called me about him, so I set up a time for us to get together. When I had called Pat about a job, the phone conversation had been brief. A couple of days later I picked him up to show him where we lived. He wanted to be sure our house was pretty close. An amazing question than was asked. What did I like to read. So we talked books until we got to the house.
Pat has a few brain glitches which become apparent when he is stressed. Probably his nature is a little volatile, and after such a traumatic head injury, side effects are to be expected. Treatment for head injuries was not as good then as now. At first when he was mowing and things went wrong with the brush mower, which happened several times, he would fear being blamed, and this would upset him and foster confusion. So I thought that what I needed to do was slow him down. Of course, I am old, female and slower anyway. Eventually he understood that what I care about is doing a job well, not necessarily fast, and that helped him relax. He’s someone who is on his guard against injustice, something you will find if you look for it, but Gene and I always point out that if you can’t do anything to improve a situation, then you just need to move on, and that you need to pick your causes based on what you can accomplish. Fortunately he’s doing yoga as a stress blocker. He’s someone we can count on to stop by if there’s something that needs doing we can’t do, like filling the water softener, and our second son, Quentin, refers to him as our third son.
There is something I’ve carried in the back of my head for a good while, something brought up by Aldous Huxley over 50 years ago, which I’ve never forgotten. The elephant in the room. Overpopulation. Its effect on the environment. Its effect on war. Mostly denied or ignored since Reagan. Conventional wisdom is that the world should produce more people in order to produce more consumption. Not able to move much, I’ve been checking out statistics. I’ll share a few. Population of Egypt, 1960, 28,000,000; 2014, 83,000,000. Approximately 150 countries have population increasing, including all the big ones, with 20 small ones declining. One of the most populous countries is Nigeria, average family size, 8, assuming 2 parent household. More people in Nigeria say they want to emigrate to England than presently live in England, which is very densely populated to begin with. The tenth most heavily populated country is Bangladesh, which will almost certainly be swamped in the not too distant future. The Philippine islands contain the 14th largest population. Indonesia is extremely populous, and as the sea rises these two countries will almost certainly lose land. I know about the view that we consume much more than they do, so such countries don’t matter. But that is nonsensical. It’s a precarious worldwide hill of people with more added all the time, and, like with pebbles, at some point the hill will topple.
Eventually, thinking about billions and billions of people constantly consuming more and more stuff is enough to tire one out. In contrast, what admirable restraint is shown by the plants that have cloned themselves. Century after century after century they have reproduced themselves, while confining themselves to less than a square mile. They have not changed; they have not lost focus. They have not been bothered by emotionality or feeling. They have never, never depended on any economic system. They have restrained themselves, existed and endured.
Copyright 2016 Ruth Clark.
Ruth Clark writes essays and works the land in Hereford, Arizona.