Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.
In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.
I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.
This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look. We cut a little trail through our acre of woods this winter, a nature trail for our daughter, who is four, and she insisted that the trail run past the daffodils just then beginning to open. The trail cuts a loop through the property from which we can see closely all of our woods — trees, rotting logs, cloying vines and perennial undergrowth, the canopy alive with birds and squirrels and the mat of leaves crawling with insects and toads and snakes, all happier for having escaped our attention these several years.
Something about those daffodils has always bothered me. The attraction of these woods has been, in fact, that they haven’t needed my attention. They buffer me from my neighbors, and so long as no one else owns them, I’ve been content that my ownership remain merely on paper. I have enough to be responsible for. On this acre, nature can take care of its own. But the daffodils are some human’s mark on the woods. They bloom too big and bright when spring is still tentative, struggling to make it way small and delicate through the ice and rot of prior seasons. I see those daffodils and feel the woods less mine, and also less wild — contradictory impulses, and both probably irrational.
The woods, after all, are themselves an artifact of human activity. Before my home and my neighbors’ were built this land was cropland, worked by farmers and their families — and, longer ago, their slaves. Their work transformed what came before them, and what has come in their work’s absence has not returned but grown anew.
As pretty as the daffodils are, they are no prettier than the trumpet creeper that scales my fence — nor, for that matter, any more welcome than the bluets and bloodroot and trout lilies that cover the banks of the Eno River a few miles from my house. That land, so like mine, is mad with wildflowers this time of year — true wildflowers, natives that attract insects that feed birds that otherwise survive on my tab at the Wild Bird Center. I’m envious. I want some. On my weekly hikes I make mental notes about what kind of ground each flower prefers, and as the season goes on I’ll map them to my own acre.
But if I want “wild” flowers in these woods, I must now purchase and plant them. My bluets and bloodroot will be as domestic as daffodils, “native” only in the abstract sense that their species evolved here and was not bred on another continent. The birds that flock to my feeders and nest in my trees, for that matter, are barely more wild than my Campbell ducks, who like the finches could live on what they forage, would prefer I keep my distance, but thrive in greater numbers with my help. My decision to leave the woods alone has permitted “nature” to claim them, but my proximity has kept nature, I suspect, somewhat nervous. To call any of this “wild” is fantasy. I cannot help but have an impact on this land.
That’s a distressing realization to a naturalist who finds beauty and peace in what humans didn’t create or order. But to accept that my impact is inevitable is also to accept my place in that order — and in that acceptance there is, I think, freedom. I am free to tend to my woods, to make decisions for the health of an intricate community of plants and animals with which I share a tiny speck of land — but I am also free to see myself as a part of that community. I am free to enter these woods and commune with them.
I am free, in short, not merely to make these woods more mine, but to allow them to make me more theirs. It’s a freedom I’ve waited too long to enjoy. It’s time, I think, to plant some wildflowers.