When I was a child I was a Nature lover, much more so than my fellows, who went to the movies on Saturday afternoons while I prowled the vacant lots ("woods" to me) in our neighborhood, looking for birds' nests and tadpoles and sassafras, those things that I thought of as Nature. Then when I was 14, we moved to a farmhouse in the New Jersey countryside, and while my view did not essentially change, it began to stretch, if I may put it that way, and all because of the contours of the land, which shaped the experience and my perception of it. To the north and west where the land was relatively flat, the agricultural regime was dominated by big farms, acre after acre of potatoes or corn, with large dairy operations, while south and east were Pine Barrens, a vast wilderness of scrub oak and pine growing on thin, sandy soil. In between, the topography was varied, marked by abrupt hills, streams meandering through ravines to sink into swamps and boggy meadows, and the rougher tracts were thickly wooded. The area had been farmed since the early 1700s in a way called general or mixed farming, where a bit of everything goes on, depending on markets and opportunities. The man I worked for, for instance, milked 30 Jerseys, sold piglets and broiler chickens and eggs, grew tomatoes for a cannery, as well as hay and corn and oats for his cattle, raised hybrid corn for a seed company and produced all his meat and vegetables. The whole area was intensely rural and a bit out of date, even then.
The domestic architecture and the layout around the houses told a story. In our neighborhood every one dated from the 18th century and looked it: handsomely proportioned, weathered, sometimes a little worn and shabby, with a lilac bush or clump of golden glow or hollyhocks by the door, crooked apple trees on one side, hen house and chicken yard not far from the kitchen door, chopping block nearby where the chicken for Sunday dinner had its head cut off, sheds here and there, a big old barn out back surrounded by a dusty barnyard with a rail fence next to a hard-bitten pasture.
The big kitchen was the heart of the house, functional to that life in ways unimaginable today. The chicken killed and plucked in the yard was eviscerated in the kitchen sink; the steers and pigs slaughtered and hung in the barn were often butchered on the kitchen table (as I can testify); butter was churned there, and cheese was pressed; year after year the produce of the garden was processed and preserved there; there hung braided onions and bunches of mint. I saw then that life in those places was lived much closer to the ground than in the city where I had lived; there were fewer buffers between people and Nature or, as I had come to think of it, the natural world. I began to sense that it was more than things, that it might be some sort of system that held all the things together: the old horse standing in the pasture, the pasture itself, maybe even the dirt in the yard.
Fifteen years later, when we moved to northern Vermont to live for two years in a farmhouse without electricity or running water, where we began, quite unconsciously, our self-reliant life, the buffers were negligible. And for some time it was unsettling, something we didn't understand until an acquaintance from our past stopped by on his way to somewhere. It was spring and he got stuck in a mud hole in the road. I had had much experience digging cars out, and I worked at it until dusk, but he was well and truly stuck, and it was decided he'd go out to call a tow truck in the morning. Luckily, the road was hardly used. After supper, he wanted to get his suitcase from the car and we walked out with him in the gloaming. On our side of the hill there were no houses, and although the view encompassed miles, there was not a light to be seen. It would be an exaggeration to say he was terrified, but he was certainly upset, exclaiming again and again at the overwhelming darkness, touching the car, almost caressing it as his one solid link to what he thought of as civilization. After he left, after he was towed away, we laughed, smug in our superiority: we weren't afraid of the dark, we didn't need a car to make us feel at home in the universe - until we remembered that at one time, and not very long ago, we had been oppressed by the sense of the natural world pressing upon us, by the absence of mitigating things between that massive presence and our feeble selves. The difference was that now we were used to it, we were conscious of it, we thought we had come to terms with it.
Our life during those two years was elemental. I, who had lived on my father's bounty through college and then earned wages at various jobs, had placed myself, at the age of 29 with a wife and four small children, in a situation that forced me to support everyone entirely by my own efforts with no outside help or even encouragement - and three hundred dollars in savings. Aside from gardening, I knew next to nothing. And since I had been a "Perfessor," my muscles were undeveloped. Oh, the stories I could tell! How, having neither the strength nor the skill nor the knowledge to notch a tree correctly, I cut it all around like a beaver with my axe, insuring that it might fall any which way at any time, so nearly every one lodged in standing trees. Then I would climb up it to chop away at the snagged limbs until it fell. That I was not killed nor even scratched astounds me to this day. I am proud of what I learned, proud that it made a man of me, but in a way it was too easy, the starkness of its terms made it too simple: Learn to milk a cow. Learn to use an axe. Learn how to hone a scythe. Learn how to build a sled to haul water. I was struggling with Nature, no question about that, but I saw it as discrete acts. I did not understand what the struggle meant, I did not see its breadth. After seven more years of farming and teaching in Vermont, we had to move to Cape Breton to learn that.
Why? Because we were no longer leading a distracting, haphazard life, renting a field here or there, tethering cows on the lawn, mowing hay in someone's backyard, running a school and a farm together. Now we actually owned 100 acres that we had to transform into an economically viable enterprise. Any farmer knows what that means: nothing can be neglected, nothing can be left to Nature; every square rod that has been won from the wild must be manured and fertilized and limed and plowed and planted and mown and manured again; every fence, every structure must be built and rebuilt and repaired again and again; every animal must be nurtured and protected from the ferocious weather on an island in the North Atlantic. Nature is not things, it is not discrete acts, it is the entire natural world (including ourselves) and the laws that govern it.
All systems in the world, if unattended, tend steadily towards a state of disorder and disorganization. Entropy: The Second Law of Thermodynamics.
We were creating a system and then we would be maintaining it, or in the words of the quotation, attending it, which is another way of saying struggling with Nature. Because that is what life, in its everyday mundane expression, is about; struggling to build and maintain structures that we hope to pass on to our successors, who will in turn take up the struggle.
We are all, everyone of us, in the grip of entropy; working a farm solely with horses and muscle power, a farm starkly in the midst of the wilds, made the lesson of entropy daily knowledge. That is the deepest meaning of Nature, but we do not think about it much, if at all - it is only a brooding presence behind our daily life, a sense of realism. I began this essay by describing a rural life I knew 60 years ago that was lived close to the ground, as it were, a kind of life I admired because it was conducive to honesty about life. It was not so easy then, not as easy as it is for urban sophisticates today, to think the Second Law has lapsed, that Nature is benign. But we all have a great capacity for self-delusion. Think about that beguiling word "natural": one of my dictionaries lists a dozen meanings, but we usually think of the first one: "Present in or produced by nature; not artificial or man-made," combined with the fifth meaning: "Free from affectation or artificiality; spontaneous," and wishfully we conceive of it as a Good Thing. That's the appeal of "organic" farming, supposedly all natural, when it is in fact as artificial as all farming has always been since the first man began cultivation with a sharp stick.
I knew an "organic" farmer who, instead of fencing in his chickens, let them roam at will. He thought it was so natural, that if he were nice to Nature, Nature would be nice in return. Unfortunately, the chickens, not being men, had no illusions, and they destroyed his garden.
The lesson was admirably expressed about 2,500 years ago by those realists, the Hebrew prophets: The lion does not lie down with the lamb, not on this side of the Jordan, anyway. *