On the one hand, I like things arranged, prearranged, thought through, and settled. I want to work with things to make them better rather than shaping them into another image of themselves. Since things can never be the way they were, I choose a direction (of which I am dead certain I am right) and begin to rearrange the things in my life to fit the audience.
On the other hand, I love chaos, radical change, and uncertainty. I think of myself as the bad guy, the spoiler and despoiler. Infused with the ardor of the socialist, I am critical of myself and my participation in American capitalism, and of the refusal of Americans to sacrifice for their alleged environmental concern. I am willing to sacrifice the short-term material well-being of many to secure the long-term survival of a natural world—and ultimately, the human species.
It goes on like this with me endlessly, depending on the issue. Since, perhaps, no one can rightly be called one thing or another, one can know, in specific, what one wants and likes, and how those desires relate to physical natural, the culture whence one comes, and the human species in general.
This, then, leads me to a short inventory related to the natural and human worlds. The inventory, like gravity, brings me back to center, holds me to the ground, and if honest enough, will balance ideal with reality and make me look at myself and the hill in vastly different ways than I have until now. Hopefully, it might resolve a few or more of the inner tensions that have kept me from deciding what to do with the hill, if anything, and how.
- All things-native and exotic should grow as they seed (a proposition which causes innumerable difficulties all by itself). Land should be left as one finds it. Water runs toward the river, the river floods, and this is good. The air needs to be clean, the water clear (or not, depending), and the soil safe and poison free.
- A human should not eat meat, fish, or fowl when he or she can eat plants.
- Being hooked to the electrical grid, the water, electrical, natural gas, telephone systems are ways of life. I’ve chosen to call cars, grocery stores and hardware stores necessities (and by proxy, delivery of food over many thousands of miles). I watch television by miracle of cables strung on poles and talk to people over radio waves on my cell phone.
- Everything in paragraph 2 and 3 contradicts the priorities in paragraph 1. Americans control floods and alter land to grow food. The mine, drill, pulp, transport, and refine minerals, metals, and oil. Driving, watching television, being on the Internet, and being hooked to energy and water resources demands exploitation of natural resources and despoliation of the natural environment to accomplish. My mere participation in society spoils the earth, air, and water, and contributes to a capital system I find despicable. I want to dig in the ground, and indeed find it pleasurable.
- To ease the tension between the realities of 3 and the wishes of 2 and 1, I must decrease my demands in 4 to further my priorities in 1. Then, I have to figure out how to feed myself.
- Conclusion: Gravity hurts.
When it comes to the hill in my backyard, then, I have a couple of things to think about before I start jacking around with it. First, my association with it is elliptical: I change it. It changes me. But we are both altered by the process and enter into a new set of conditions that shift in every moment, with every puff of breeze and drop of rain.
Second, the hill, much like home, is a human-made construct. Changing human-made things can have as much cultural significance as changing physical nature, particularly if those human-made things have historical import. This hill, however, is mostly fieldstone, coal ash, plumbing, and broken pieces of curbs and sidewalks—things no one cares about but me for the moment. My childhood home was mess of arbitrary and unsafe relationships, another form of fill, detritus. It’s all right, I think, to re-form the hill as much as it is to make the reformation of the hill a part of my definition of home. No historical or cultural society will object to my fiddling with the landscape in either place. My parents have nothing to say about the way I establish a home and work with my family (wife and daughter) to make it a safe place for all of us.
Still, coming to a decision to rebuild the hill and make a home takes time. I start knowing that gravity, both of the earth and of the past, will be both my greatest restraints and best tools in this reformation. The opposition to effort, the resistance, represents work. “Human labor is energy,” writes Richard White in The Organic Machine. “We cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history.” It is by work, White says, that humans know nature. And since I think humans are a part, rather than apart from the natural world—even as they define it in words, ideas, and cultural concepts and it defines them in terms of speciation, nutrition, hydration, and even aspiration—knowing nature through work leads us to know ourselves. Gravity and history create the personal and universal forces I incorporate into the re-formation of the hill and redefinition of home. The rocks stay in a pile until I move them, stack them into a wall. Once stacked into a wall, they stay there until other forces or I unstack them.
