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Flagstaff Rain, English Gardens, and the Fragrance of Ecology

Flagstaff Rain, English Gardens, and the Fragrance of Ecology
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Thunderheads rolled in this morning, taunting the seekers of rain with their gray coolness. It's monsoon season, but most locals are skeptical about the arrival of storms, some believing the year will be a mild one. Regardless, dark clouds gathered, as if on cue, and sprinkled their way through the afternoon. For me, however, the amount of rain, whether torrential or modest, is of no consequence; it's the fragrance that delights me, an experience of nature I will remember for the rest of my life.

Jaded by the Seasons?

Shortly after my first Flagstaff thunderstorm, the one that arrived midway through my stay, I stepped out of the RV, inhaled, and discovered the most compelling fragrance I've yet encountered, light with hints of aromatic pipe tobacco, subtle, yet sufficiently green to honor the surrounding forest. If epiphanies have an aroma, this is certainly it. Being new to the area, I believed my impressions to be unique, perhaps seeming quaint to the locals. After all, residents have myriad rainy seasons in their history, and must surely be jaded by the annual monsoons. However, I was pleasantly surprised one day while eating in a local diner. Greeted by a waitress who raved about the fragrance of Flagstaff rain, I smiled in agreement, along with a few others. Whether newcomer or local, we were all of the same mind, appreciative of the storm and unjaded by summer's monotony. Soon, however, the moment faded away.

As with all fleeting beauty, the end arrives too quickly. As sunlight quells remaining moisture, and summer heat re-emerges after a period of exile, the fragrance subsides.

It's all the stuff of epic poetry and ballads from the previous century. But I digress. I soon find myself pondering different forms of the environment, as well, beyond forests and thunderstorms, all the way to the gates of a distant empire.

English Garden Metaphors

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Literature suffers no lack of garden metaphors, many of which are elegant and telling. At the moment, I'm very interested in the subject, a high wall of contrast dividing forest rains from the sedate gardens of Europe. In particular, English cultivation of roses and neat hedgerows makes me curious about their ancient culture. Indeed, "More than one writer has looked for insight into Britain behind its garden walls" (1).

It's fascinating that the complicated (and often tragic) expanse of British history has been compared to gardening, such a basic human activity, nourishing to body as well as soul. Writer Jenny Uglow likened British gardening to a cone balanced on the small end, widening gradually over centuries--like their society--filling with all manner of plants and flowers in symbolic unison with the realm (2). I like this imagery, comparing the flowering of an empire with the work of its gardeners-- discretely glossing over the less wholesome aspects of human history and activity. And yet, there is still a sweet level of sincerity to this concept.

So, we have moved from the unique perfume of Flagstaff rain to the symbolic use of English gardens, connecting wild spaces in America to delicate plants and flowers growing far away. Next, we consider a different kind of fragrance, the redolent quality of ecology.

Indigenous Cultivation of the Land

Rarely, if ever, have indigenous farmers in North America been compared to gardeners in England, although both do much the same with their land and animal species. Here, we consider ecology.

While visiting the campus of Northern Arizona University, I picked up Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration by William R. Jordan III and George M. Lubick. Although fragrant mountains cause one to wax poetic--on and on into the Arizona evening--thoughts can easily turn to conservation, as well, our dying ecosystems demanding care on so many levels. As I am staying near ancestral Hopi land, a couple of passages caught my attention right away. Regarding conservation the authors state:

Indigenous peoples do not have a concern necessarily with the preservation of all the species in their environment (and neither do most non-indigenous peoples).
In our terms, what this means is that the sustainable land management practices of traditional peoples may provide models for sustainability but are motivated not by concern for anything like "all parts" but by a desire to shape and maintain an ecosystem as habitat for themselves (3).

The authors go on to say that the "ancient institution of sacred groves" comes close to following our ideas of "ecocentric restoration." Interesting. Yes, all forms of cultivation prompt growers to pursue their own needs; gardeners and farmers abate weeds and rodents of all varieties, nurturing the plants and animals they favor, the species that support their flower baskets and dinner tables. Here, Michael Pollen's outstanding book, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education comes to mind.

Human interaction with the land encompasses, not only, our need for sustenance and livable spaces, but also the various spiritual beliefs and social contracts of countless civilizations. One can explore the complex webs of association in great detail throughout the book, which is beyond our present reflection. Suffice it to say, I will investigate the subject of ecocentric restoration more deeply in the coming days.

Concluding Thoughts

The monsoons and fragrances of the Coconino National Forest will remain with me, standing as reminders of our complicated and, quite often, contradictory interactions with the land. At times, we wander through tall pines, hoping to avoid predators, longing to feel refreshed and enjoy wild spaces. Then, we cross the threshold into domestic realms, where we cultivate gardens for pleasure and nourishment. And how do these various spaces stand in relation to one another? Regardless of culture or historical context, the urgent demands of ecological restoration define our encounters with nature, wildlands and gardens alike.

Works Cited:

(1) "Portrait: The English Garden" (Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 2004, p. 128).

(2) ibid.

(3) William R. Jordan III and George M. Lubick. Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration (Washington: Island Press) 2011.