"The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."By this time 6 years ago Lori and I had abandoned a quixotic quest for one rural property and, on the rebound, visited two others. We felt utterly no connection with one of those, but the other one lingered in our souls like a song you can't get out of your head. Still, we retreated; hesitant to jump at one pretty place just because we had been denied another. We thought about other things. We talked about the weather. Eventually we called the realtor and initiated a second look which led to an offer which led to a counter-offer and a counter to the counter...and signatures on a purchase agreement. Two months later we were arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and nervously, almost wordlessly wondering what in the world we had done. The ten rural acres that, in the coming months, would be named Taproot Garden was ours.
At least the legal documents on file at the courthouse attest to that premise.
But the very first time we walked around the property after making it our home we couldn't shake the recognition that that description was more technical than real. It was an insight only deepened during the subsequent winter when, with little else to do, I picked up the property's abstract and read the story of this land. Acquired in the 1800's by the U.S. Government through a treaty with the resident Native Americans, this parcel has variously welcomed and endured numerous settlers -- "owners" -- who have come and gone, bought and sold, cleared and planted. Whatever we do while settled here, and however long we stay, our fingerprints will quickly dissolve into the smear of those left here previously amidst the land's ongoing story.
It's not that our presence here is immaterial. We have cut trees; we have planted others. We have planted prairie grasses and wildflower seeds. We have plowed ground. But it's hard to assert much of a case for primacy. Regardless of how many thistles we dig out, countless others find their way up and out of the soil in spite of us. Regardless of how much we clear away the growth around the fruit trees, by the time we turn our backs to walk back into the house its re-encroachment is already under way.
Who, then, is the most significant player on this precious parcel of ground? Who really "owns" this land? Is it us with our deeds and abstracts and power saws and earth augers and tillers and hoes and irrigation systems? Is it the deer who routinely traverse the property indifferent to our presence? Is it the dandelions loosening the packed soil? Is it the bees hived just before the treeline who pollinate the flowers and the trees? Is it the earthworms beneath the surface or the trees standing watch around the edges? Is it the birds who overfly, or the garden snakes who do their part?
Or is the very question, as Muir hints in the opening quotation, an absurdity in its assumption of any hierarchy at all? Is it arrogance or is it insecurity -- or an even more destructive ignorance -- that leads humans, completely alone among all these other players and the literally billions of others, to posit such a dwarfing stupidity as superiority?
I only know this: when I see the squash vine blackened and withered, despite my most valiant efforts, by a squash bug; or when I see a ripening plum on a branch where only months ago was but a naked branch; or when I pinch a young cucumber off the vine after I had simply dug a hole and dropped a seed...
...I can do little more than note the swelling gratitude that overtakes me for the privilege of participating, in these few tiny ways, in the immense wonder of it all. Along with the bees and the worms and the butterflies and blossoms; with the seeds and the fruits and the sun and the rain; with the innumerable microscopic factors and fungi at once inhabiting and nourishing the soil, we make a pretty good chorus. All of us -- each of us -- simply singing our part.