Ecologies and the Art of Detaching

These days, life feels chaotic on many, many levels. Messy political campaigns occupy the news cycle. People shoot other people, on the battleground and off. Around the globe, all manner of weather makes itself felt, in the form of long-running droughts or onslaughts of rain.

In the midst of all of this, I have found myself turning more inward. The outer and inner worlds are becoming—in my perception—seamless. That means, maybe the best thing we can do to affect the “outer ecology” is to focus on our “inner ecology,” as Peter Kelsey, who founded EcoStewards Alliance in Northern Virginia, advocated. Kelsey, who retired to Florida a few years ago, folded the organization, which was about connecting the two ecologies. Perhaps sometime soon, one of us who was familiar with the work will begin anew.

What strikes me as odd is how many people who support awareness and action on ecological issues such as stopping mountaintop removal mining, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, or putting an end to Monsanto’s monopoly on seeds minimize the relevance of doing inner work.

To them, it seems, a person isn’t doing anything unless working on the outer issues. But again, if the outer reflects the inner, then inner work in itself can take us a long way toward resolving issues that appear to be insurmountable: mining or drilling for fossil fuels, use of herbicides and pesticides, making sure that people who are underserved by the current system have access to wholesome, nutritious food.

Even working on such issues can become an attachment for people. Here, I define attachment as anything that is so embedded in us that without it, we feel adrift, cut loose from a piece of our identity. Attaching is, after all, making something such a part of ourselves that we’d feel lost without it.

As is the way of the Universe, whether we are consciously aware of allowing ourselves to grow or not, we get lessons, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Recently, I got something of a lesson, from a woman who was doing some spraying of the woods on the court where I live. As anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows, I do not advocate the use of biocides of any sort. In Texas, they’ve been spraying to eliminate mosquitoes which carry West Nile Virus. I’d personally rather take the risk of encountering the virus than I would banking on the benigness and lack of long-term repercussions of the chemicals. But that is me. Many people feel differently.

On our court, a few people have pushed for the elimination of poison ivy from the small area around which our townhouses stand. “Kids can’t play in there,” is one of the reasons given. “People can’t walk their dogs,” is another. Frankly, if I had a child or a dog, I would not allow either one to go in there now, because I’d prefer they not track glyphosate around and possibly into the house. The poison ivy, they can learn to identify and avoid; the glyphosate, which we cannot see, we cannot avoid.

Anyway, my partner and I were taking out the compost, when we both noticed that they were again in the woods spraying herbicide. I groaned and probably frowned. And then I said, “Well, I can’t do anything about it. I should let it go.”

I said, “Let’s pick more elderberries.”

As we were doing that, a lady, who was quite bubbly and outgoing, came over and, grabbing an umbel of fennel seeds from our front garden, said that we have a lot in common—that she knows where I’m coming from, motioning toward the woods and my probable disdain of the glyphosate. (I had asked one of the fellows there spraying on a previous occasion what they were putting down; perhaps he had told her about me and my question.)

“You’re farmers, aren’t you?” she said.

“Not really,” I said.

“Urban farmers,” Nick offered.

She introduced herself and we shook hands.

She said something about trying to save the plants that would re-seed, to work around them, that they were just going after the poison ivy.

I felt a piece of anger somewhere start to ignite and just as quickly doused it.

I wanted to tell her that poison ivy is not bad; it’s a native vine; its berries feed birds; it doesn’t take over the way some exotic vines do. But from my potentially angry attitude, what would she actually hear?

It’s not only the demonization of poison ivy that troubles me; the herbicide harms our woods, our soil, our groundwater. It doesn’t matter that our DNA is arranged differently than plant DNA—the fact is, we share all the basic “building blocks.” What harms plants can also harm us. Same with insects.

I did not tell her that, on a landscaping job with Good Earth Gardeners this year, on a bank that slopes down to the Severn River, covered in a strip of poison ivy, my boss and I decided we should pull it by hand, rather than use the “water-safe” herbicide offered by the homeowner. I did the first day of pulling. I double-gloved myself, wore a t-shirt and long-sleeved cotton button-up, apologized to the ivy, carefully bagging it as I went along, and sweated up a storm. I took white oak tincture periodically, just in case. (It’s one of the most effective remedies for contact with poison ivy.) There are alternatives to sprays. They are more work up front, but we then needn’t worry about long-term damage.

I thought to get this lady’s e-mail, maybe send her some information. Instead, I thought better and just went back out and gave her my card. That way, she could contact me, if she wanted. She asked what I did. I’m an herbalist, I said. She was grateful, said it was good then that she could ask me some questions.

We got to talking about a sassafras whose leaves were browning. She thought maybe the glyphosate had drifted up to it. I thought maybe it was the drought.

She told me she said a prayer for each of the plants as she went about her work.

“Mother Nature corrects what we do,” she said.

“Yes, I said, even if we don’t want her to!”

I thanked her for introducing herself. She seems like a good person.

Something about this encounter impressed me, something impressed me about this woman. I felt compassion for her, felt that maybe she should seek out a more ecologically friendly landscaping company to work for, but that maybe also, the fellows there were friends or relatives she was working with. That she prayed for the plants she works around—that impressed me. That energy is…well, it is what it is. It was obvious that she loves plants; if the poison ivy has to be “ridded,” who better could we have asked for than this lady?

I still don’t agree that spraying is the way to go. But I have also been there, when landscaping, even in my own yard, when a plant has stood, say, in the wood-chip path. I thank it for being, wish its comrades well, then pull…and let it go. It returns to the whole cycle through the compost bin.

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