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Lay of the Land

Summer lessons

It is high summer. The early vegetables are beginning to bolt in the garden, so we'll harvest the remaining spinach and beets and replace them with drying beans. Probably the last week of peas, too. We'll plant some cucumbers in their place and hope they fruit by the time summer ends. Apples are swaying on the early Yellow Transparent, ready to be picked in about a month. I saw my first green tomato today, a promise of things to come.

I saw something else, too. We escaped last year's blight--which comes from the same fungus that caused the Great Hunger in Ireland, what is known over here as the "potato famine"--but this year doesn't look so lucky. And the 48 plants we set out are ones we grew from seed, so we have an almost parental interest in their survival.

Gardening is humbling. A few years ago I lost a peach tree to peach borer, something I had not previously known existed. This year, something has been gnawing at the beans and cabbage. We have replanted several times, and now the beans seem to be outrunning the unseen chompers. But something is still nibbling at the squash seedlings.

As a gardener, I know that nature is complicated and unpredictable. I tend my soil by adding loads of compost every year and by using low-till methods. I weed, well, fanatically, and recycle the weed bodies into more compost. I'm careful to burn or otherwise destroy diseased plants to keep flourishing plants healthy. I don't spray for bugs; I like to say I plant enough for us all and generally, that's true.

But every season, there is some surprise. Too much rain, too little, strong winds, a high point on an insect's development cycle. I can't control nature, even in a space the size of my garden. Every year, I learn something. As a result, I'm a pretty good gardener. But I can't control everything, and every year, I have to adapt to the loss of my spring dreams of the perfect garden.

As I watch the oil spill out into the precious Gulf of Mexico, I think of what the great Robbie Burns said: "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men/ Gang aft agley." He wrote this in a poem to a mouse whose nest he had destroyed with his plow. It's a great poem because it reminds us how complex the natural world is. We're about as much in control as a mouse is.

We've seen some "best laid plans" going far agley (astray) in the last few months. We gardeners learn that we can't control everything, and to live as though our actions have consequences. I wonder if we should not demand that all CEOs have a garden and raise all the food their children eat. They might not be so cavalier about their power over nature then.
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