It’s spring in my neck of the suburban Midwest, which means the denizens of this fine region are finally extracting themselves from their abodes after a long winter’s Netflix binge.
Today was the first day in a long while that I sat on the back patio working and reading into the late evening. As the sun went down, I looked up at the blue and pink sky, etched with upward bound jet contrails. The birds’ calls and responses were occasionally drowned out by the neighbor screaming “you better fucking behave” to an unheard child and various SUVs emanating with cool bass beats as they drove through the alley behind my backyard. In short, it was an idyllic scene conducive to a postmodern communion with “nature.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about nature lately. Or, at least, how humans interact with nature. I am currently filling in for an undergraduate environmental literature class, and we just finished reading Wendell Berry, including his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” In the poem, the speaker orders, “Give your approval to all you cannot/ understand. Praise ignorance, for what man/ has not encountered he has not destroyed./ Ask the questions that have no answers.”
What a charge. For Berry, ignorance is bliss; it is survival. What I don’t know I cannot hurt. And, perhaps more pointedly, what I don’t know perhaps cannot be known.
Berry is anti-capitalist and pro-environment. His work centers around a return to the land, that is to say sustainable farming, understanding the need for things like biodiversity, hard work, and labors of love. But to be anti-capitalist and pro-environment means much, much more, and for many people, his life is impossible, especially in a world increasingly predicated on debt-accumulation in order to purchase land. Capitalism doesn’t let anyone exit gracefully.
Instead, looking past Berry to decolonizing our local environment, the place we are here and now instead of where we dream we will be, is a better place to begin. As the golden light of evening fell on the eastern fence of my small city backyard, I looked across the small patch of land that is my “farm”—to be fair, we’ve tilled up half of it and have two active compost piles. In the middle of the yard, a bit of preserved grass increasingly turning to weeds has bloomed with dandelions and other small flowers. A few dandelions stems stood tall among the rest, half-used globes of white fuzz stretching upward to give its seeds the best chance at strong trade winds.
I felt ashamed for thoughts earlier in the day. I had been admiring the beautifully manicured lawns of the neighbors, cognizant of the discipline and punish fertilizer and seed regimen necessary to birth such perfection. At that moment, I looked out over where I was now and wondered: How did we ever come to know dandelions as weeds?
Because we are told so.