I have been fortunate to spend a few seasons of quiet observation (usually on the other end of a dog leash) in the open meadow and trails of Gardner Farm on Nantucket. Seeing the edges of the property change with time, and tuning into patterns of growth in the native vegetation has sharpened my awareness of the ecological processes at work in the meadow, and elsewhere.
I can imagine that something of the same rudimentary observation informed the awareness of place in some of my literary heroes. One of the most transformational threads in the work of Robert Frost, who favored long jaunts as opportunities for “botanizing“, is the awareness of the intrinsic nature of dynamic change to processes both human and natural.
In his poem “Something for Hope” Frost employs the concept of Ecological Succession as a parallel for the hopeful possibility of change and evolution in the realms of human affairs.
Something for HopeAt the present rate it must come to passAnd that right soon, that the meadowsweetAnd steeple bush, not good to eat,Will have crowded out the edible grass.Then all there is to do is waitFor maple, birch, and spruce to pushThrough meadowsweet and steeple bushAnd crowd them out at a similar rate.No plow among these rocks would pay.So busy yourself with other thingsWhile the trees put on their wooden ringsAnd with long-sleeved branches hold their sway.Then cut down the trees when limber grown,And there’s your pristine earth all freedFrom lovely blooming but wasteful weedAnd ready again for the grass to own.A cycle we’ll say of a hundred years.Thus foresight does it and laissez-faire,A virtue in which we all may shareUnless a government interferes.Patience and looking away ahead,And leaving some things to take their course.Hope may not nourish a cow or horse,But spes alit agricolam ‘tis said.— Robert Frost, Steeple Bush, 1947
In our clearing, the hopeful upstart is not steeple bush, but low bush blueberry. I noticed a patch tucked away at the corner of a trail the other day, and since have sharpened my awareness of it elsewhere; indeed, it is a funny trick of consciousness that helps to isolate the noticed signal from what previously was “noise” in one’s field of vision. Could it have been everywhere all along?
In this patch of conservation land we have everything from meadow to moorland; all spots are quickly (though perhaps not in human time scales) transitioning to another type of habitat. The farm could not weather the land and building boom as a working landscape, but the fortunate work of forward looking conservationists has yielded some of the larger swaths of intact scrub pine “forests” that one can find anywhere on Nantucket.
Funny how the hope of the farmer has sustained a harvest for those curious and careful enough to seek it out. On today’s walk, I saw a father and daughter kneeling in a patch of low-bush, filling a bucket with blueberries. This wisdom, like the blueberries, is native to the place, or in Frost’s parlance, “a virtue in which all may share.”