Thursday, July 6, 2017

Driving My Dad, Part 1

In the last several years of his life, my father and I loved to go on car rides together. I would drive while he would point out landmarks: a creek where people used to be baptized, the location of one of the peach sheds that marked Arkansas’s long ago past as a major peach producer, a hillside thick with cedar trees indicating the presence of limestone. He knew so much about the history and the topography of southwest Arkansas, and I always learned a lot.

These car rides harkened back to many such car rides with him when I was a little girl. I loved to ride in the car, snooze on and off, and stare out the window and daydream as he told me long and (to my child’s mind) boring stories about his work life or a civil engineer’s view on the merits of asphalt versus concrete roadways. (I’ll never forget one car ride adventure, when I was around eight or nine years old. We stopped at a gas station, and I asked if I could have some money to buy some candy. “Sure,” he said and gave me a dollar. A week or so later he asked, “Where’s that dollar you owe me?” A child of the Depression for sure!)

In later years, there was something that frustrated him more and more on our rides together. He would see a brushy fencerow, or a stand of scraggly trees along the side of the road, or a weedy pasture, and shake his head in disgust. “Who would let that go to waste like that? I hate to see it!” he would complain fiercely. “I just don't know why a person or a government would allow that to happen.” That would lead into a discussion, again a civil engineer’s view of the world: rivers are meant to produce power, fields are meant to nurture crops or feed animals or grow pine trees for the local paper mills, and roadsides are meant to look neat and clean and tidy, showcasing good management of shared public property.

I look at those same scraggly places and see sources of food and cover for wildlife, fields that could grow grasses to sustain the breeding of the many grassland bird species now in rapid decline, and roadsides of bee-covered wildflowers and weeds. “But Daddy, what about the wildlife?” I would ask, knowing how much he loved birds and wildlife, too. He would grunt or answer noncommittally and move on to the next topic. I got the message: wildlife shouldn’t get in the way of progress.

Dad’s point of view made me think of centuries of rugged people in America logging forests, diverting waterways, building canals and bridges, and mowing lawns. They saw the land as something to be put to use and managed, something that would help them survive or make them grow rich. And the land and water have given us much. I’ve written previously about how we’ve also developed a preference for mowed yards and careful landscaping, a containment of nature. But it seems to me that we’re realizing now the importance of the scraggly, the unmanaged, the wild.

A few days ago I returned from spending a month in China, where I observed the manifestations of a cultural and historical context that has viewed nature as something to be organized, managed, and brought into harmony. More on that in Part 2. Hint: this photo of a tree-planting project shows neat, weed-free rows of one species of tree, with the same precisely-measured distance between each individual. I think Dad would approve!