2008 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Coleen Johnston

Coleen Johnston‘s poem “In Spring” appeared in Speakeasy (Summer 2005), and her poetry has been featured in the Art and Poetry Collaboration of Crossings at Carnegie since 2002. Her essay “Walking Brule” won honorable mention in the 2005 Minnesota Literature Essay Contest. She is the author of four books, Garage Sale Decorator: A Pennypincher’s Shopping and Decorating Guide (Betterway Publications, 1989) and The Founders, The Guardians and The Inheritors, a historical fiction trilogy (St. Martin’s Press 1993-94). Johnston holds a B.S. in English from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She lives near Mazeppa, Minnesota, with husband Bruce, and is currently editing the memoir of two years in her woodland garden.

By The Notebook

By Coleen L. Johnston

         My family and I have just moved to 25 acres in southeastern Minnesota’s rolling hills in golden October sunshine. Two weeks later we are already, to quote Wendell Berry, “absorbed into this place like a squirrel in his nest.” At least we think we are.

The place has fifteen wooded acres and ten under cultivation. The driveway is long and winds up a hill into the woods where the winged A-frame has a haunted-house look. People don’t just drop in. But one day, after a month passes in silence, a young man appears at the front door. He asks if we would like to be part of Minnesota’s Woodland Stewardship Project.

Two months later we are the owners of a three-inch thick loose leaf binder filled with information and recommendations for our woodlot, all thanks to this young man who started us thinking about taking care of the flora and fauna comprising our nest. His report tells us how to make trails through the woods for recreation in the most sustainable way; how to plant for wildlife; how to identify common plants and animals; even how to effectively log the property, should that be our desire. It is not. We are tree planters-eager for the next March to come with its delivery of seedlings from the soil conservation office. We start out with red pines and blue spruce for deer cover, lilacs and viburnums for landscaping and bird feeding, arborvitae for-well, just because we can. We are being stewards, we are doing these things for the land, but we also benefit, just as the notebook says we will.

Yet stewardship implies action performed in strength for one in need. As I begin to read more about stewardship, about soils, about trees, about deer and wood ticks, raspberries and ragweed, I begin to realize that I am separating myself from all the rest, considering myself different. I am not absorbed into my nest at all-I’m lying on it as if it were a hammock I’d made. As if it were something completely separate from me, as if my curves and curiosities are distinct-and certainly better-than the nesting material that envelops me.

It takes a couple of years, and considerable time on my knees in the garden, considerable time watering the twenty-five new sugar maples and twenty-five new white pines, the new rose bushes and new hydrangeas, newly divided hostas and Zone 5 plants I can help trying, before I begin to see that my feet are as firmly planted as an oak’s, that I grow out of the soil by the vegetables and meats I eat every bit as much as the oak grows from its own compost and plenty of rain. The title of the song “We Are the World” comes to me one day, and I think “how true”-until I read the words and see that the song speaks only of people. The song brings together people, but being absorbed into the world is far more than a Homo sapiens process. I hold one place in the world just as the porcupine or the maple tree does, though I may do something quite different with it.

In all of my self-righteous stewardship practices, I have been quite certain that I know significantly more about a woodlot than the gold finches. Or the wild geraniums. Or the deer who are now beginning to come around to sample the hostas occasionally. And then I finally get it: I’m just part of the whole-albeit doing my best, as no doubt the gold finch is, too-but in this case, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. For over two years I have thought I was writing the equation of our life in the woods, planting bare spots with my seedlings, clearing paths, cleaning up deadfall. Now I find out that I’m just part of the equation, my X to the rabbit’s Y to the fern’s Z = love relationship = world. Like Wendell Berry on his foray into the deep woods of western North Carolina, it has taken me a while to be absorbed into this nest, but I finally begin to feel it happening. In my case, however, the absorption is not just into the woods, but into the farmland as well.

