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The Ungreening of America

Joseph Bottum's handful of dust

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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In the great Nefud Desert—on the sun’s anvil—of my south yard, the noonday heat rises in shimmering waves and burns like ancient, unforgiven sin: the primal fault of the world laid bare. “From here until the other side,” my wife says as we stare out from the back porch, “no water but what we carry. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in 20 days they will start to die.”

Frustration at Aridity!

Matt Collins

Lord knows, we tried to save that yard this year. Early in the spring we ordered natural prairie plants by what seemed like the bushel. Sprouting up from dozens and dozens of square little plastic pots, they transformed the front rooms of the house into a steamy botanical garden while we waited for the winter’s chill to break. Hardy seedlings of Indian-grass and Canadian wild rye. Big bluestem and little bluestem. Prairie dropseed and tall stands of switchgrass. 

They died, once we got them in the ground. And then their replacements died. And all summer long, the sun sneered at us, vindictive and personal, as the red clay of the bare soil baked around the yellowed skeletons of the lifeless grass. This is the dead land. This is cactus land. Here the dead plants are raised. Here they receive the supplication of a failed gardener’s hand.

I don’t fully understand why I have been chosen to tend this particular patch of gehenna. I mean, I live in the forest of the Black Hills. Well, in a town in the forest. Actually, on the southern edge of the forest. Where it’s drier and the red clay of the ancient seabeds was pushed up into hills almost by accident, two billion years ago, when the great granite beast of the central Black Hills to the north hunched its back and rose as mountains. But still, you’d think a tree or two would have grown up at some point to shade the brutal ground.

We did put in a cherry tree on the north side of the house. It grew well, until the deer ate it. And those grapevines we planted by a pergola to the east. They grew well, until the deer came back. Some berry bushes to the west. I think it was the rabbits that got them. Or maybe the raccoons and skunks. 

But the point isn’t the cuddly forest creatures dining on the expensive feast we lay out for them every spring. The point is the feast itself: Everywhere else in the yard, plants are willing to try. They would thrive, if the deer would let them. They would spread their green branches, if they could, and they seem to relish the cool nights and hot days of a mountain summer. Everywhere, that is, except on the accursed yard to the south, maybe a third of an acre of local hell. Nothing wants to grow there. Nothing can grow there. This is the dead land. This is cactus . . . I know I said that already, but man, did T. S. Eliot know his stuff.

My wife tried fertilizing the whole thing and sowing the seeds of supposedly sun-and-clay-friendly plants: prairie aster and lupine. Indian blanket and weeping lovegrass. Lance-leaf coreopsis and Cornflower. Butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa, var. clay). 

They, at least, didn’t die. Plants have to sprout first, in order to die. The seeds lay on the hot ground unmoved, ungerminated, not even tempting the birds—until at last the rain came and washed them into the storm sewers and out to the watershed. The other day, along the banks of the Fall River, down toward the junction with the Cheyenne, I saw a lovely stand of butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa, var. clay) growing in the warm sun near a stand of old cottonwood trees. Good to know, I suppose, that those prairie seeds are finding a home, out on the prairie. 

As a last resort, I had a sprinkler system put in. Which raised our water bill considerably but managed to make nothing else grow. The sprinklers merely wash the clay to a slick red surface, as most of the irrigation runnels off to the alley (where the milkweed and dandelion are spreading beautifully, thank you). The moistened yard itself takes on the look of a slightly damp pot just before the kiln bakes it to a glaze, and the main effect of all that watering has been to turn our yard into a dull red terracotta plain.

As fall closes in, forcing us to contemplate next year for our sad yard, I’m thinking of drawing wavy black lines and Kachina figures across it—advertising that south expanse as the world’s largest piece of Hopi Indian pottery. Or maybe I’ll just pour concrete over the yard, paint a circle, and pretend we have a heliport. 

Or maybe I’ll learn, finally, just to let it be: a permanent reminder that we didn’t make this world—and some things, some yards, are simply beyond our control. 



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