The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Two: At Home


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

By Jack Phillips

In the parlour to which I have retired from the heat is a chair and a table, and a picture on the wall: The chair was made for an object and purpose, to sit in; the table for a purpose, to write on; the picture was painted for a purpose, to please the eye. But outside in the meadow, in the hedge, on the hill, in the water; or, looking farther, to the sun, the moon, and the stars, I see no such chair, or table, or picture. —Richard Jefferies, The Absence of Design in Nature

Something that is designed is done so with a purpose. The object of design conforms to that end. For English writer Richard Jefferies (1848–1887), nature lacked design because it did not conform to the human needs. To view nature through the lens of usefulness prevents one from actually seeing or even crudely apprehending her. The belief that nature is somehow arranged, drawn up, or designed for the benefit of humanity creates a “petty, despicable, micro-cosmus” that is a sorry substitute for reality. I understand that many Americans believe that the earth and its riches are rightfully subject to capitalistic exploitation by divine edict, but I will not wander into that theological thicket here.

Rather, I will simply point out the ease with which we might render nature subservient to our purposes even with the best intentions. This tendency is manifest in the way we design and manage our yards and gardens. The philosophical problem articulated by Jefferies is anthropocentric; the belief that nature is either inherently designed for human benefit or that nature is predisposed to benefit humans through manipulation distorts the reality of nature. The value of nature is not derived from human need. Of course we want our yards to be useful for rest and play and crops, but what would happen if we let nature have her way? Can some aspect or portion of the bit of earth under our care be free of parlors and given to the needs of wild creatures instead of our own? Dare we live close to nature?

That question could be asked on our urban front porch. Mother Nature enjoys certain privileges and newly promulgated protections. My sons have seen to that. Aggressive bees near the front porch have been granted amnesty; I have been prohibited from relocating or in any way harassing them out of revenge for having been stung. Fat orb-weavers have lately taken to webbing across the front door; any persons seeking ingress or egress during peak times will be detoured until the spiders have recycled their webs by devouring them. By mid-morning the work is done and the spiders have retired to secret dens and one may enter or exit at will.

But freedom of movement may further be restricted by intervening circumstances like a cooper’s hawk using the porch for songbird ambush or a wild turkey eating the clematis flowers that twine the posts or drinking from the adjacent birdbath. And if deer are feeding in the driveway at dawn or if bats are swooping low at dusk or if screech owls are calling or courting in overhanging elms, an alternate plan must be considered. The front door has become an unreliable portal, and the back door has similar impediments.

The front-door dilemma was solved by my Winnipeg workshop students. They eliminated the front door altogether. Thoreau had a similar idea, but the Winnipeg designers thought of this independently and, in fact, unwittingly inverted and improved it. Thoreau thought that the public entrance to a house should be right against the street, leaving the true front in back as it faced a wild thicket or swamp. But my students, having devised their design palette and philosophy in remnant woodland and prairie, drew up plans for a challenging backyard meander through native Manitoba plant communities.

The plan included thorny traffic-control thickets to protect wild things and to keep humans in their place. (One born-again architect advocated poison ivy to guard sensitive areas.) Bogs and butterfly mudding flats would welcome winged guests. Picnics and Frisbees would be diverted to nearby parks, and squeamish visitors would be entertained at the corner café; lawn and barbecue would be sacrificed for larval hosts, forage, and wild fruits. Dead logs were recommended for colorful fungi or to be anchored upright for nesting cavities. I wondered how a refrigerator might be delivered or a mortgage obtained. Nonetheless, the workshop had produced several plans in the spirit of Thoreau without referencing him directly; they had discovered that spirit on their own. I realize this approach might seem crazy or impractical, but the philosophy was sound: Nature demands dignity and freedom and deserves respect and reverence. Mother Nature, as embraced by my bright and talented students, makes a better companion than a mistress. Her beauty wanes in submission and grows in freedom.

And if not a companion, she is at least a stranger deserving hospitality. A biblical command directed ancient farmers not to harvest the corners of fields but to leave that grain for wandering strangers and those displaced by oppression. Wild nature has been exiled from designed landscapes. Native creatures have become poor strangers. The mandate can be applied to our urban milieu by setting aside sanctuaries for butterflies and birds, by replacing exotic plants with local natives that would have grown in your back yard a hundred years ago. Wild wanderers may not be welcome on the front porch, but a native corner might welcome returning exiles.

We don’t mind certain front-yard wanderers, like the turkey that shows up each spring and stays the summer. Yearling bachelor turkeys (“jakes”) wander widely, and our current jake has made a front-yard corner his parlor. It is a thicket of june-berries bordered by dogwood and redbud. He eats their successive fruits and drinks from a birdbath while concealed by sundry wildflowers that proliferated during a recent mowing ban. He supplements his front-yard smörgåsbord with birdseed spillage, dandelion, mulberries, hackberries, acorns, and clematis flowers. He roosts in an overhanging elm and has lately taken to preening while reclining on the porch rug. Turkey residency includes an innumerable biotic cohort; creating space for a hefty bird accommodates a plethora of wild creatures—some too small to see and many too numerous to count. Welcoming a native stranger into our yard and on to our porch has taught us something about hospitality and a lot about the potential carrying capacity of an urban ecological niche.

Giving wild things some space requires that we first create that space within ourselves. That is, allowing ourselves to accept nature as a reality with inherent dignity and value beyond biogenic utility and our narrow aesthetic ideals. For Jefferies, utility and design are replaced by the rich prodigality of nature that is proven in mysterious extravagance and complexity. His prodigality principle was adopted and expanded a hundred years later in John Fowles’ classic essay The Tree: “We shall never fully understand nature (and ourselves) and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability—however innocent and harmless the use.” If we abandon or at least restrain our expectations and designs on nature, perhaps we will be caught up in that prodigal web.

The humans in our household get caught by that web. One can glimpse my younger son walking Moses-like through our woods with makeshift staff outstretched to keep the frequent webs off his face. But he does not begrudge them—he just wants to share the day. His older brother, a homegrown ecologist who now studies insects worldwide, takes a different approach. He delights in webs spun in woodland openings and guards the webs as he fawns over the weavers. Even my eek-some wife has become an arachnophile at a safe distance. When the family is home, we gather spontaneously when the orb weavers feed or mate on our front door, forgetting for a moment the busy demands of the day.

Of what use are the acorns that feed the neighborhood or the falling leaves that color the lawn? Or the woodbine that covers the fence? Or the caterpillar that eats a tomato and feeds a wren? Or the raccoon parade that slows down traffic? Or the fireflies that light a nighttime hike or the katydids that announce our dreams? Or the wildflowers that arrest the mower? Or the spiders that draw us together?

Read Part One

Immigration in Nebraska