I am one of a quickly shrinking minority of people still living amid farmland in the United States. Active crop farming goes on all around the property. To the south, on the other side of some woods, lies hay ground where deer walk morning and evening to graze on what one neighbor so lovingly tends for the feeding of his Scottish Highland and Hereford cattle. Corn and/or soybeans are planted to the east, and on the ridge just beyond them I watch the sun come up each day over a small apple orchard. Every first day of spring I mark the sun’s due-east position on the old fence line that divides the orchard from another field that in summer will grow corn or soybeans or hay. My eye delights in the tree rows that parade into the sunrise like a high school marching band where the occasional tuba is out of step. Soon they will wear pink and white plumes on their caps and for a later parade they will put on green, then red polka dots, then gold. For most of the year they wear basic performance black. They are silhouettes as familiar to me as the sun above them.

Oddly, it is the silhouette that tells their story best from my distance. It tells of the careful mowing and fall clean-up that keeps them healthy. It tells of the harsh pruning that renews old wood. It tells, in the careful spacing, of how humans can interact with the world in a way that creates beauty, gives food, gives life and yet does not totally destroy habitat, for here, too, deer roam at night, feasting on apples, sometimes chased by coyotes or the neighbor’s dog. Here raccoons and possums, rabbits and mink all hunt and bear their young and live their lives as unobtrusively as they can so as not to inspire human wrath. The orchard, a human contraption, works because it is part of the world, not separate from it.

Our ten acres to the north, which we rent to another neighbor, is less beautiful for its lack of flowering trees, but no less beautiful for its gently curved slopes and low-intensity farming. Oh yes, it’s seen its share of commercial fertilizer and erosion, yet because it isn’t especially fertile soil, it barely registers on the profit and loss statements of those who would force its production levels. I sometimes think it must feel overjoyed at its own mediocrity. In the eleven years we have owned it, our renters have, without our even asking them, planted the worst-eroded slopes into grass swales they cut for hay, enough to make one big round bale that sits in the field for a few days so that our dogs can bark at it. What do they think it is? What do we know about what it is in terms of all the complex processes that take it from seed to spear in a matter of weeks? How can we ever be absorbed into the world when we feel ourselves so superior to things like dogs and grass, both of which are part of the nest so necessary to our own survival?

My husband and I talk about planting the ten acres into switchgrass so that our spaniels can use it to practice stalking the pheasants and turkeys, and maybe even ruffed grouse, who would surely come to live there, but this idea we must balance against our neighbors’need to rent the land as part of their income, and against my husband’s dream to create a short field landing strip for the Pietenpol Air Camper, a 1938 vintage plane he dreams of building. In these ten acres our dreams, needs and wants find literal common ground. They find it, and they can share it, but they cannot all use it at once. Only one of them can be reality at a given time. For the time being, the neighbors’ need is the greatest and the land produces food crops.

The largest portion of our woodlot separates us from the fields to the west. We have beaten a trail out there following our spaniels, who love the scents of birds that linger on the forest floor, but who also love to trail the alfalfa ground beyond our boundary where even in the dead of summer they can make sparrows fly. They love to run the corn rows, for there, too, pheasants can be found. They love the broad expanses of our world every bit as much as the quiet woods.

The woods, as a source of solace and delight, bring me a richness I could never have imagined until I came to be absorbed into them, but part of the reason for that absorption is that they link us to the farmland. We are this world. We are made of oxygen emitted by the black cherries and basswoods just as we are made of the cornflakes that come from the fields. We do not exist on the world beneath our feet but because of it and as an extension of it. It is in and not just around us. And, we are in it, in some ways we should not be (Chernobyl comes quickly to mind) and in other more satisfying ones, like green waterways and bee-supported apple orchards.

There is a myth about, in industrial thinking, that humans control the earth, which is like saying that the thumb controls the whole body. We may move mountains, as the thumb may text message a novel given enough time and batteries, but while that is happening the rest of the body is moving along quite happily doing an infinite and largely unknown number of other things. Do we love the thumb more than the rest of the body? Do we think it smarter? More powerful? More deserving? More perfect? Do we think it separate from and above the rest of the body because it can complete the gargantuan task of novel writing? We are able to see the thumb as part of the body in a way we are not able to see ourselves as part of the world, having been steeped for centuries in a tea of our specialness, our otherness.

