Monday, February 11, 2013

`Such Peace Is the Best'

Using a formula cobbled together and customized for me by a computational math student, I’ve calculated that the plants in our yard, including four water oaks, two loblolly pines and three sego palms, each year produce some 1,650 pounds of biomass. That includes leaves, needles, cones, acorns, weeds, grass, sticks, bark, mushrooms, lichens and moss, as well as the inedible citrus mutants that fall from trees in the neighboring yard into ours. The old man, a benign Dr. Moreau, has died but his legacy of lemons-grafted-on-grapefruit and tangerines-on-limes lives on. The fruit is pulpy, seed-filled and bitter. If I were more ambitious I might compost, but that’s too much work and I would prefer not to acquire a reputation for being a composter. Instead, we fill flimsy biodegradable bags with yard waste and leave them at the curb, where trash men throw them into a truck with the other trash. 

The motto of the cult of wilderness is one of the silliest of the many silly things written by Thoreau, a very great writer: “In Wildness [frequently misquoted as wilderness] is the preservation of the world.” The source is his essay “Walking,” written as a lecture in 1851 and published posthumously in 1862. Thoreau is always at his best with particulars. Generalities bring out the priggish Yankee blowhard in him. His contempt for ordinary people has something of the Bolshevik about it. He no doubt would feel contempt for our little plot of well-tended ground, which gives me enormous satisfaction. Civilization has evolved to give me a house and yard in the middle of the fourth-largest city in the United States, where I can co-exist happily with the natural world. In “Sunday Afternoon” (Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986, 1995), a poem that might have been composed by a sober John Cheever, Timothy Steele writes: 

“In the tame isolation of my yard
I rake the last leaves. To be respected 

“And loved made sense to me once, but of late
I’m drawn by more workable conceits.” 

The poem concludes: 

“So calm, so settled. Such peace is the best.
And sheltered in the remnants of the day,
I gather what I want, and leave the rest
To the vague sounds of traffic.”

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