Today my friend and urban naturalism co-conspirator, Brent, and I got our shelves and grow lights together for getting the early seeds started for our community’s gardening adventures of the spring and summer.  We still have to buy bulbs for the light fixtures, but everything else is ready to go.  The next step is to test some of the seeds that we saved from last summer to make sure they will germinate.  This past year was the first time that we had saved seeds from tomatoes, peppers and melons, so I am eager to see how successful our seedsaving effort was.

We have three vacant lots that we will be planting this summer as community gardens and a number of people have gardens in their own yards.  The seeds that we will start indoors will eventually be transplanted to one of these gardens and some, I suspect, might be used in some “guerrilla gardening” projects around our neighborhood.  An essential part of urban naturalism — and one that perhaps distinguishes it from naturalism in other landscapes — is the intentional effort to find new ways to aid in the flourishing of natural life, flora and fauna, in one’s locale.   People complain about the lack of “nature” in urban settings, but what are they doing to help nature to flourish?  And furthermore, I think we have to have a vision of flourishing that goes beyond our own private properties.  (A number of my favorite writers have fleshed out this idea using the idea of “commonwealth,” especially Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.  My friend Joe did a great review of McKibben’s Deep Economy last year that gets to the heart of the notion of commonwealth.)  So, guerrilla gardening is one way we are just starting to explore as a means to assist in the flourishing of public and vacant spaces in our urban neighboorhood.  Brent did an excellent review last week of Richard Reynolds’ recent book, On Guerrilla Gardening: A handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.  It’s worth your time to look at that and I suspect that you will see much more here about our forays into guerrilla gardening as we roll into spring and summer.

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On Tuesday, I hiked out to the largest unused “wild” space in our neighborhood, which I have decided to call “The Wilds.”   This strip of land lies at the southern end of the Englewood neighborhood,  is about 300 feet wide and spans that entire end of the neighborhood from East to West.  You can see most of this area from the following Google satellite photo.

Those are railroad tracks that run along the center of the photo from left to right, and as best I can tell The Wilds is owned by the railroad company, but about one-third of it, the strip along the northern edge, is undeveloped.   There is a strip of forest about 40 feet deep that butts up against the development (mostly industrial) just north of this land.  Just to the south of the forest strip is a strip of thick prairie-like grasses and small trees that range in height from 3 to 6 feet.  This prairie strip is about 60 feet wide.  The remaining land on this strip is composed of the railroad tracks and strips of mowed grass on either side of the tracks.

I saw some signs that this property does get some human traffic (litter, footprints) and knowing our neighborhood, some of the activities that go on here (mostly after dark, I presume) are undoubtedly nefarious.  However, especially considering its location in the middle of the city, and its being almost completely surrounded by human develpoment, the signs of human use of this land were relatively few.  This fact could possibly be attributed to the present winter season, so it will be interesting to see if it still seems so “wild” come spring and summer.  The forest and prairie strips at the northern end teemed with all manners of plant and animal life.  I saw a flock (is this the right word?) of 7 or 8 cardinals, some other random birds that I couldn’t get a good look at and a number of bird’s nests, including one on a small tree in the prarie area that was so low that I could look down into it; for anyone who is wondering, it was empty.

As I was walking about on this land, I was thinking about how peculiar it was that this land exists relatively untouched in the middle of the city, which got me to thinking about wild spaces and developed places and the relationships between the two.  I was reminded of the following passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “Preserving Wilderness” (in the book Home Economics):

. . . If I had to choose, I would join the nature extremists against the technology extremists, but this choice seems poor, even assuming that it is possible. I would prefer to stay in the middle, not to avoid taking sides, but because I think the middle is a side, as well as the real location of the problem.

The middle, of course, is always rather roomy and bewildering territory, and so I should state plainly the assumptions that define the ground on which I intend to stand:

1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.

2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.

3. That we depend upon what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.

4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.

5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place-which means, ultimately, the good of the world.

6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical   way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.

7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.

What these assumptions describe, of course, is the human predicament. It is a spiritual predicament, for it requires us to be properly humble and grateful; time and again, it asks us to be still and wait. But it is also a practical problem, for it requires us to do things.

In going to work on this problem it is a mistake to proceed on the basis of an assumed division or divisibility between nature and humanity, or wildness and domesticity. But it is also a mistake to assume that there is no difference between the natural and the human.

Hmmm… A lot to think about there as I continue to explore “The Wilds.”