It is humbling, then, to think that the best thing we can do in terms of land stewardship is to leave things alone. Our intellect tells us we can make a healthier world by controlling invasive species, or by restricting use of herbicides and pesticides. In the woodlot, here, that means eradicating the buckthorn and not letting vinca minor escape from the flower beds. It means letting wild flowers grow where they are instead of digging them up and moving them to a place where they may overtake other native species. Before any of this, however, it means finding out what species are native to the area so that we don’t kill off the wrong things. I am dismayed to look up Minnesota’s endangered species and find that the book Minnesota’s Endangered Flora and Fauna by Barbara Coffin and Lee Pfannmuller, is over one inch thick. That many? I confront the lists by county, barely scanning the list of endangered fauna-I’m not really sure I’m all that unhappy that the Eastern spotted skunk is on it, or the ten kinds of snakes. I flip directly to the flora, the kitten tails and valerian, the dwarf trout lily and the glade mallow, the false asphodel and the rough-seeded fameflower. These should be saved for their names if nothing else, and I wonder if they might be growing in my woods without anyone’s knowing it. If they are there, I want to nurture them, help them in any way I can that does not mean also inviting the spotted skunk-a thought which reminds me I have a long way to go if I am ever to be a squirrel in my nest.

Reading of the endangered species, I consider the possibility of recording a botanical inventory of the property, but I do not delude myself that I could undertake a list of the animals; I would not know where to begin. I have no training in the sciences, nothing to work from but books, and so decide to content myself with taking a stab at recording all of the ferns, having a copy of Rolla Tryon’s Ferns of Minnesota at hand. But then, which to include: only those that grow wild, or also those I have planted? By definition, they are all here, all part of the world. My record could indicate whether they are wild or domestic, yet I know that once planted, there is no distinction; they are all part of this world.

Part of me wants the world to always stay the same, yet the world is not a static place and I know it. Endangered species are part of that definition and I must accept that at the same time I don’t cause it to happen. My vision of the world, however, involves how we will continue to absorb ourselves into it most naturally. One day, when I read about the amount of biofuel that might be grown on an algae farm, I see new potential for our ten acres. I see that while the woods will benefit from our benign neglect, the open land, already deprived of its native trees, may be destined for another phase of the earth-to-human-to-earth cycle. Like the apple orchard, these acres may be a place that connects us with other organisms and places and people we cannot yet even imagine.

It is when I read about how switchgrass may be the answer to the biofuel dilemma that I see a way our land and our land-use for spaniels may intersect. If our nest is the place where we dream, perhaps this is a dream we can make come true. If we do not, if we follow the path of benign neglect, or if our renters do, the acres will return to their woodland state within ten years, covered with spindly poplars and gooseberry brush, tiny black cherry and basswood trees coming up below.

We do not have a notebook to tell us how to proceed. We can only ask ourselves what can the land support? What is just for the flora and fauna? And last, but not least, what does love require? The answers may change over time as the world changes, but if we are humble enough and magnanimous enough and wise enough to ask the questions, we can pass our world on to future generations that they might tramp through the woodlands and write their own reports of the ways woodlands link us to production land, production land to wood land, and on. And on.

Airstrip or cornfield, kitten tails or spotted skunk, we are a world that is larger than a single thumb, no matter how erudite that thumb might be. There is no single notebook, three inches thick or three miles thick, that can tell us how to assure that all life forms live in harmony, but opening the door to people like the young man from the Woodland Stewardship Project is a beginning. I step through that same door each day, on my way to the garden or the woods, or to get in the fossil-fuel-burning car I wish I could fill up with biofuel. All of these things, and more, help us to write our own notebook called What to Do to Love the World. The squirrel sits in its nest, writing–writing itself into the world just as I do. I am not in control of the world, but I am in the world. I am in my nest, writing in my notebook, sending my words out into the world to be absorbed like rain into the forest floor.