I have enough experience to know I am not alone, that more forces than personal and natural gravities work on this project, on this sort of life rebuilding. I realize, from years of moving soil, how much it weighs and what happens if it is not restrained. Still, I let myself dawdle, because as much as I like change, shifting boundaries, and chaos (and the order therein), I like stasis. Stasis, another form of gravity, is not generally static. Rather, it is rife with growth. The rolling stone changes shape and size because it bumps along the bottom of the stream. The stationary stone comes alive with moss, aquatic insects, arthropods, amphibians, and fish eggs. I had come to like the grasses and weeds that grew up on my hill over the summer months. A bare swatch of ground on the incline, too steep to sod and mow, had come to life. Dozens of grasses and tree saplings had grown tall, and in their cover, songbirds had thrived. These things had a place here, as did the creatures that came with them, pleasant and pest. Re-imaging the space was difficult. I desired a place for mosquitoes and humans, for snakes and dogs, for aging statuary and weed. It was there already and gave little reason to change it. It had become a place that was good for its own sake, a place to enjoy, a metaphor for the workings and maturation of my inner life.
What prompted me to action is a single act on the part of my wife, a much different person than me. The seasonal transformations that changed the flora and colors on the patch of unkempt ground mesmerized me. Last fall, I walked out to listen to the wind rattle bony stems against one another and whisk among broom-like branches. I was surprised, and even angry, when the moon revealed my wife had scythed all the browned weeds and grass, all the elm and cottonwood saplings. Something was gone that would not come back, at least for another year.
The silver smooth patch demonstrated the way two people view physical nature. One saw the evil of growth in the lack of human hegemony. The other viewed chaos as order. Both versions of the hillside are human-made and human-tended: the weedy patch intentionally weedy in the midst of lawn harmony; the mown patch as park-like order. The patch before and after, further, showed something of the identities of the people involved with the earth, its alteration, its expression. What mitigated my disappointment was that sometimes things, even inside, change. Eggs hatch. Winter comes and freezes the creek, kills the moss on the stone. That season is gone. No amount of scolding or anger or regrowth was going to make things the way they were. It was time to build on what was there, to roll a stone and see what happened. My wife solidified my intention to alter the hill.
While the incline and its physical features fit the purposes of a certain type of gardener, one that might want to create a haven for the prairie and woodland birds of this area, my wife’s deed revealed the hill served my desires but little. I realized I wanted more yard. Not much, just more than the narrow fifteen feet that lay between the hill and my house. My need wasn’t great, and I had thought for a long time of letting the yard tangle up, become dark. As an outdoor person in an inner-city neighborhood, I find open space all around me. But I wanted, for reasons of home, a space that I tended. Where my wife, child, and I could go and sit. Where we could let the dogs out without having to leash them. Plus, I wanted air. Space for my mind to run around in. A place to sleep outside at night.
Second, I wanted to choose what to plant and have a place to plant them—blueberries (of which I have never eaten too many), fruit trees, and grapevines. In short, I desire to impose my order on the hill. The only way to plant my garden on an incline is create flat spaces. The only way to gain flat space when faced with an incline is to figure out a way to make it flat.
The weedy patch’s passing had much to do with gravity holding soil in place. Gravity pulls everything toward the center of the earth. Other forces move things out. The way to hold a hill in place when it’s made flat is with rock walls. It’s a funny thing about a hill, and a hill when it’s altered for form terraces behind rock walls. Once the walls are in place, gravity takes care of the rest. It’s getting the pieces into place that’s the challenge.
 For a discussion of this sort of inner conflict and transformation, and how it relates to culture, see Slaughter, Thomas P. “Chapter Nine, Travels” and “Chapter Ten, Gardens” The Natures of John and William Bartram (Vintage, New York, 1996), 197-257; and Worster, Donald. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1977), 343-348.