Making a Better World: The Nature of a Garden


Random Sheet of Metal on Property

            Our land was once part of a pristine wilderness.  We hope to recreate that environment, to erase all traces of human interference with nature.  Just kidding.  It’s true that the land was once “untouched,” but that was long, long ago.  Much of the “wilderness” around here is at best second growth boreal forest.  The early history of Fairbanks – building and heating the town, mining the hills, stoking the boilers of the steamboats – took a lot of wood, and rearranged mountains of earth.  Before that, Alaska Natives hunted and fished throughout the Tanana Valley.  This area has seen the impact of humanity for millennia, and there’s no way we could ever return a little over an acre of it to its “original” state.


  We certainly weren’t thinking “pristine” as we hauled car parts, balled-up, rusty wire fencing, miles of electrical wire and pieces of bone (not human, thankfully)  out of our planting area. 

Part of Scrap Pile:  Fencing, wire, and an old rug

Junk Structure on Property

We are not trying to get to untouched.  But if we are not trying to restore our bit of subarctic suburbia to its primeval grandeur, how can I say we’re “making a better world”?  Might seem like hubris.

            First, I don’t buy the idea that nature is necessarily at its best without human impact.  I also don’t think “dominion over the Earth” means we should develop, pave, or make junkyards out of every blessed parcel of land we can.  In his book Second Nature¸ Michael Pollan suggests that pitting nature against culture (human activity) creates a false dichotomy.  We are, after all, a part of nature, not apart from it.  In a garden, the influence of the gardener is thoughtful, intentional and blatant.  We protect plants that might otherwise fail to thrive.  We plant stuff we want to grow in rows or beds.  We weed and water (and weed and water some more).  Pollan calls a garden “a middle ground between nature and culture, a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set against it.”

            When I say we are making a better world (in a tiny way) by making this farmlet, I mean that by making our influence visible and useful, we are saving that land from the hidden forces that were slowly turning it in to a junkyard, and from the overt force of the developers who at best would have built a multi-family apartment there, and at worst would have turned it more rapidly into a junkyard.  I don’t believe that our cultivation of the land will create an eyesore.  We are removing trees, but not all.  We are planting new trees as well, and the new ones and the ones we don’t take down will have a better chance to thrive.  The dead wood that makes the property a fire hazard that is difficult to navigate will go – but its nutrients will be returned to the soil, in the form of mulch.  We’ll have to protect our plantings from moose and rabbits, but those creatures will also continue to use the land.  (It’s kinda hard to stop them!) 

Visiting Moose

We’ll be ripping out non-native invasive species, like dandelions and purple vetch.  And, of course, we’ll be feeding ourselves with the products of our labor, happily increasing the nutrient value of our food and the quality of life of our food animals while reducing our dependence on shipped in food and the related use of fossil fuels required to get that food here.  Whew – that’s a heck of a sentence!  But it sure sounds like a better world to me. 🙂

Some of our food animals - not little yellow fluffballs anymore!

Some of our happy food animals – not little yellow fluffballs anymore!

29 responses »

  1. I love nature and I wish the same beautiful natural features that the US has. Sadly, most of Korea’s natural wonders are farmlands, while beautiful on their own, still can’t compare to the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the prairies of the Midwestern US, swamplands of the gulf states or the deserts of the Southwest. I’d love to start a garden with my students, but there isn’t any open areas in my city.

    • Thanks for visiting, and commenting! Maybe you could try container gardening? There are lots of “urban farming” blogs out there, that are actually more urban than my little world. Good luck!

  2. Wendell Barry points out that there are other meanings to the “subdue the earth” passage in the first chapter of Genesis. Rather than “vanquish,” it can mean “soften” the earth, or bring culture to it or even to bring harmony.
    You may be living at the edge of wilderness, but we’re also finding that our gardening efforts here in a small New England city adds to the natural variety. In addition to the dozens of varieties of birds at our feeders and overhead, we’ve had skunks and foxes and ‘possums and …
    Well, it makes for fun blogging, doesn’t it!
    Keep up the good work.

    • I’m a big fan of people who are fans of Wendell Barry, but I haven’t yet read any of his books. Any recommendations? Thanks for visiting, and thanks for your comment!

      • The Long-Legged House holds a special place in my heart, but I’d say start with whatever volume you lands your hands on first. He’s left us a marvelous pathway of discovery, one we can enter at any point along the way.

    • Thanks, Annie! Don’t wish us luck, though, wish us rain! It’s been quite hot for us – in the mid- to upper-80s. Bleh.

  3. This definitely sounds like you are making a better world to me!
    We always had a vegetable garden but I have never been as enthusiastic about it (it was my husband’s project) until this year. Trying to eat healthier (eating less processed foods) has been the main motivator.
    I am finding that having a (vegetable) garden not only provides good food to eat, it provides food for the soul and spirit. I am always more peaceful, more content when I am in my garden. Nature’s bounty really does uplift the spirit.
    Congratulations for being Freshly Pressed!

    • Thank you! It is hard to be enthusiastic when it’s 80+ degrees (hot for us) and the kids won’t eat a homegrown vegetable or a home-raised chicken (or store bought! Apparently it is possible to live on oatmeal, peanut butter and yogurt), but I know we’re doing something important.

  4. I envy your pristine environment. Here in DR very few areas boast pristine appeal. Here there are mountains of garbage everywhere and if you make a dent the dent is refilled the next day. Seems a loosing battle 😥 And I so love my island.

    However, it’s so hard to be environmental when there is so much human suffering here. They need help more, but I so want to see them learn to “pick up” the trash.

    • Thanks for your comment. It is true that, even if our place is not “pristine,” we are lucky to live here, near place that look untouched, even if they are not. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of ways to “make a better world.”

  5. You have a mighty impressive perspective, my dear. I hope it all works out as beneficially as you have planned. In the meantime, you, Matt, and my grandchildren have already been winners in this quest as you tidied up, prepared, planted, observed, and harvested one year’s worth of life. Seems like a wonderful investment of time to me. Of course, most of your capabilities have me impressed to the utmost favorability, anyway!

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