Month: October 2012

Naturally Unnatural

I’ve been reading a thought-provoking book, The Conscientious Gardener : cultivating a garden ethic, by Sarah Hayden Reichard. Every gardener should be aware of the issues Ms. Reichard raises — water use, how we treat our soils, whether to use fertilizer, attitudes toward animals and “pests.” The book is informed by the ideas of Aldo Leopold and proposes a “garden ethic” similar to Leopold’s land ethic.

It includes a chapter on gardening with native plants. I had always assumed that a garden of native plants would be inherently virtuous, pure and green. Native plants would be adapted to the local conditions and so would not require as much care as imported species, so by turning my 50 x 120 foot patch of ground into a miniature Garry oak meadow I would be helping to restore a rare ecosystem. To do that, however, I would have to remove the four rather large non-native trees on the place (an Ailanthus and three Norway maples) and a jumble of other imported species, some introduced by me, others by former occupants and still others that just drifted in. In other words, to make my garden a purely native one I would have to raze the existing plantscape. And even then, there’s still the matter of the house, driveway and surrounding suburbia. Finally, a 50 x 120 foot Garry oak meadow, however commendable, wouldn’t do much to restore the original ecosystem around here, especially as there are indications that the native peoples used fires to maintain it, not possible where there is a permanent burning ban.

Personal preferences and circumstances aside, Reichard suggests that “going native” may not necessarily be the best choice for the conscientious gardener. She points out issues that most gardeners would not be aware of while rushing to stock their gardens with “native plants,” such as a phenomenon called “outbreeding depression,” in which hybridization of different genotypes of a species results in less-fit forms of that species. This means finding out where the plants you intend to purchase come from, something that may not be easy to accomplish. Both wild-collected plants and those cultivated far away and under different conditions than those in your region are not good choices. Rather than creating instant “native plant gardens,” Reichard suggests learning about the native flora of one’s region and getting involved in local efforts to preserve it.

Selecting plants suited to your climate and soil is always the best choice, even if some of them are not “native.” Wetland plants such as red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) or foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) would be poor choices in my sandy soil, even though they are native to my region. Rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa), many spurges (Euphorbia species) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), none of them natives, do well here. Of course there is also the issue of avoiding or at least managing plants with invasive tendencies, especially if you garden near relatively undisturbed native landscapes.

Gardening is inherently unnatural. The gardener always interferes with plants to some extent, if only by managing whatever is growing in a place already, like the native peoples of our region did with the meadows where camas bulbs grew. Gardeners who enter into a true relationship with the land on which they garden, observing and learning about all its inhabitants, necessarily make wiser choices and perhaps do less damage than those with an attitude of dominance. Before we ever stick a spade into the earth (or hire a contractor), we should examine our mental model for a garden and whether it is in harmony with the actual, physical place it is to occupy, or a violation of that place. The conscientious gardener, I think, would seek to befriend the earth rather than subdue it.

In this garden, the unnatural business of leaf management is under way.

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Is It Bad to Say “It Was Bad”?

In the past few months I’ve been alerted to words that writers should avoid. “Had,” “that,” any word ending in -ly and now “was.”

In a recent meeting of my critique group someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?

This is a tough one.  You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.”  But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.

And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).

Reading something at work the other day, about standards for metadata, I found the following:  “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.

I’ve already written a post about this, I realize.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on (with the offending words italicized):

Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance.  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes:

By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

So now there are 3 “was/weres”, rather than 6, but is the result that much better?

With respect to my fellow writers, I think that before counting instances of  “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of  “was”.

Rain and Distractions

Rain at last! That’s the note in my garden record for October 12. Eight millimeters fell that day and a further eight yesterday. As I write it’s raining hard — ten millimeters so far today and much more to come, judging by the big green and blue rain blobs on the radar image provided by Environment Canada’s website.

The first major rain of the autumn begins the closing down of the garden year for me. There is still a lot to be done in the garden, notably the Rake Dance as leaves fall, but the active growing season is winding down in a wet welter of falling foliage and coloured collapse.

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

The close of the gardening season is the beginning of Serious Writing Season. From October to March is an ideal time to write. Darkness comes early and there are few outdoor diversions. The writer can go into her cave and create. So is this writer doing that? Not really. After a hot critiquing session last week I’m busy with revisions to one of my novels, muttering and grousing all the way.

A new word (for me) has been added to the list of Words To Avoid: was. A 3-letter word that’s ever so useful. I’ve had little trouble getting rid of “-ly” words, “some,” “just” and even “that.” But “was?” Just try writing a descriptive paragraph in past tense without using it. And I refuse to create elaborate word-structures to substitute for it. Hence the muttering and grousing. My solution in situations where a supposed Writer’s Sin doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix is the Delete key. If you can’t fix it, shoot it. Not a bad idea in a novel of 160,000 words.

