Although I grew up in Chicago and Detroit, I became a New Englander the day I started to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Decades later, I still see the paperback pages recounting his planting of peas and beans. Something like destiny led me to my current home, situated well off the beaten path in New England, and necessity drives me to my knees each early spring to prepare the soil for another year’s crop of vegetables. Always, the first plants planted are peas. We plant them just after St. Patrick’s day.
I was back in Detroit today, standing in the now long-gone paperback store, located on Harper a half block from Chalmers on the city’s East Side, with Walden in my hands. I was reading the text, trying to decide whether to spend the dollar or so required to make it my own. It was the same store in which I discovered Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, another paperback treasure. That store, not Edwin Denby High School, a place that terrified me, a vast brick prison, changed my life.
This morning I kept thinking about reaping what I sow, and nuclear power, and Japan, and the work the seasons require, each one unfolding annually and forever, always calling forth tasks, chores and responsibilities. I was thinking all that as I looked over the disaster my garden had become during this past winder. You see, I wearied of the task of turning the beds and preparing them for the winder. I was tired in the fall, the weight of other responsibilities diverted me, and I was eager for a long winter of reading. I did not do the hard work of preparing for the spring, and so now the work is harder. It takes me a month or so of Saturdays in a good year to get the garden in shape; this year it will take two months. I was lazy about my chores in the fall, so now I pay. You reap what you sow.
I seem never to learn. Two years ago, I put the work of preparation in for a new season’s planting during the fall. Last spring, the work was easy. No old roots to dig up from our ubiquitous and aggressive wild roses, roses which always seem to attack the far end of the garden, and relentlessly push forward, forcing deep roots and thorns everywhere. I sighed this morning as I pulled at roots and worked to prepare the bed we reserve for peas; it is like all of the other raised beds, 20 feet long, four feet wide, and elevated. I need to turn compost, turn and rake the soil, and get it ready for planting tomorrow. I am a peasant today, and there is nothing romantic about the labor. Tolstoy had his serfs, after all, when he wearied of his play.
The Earth provides if it is cultivated. But the Earth is indifferent to human purpose. Have we fouled our nest such that it cannot sustain? The morning’s paper describe the nuclear nightmare in Japan. Radiation reached San Francisco in minute amounts from Japan. Tokyo’s drinking water is irradiated. Nuclear fuel rods in damaged reactors are apparently exposed to the air in Northern Japan. People huddle there in their homes in fear. They do all this at the very moment we promise to build another nuclear power plant in the United States, an energy producing gem to add to the 110 already active, or retired, in the United States. We need energy now; disposing of spent fuel safely and for future generations is tomorrow’s problem. We are reaping what others will sow.
Today we want independence. We want to detach ourselves from the turmoil in the Mideast, a drama in which our foreign policy is exposed as driven solely by the pragmatic need for oil. We side with the autocrats in Bahrain and Yemen; the body count of protestors seeking to topple those in power is not troubling there because the taps are running. Yet in Libya we line up for yet another war, this the third simultaneously waged; we intervene for oil’s sake. Are these conflicts driven by anything other than to feed our need for fossil fuel? We are reaping what we do not want to sow.
My garden is a mess today. It is a mess today because I neglected it in its season of need. I should have cared for it better in the fall. I make will now make necessary amends throughout the spring. I wonder what amends my children’s children will make for the mess we make of the world today. Some part of me wonders whether they will get the chance to make amends, or whether something new, a new medievalism, will take root, some broader collapse of national and international institutions and the slow evolution of a new order capable of sustaining life. The anarchist in me envies them this chaotic intimation of a future so different from the world I know. We the living most likely won’t reap what we are sowing; we will leave the task of cleaning up to our successors. It makes me uneasy to accept this, although I am in part relieved. Cleaning up is hard, hard work; it will be the work of long, long decades, even longer, in a future not too far removed from today’s crises.