Monday, June 30, 2008

Nature's ministry

While we are with Wordsworths's The Prelude, let's make a nod to what may be perhaps the most familiar lines of all, from Book I, where the poet recalls his childhood among the lakes and hills of Cumbria:
Ye Presences of Nature in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed
Such ministry, when ye, through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed, upon all forms, the characters
Of danger or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?
Few kids today will grow up in such wild majesty, if for no other reason than the internal combustion engine, which intrudes its noise and stench and speed upon every landscape.

Some years ago, I attended a gathering of nature writers on Martha's Vineyard. On the first morning, we took time to introduce ourselves and say a bit about how we came to be interested in the natural world. I was struck by how often the experience of a drainage ditch gave direction to our lives. We were mostly children of the suburbs. More often than not it was while mucking about in a ditch that we discovered what would become the passion of our lives. Ditch water, in dribble or flood, is the stuff of creaturedom, the great animator that turns cracked suburban mud into Darwin's tangled bank. Loosestrifes soak their feet in it. Knotweeds slurp it up. Striders stride and whirligigs skitter on its slovenly surface. A seasonal zodiac of frogs, newts, salamanders, mudpuppies, crayfish, turtles and snakes. Even a trickle of ditch water is an invitation to play -- dams, canals, bridges, boats -- squishing barefoot in the mud among the cattails, shattering the gothic webs of argiope spiders. That was the story for so many of us: ankle-deep in ditches, struck unconsciously and unalterably with the prodigiousness of life, a burry, buggy, algae-slicked introduction to nature's inexhaustible capacity to surprise. "The flowering of the ditches," is Thoreau's delicious phrase. It was in ditch water that we discovered the forms of danger and desire, hope and fear, triumph and delight. Ditches were our lonely places.

When we have paved over the woods and fields, when chemically-addicted suburban lawns stretch in unbroken continuity from sea to sea, when ATVs and snowmobiles have invaded the last vestiges of Wordsworthian wildness, there will still be ditches. Down at the back of the subdivision, at the side of the road, behind the mall. Places where a curious, outdoorsy kid might discover the "presences of nature." The final habitat.