In a post-crit snit, I started an entire blog post questioning the inherent, passive evil of “was.” But I’m not sure I’ll ever flesh it out into a postable screed that isn’t petty, snit-induced frothing. I have to do some research first. And just because I find stuff on the internet do I have to believe it? Only if it agrees with me. There’s the problem.

The business of revising and rewriting is serious, however. There is a real difference between the niggly, picky business of revising an old work and the white-hot flight of creativity involved in creating a new one. The writer’s brain (this writer’s brain, anyway) is in two entirely different modes, which is why it’s impossible (for me) to alternate a bit of revision with a bit of new writing. It has to be one or the other.

Endless revision is an inherent danger for the author whose works exist only as ebooks, which are infinitely revisable without the natural concluding effect of putting a work into print. I wrote a blog post about this once.

And then there’s blog post writing mode. I’m not sure what that does to the brain, but it’s a distraction from both revision and fresh writing. Which is why this post ends here.

Feeling Thankful for…

…a decent crop of truly vine-ripened tomatoes because of the unbroken warm, sunny weather we have had since the end of July.

Day after day with virtually no wind, a rare occurrence here.

Success in rescuing my grown-from-a-cutting rose “Fragrant Cloud” from a near-moribund state this spring.

Aster frikartii “Monch,” now blooming well after being transplanted from maple root infested ground last spring. I noticed that it was getting smaller and weaker every year so decided it was time for it to find a better home. Here it’s sharing the spotlight with Gaura “Cherry Brandy,” which has been in continuous bloom for 3 months.

This dahlia which has occupied its present spot for several years, survived some fairly cold winter episodes and blooms reliably every year. Not subtle or elegant, but admirable just the same.

The first year this garden has had serious attention by deer could have been worse (but too bad about the hostas, daylily and bergenia blooms, pea patch, etc.) All in all, on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day, I am feeling grateful for the past gardening year with its ups and downs, and hoping the forecast for rain next weekend proves to be accurate (because I am sick of watering).

But yes, feeling grateful just the same.

The Urge to Cull

Yesterday I was browsing around the displays at a local garden centre, admiring the clever combinations of new varieties in autumnal colours and wondering if I would find something absolutely necessary for my admittedly overcrowded beds. I happened to overhear a conversation among three prosperous looking middle-aged women. One was holding forth vehemently about the injustice of being a gardener in a place where urban deer were not being “culled.” It was simply outrageous, she said, to expect gardeners to erect fences and other barriers to keep the pests out. Something Must be Done. I knew that if I stayed within range, there was a good chance that I would intrude into the conversation with what would be distinctly unpopular opinions, so I moved farther away, but as always seems to be the case when you’re hearing something you don’t want to, it was almost impossible not to. (Besides, people used to expressing strong opinions often have carrying voices). So I left.

A post about urban deer has been inevitable since they became more populous in this area a year or so ago. I had my first visit by a buck last March, as I reported in earlier posts. He ate quite a number of plants here, but certainly did not destroy the garden. I find that the plants whose loss I’ve regretted the most in the past couple of months are the hostas, especially a large green and white one whose presence was the finishing touch in the area near my pond. Right now I’m missing their gradual colour change to the rich, tarnished gold that is the very essence of the turning year.

But I find it difficult to understand these women’s continuing anger at these creatures. Why can’t they be grateful that they have gardens at all, in this very fortunate part of the world? It’s not as though they are farmers whose livelihood is threatened by marauding deer. And why is the preferred solution one that requires the destruction of nonhuman life forms? Do these people really want men with clover traps and bolt guns roaming around the neighbourhood? Why are human beings so eager to kill things?

Okay, so at this point I make myself remember my own rantings about raccoons, whom I find more annoying and destructive than deer. Instead of nipping at foliage, they dig deep holes, sometimes uprooting plants that dry out and die before I am aware of their plight. How many times have I had to fish around in my pond for rocks from its edge that these critters have dumped in while looking for worms or bugs? How many times have I referred to raccoons in terms that I hesitate to use in print? I don’t deny any of this, but have I ever wished them dead? Have I ever so much as contemplated calling a “pest” control service? Never, because I actually think that the wild creatures that inhabit the garden and the region in which the garden is located are a necessary part of the place, and that I as a gardener must accept them, like the weather, weeds, slugs, droughts and windstorms.

In other words, ladies, suck it up. Use your superior Homo sapiens brains to think of ways to outwit the deer. Get rid of plants that are deer magnets, or be prepared to net or fence. At the very least, step out of your smug, entitled rut and try to see the world you live in from a different angle.

Here is a quotation from Henry Beston, writer and gardener, that seems an apt ending for this post:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”