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The Endless Cruelty of Nature

Are you sure you're really ready for this gardening thing?

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There's that image of the happy gardener taking to the beds come spring with a wide straw hat, some floral-print gloves and a big old silly grin, eager to spend countless hours in the peace of nature.

But friends, that's the Hallmark Hall of Fame version -- the real deal is a lot more HBO prime time. Sometimes, especially during this promiscuous season, Cinemax. Spring reminds us, at least those of us who don't cover our eyes with flowery hands, that it's all about sex and death.

Look to the parasitic wasp, the ichneumon wasp and all the rest, who are such boons to the gardener for preying on caterpillars and other pests. And they're effective: The wasp attacks the caterpillar, sometimes paralyzing it, before injecting its eggs into the body of the host. Those eggs then hatch and proceed to systematically devour the caterpillar from the inside out, eating the digestive tissues while saving the heart and other organs for last, so that the critter will live as long as possible.

Their methods are so inhuman, literally and figuratively, that they stirred up debate amongst 19th-century theologians, who tried to reconcile the existence of such awful traits with the existence of a benevolent God. Which is really hard to believe in if you're a caterpillar.

The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote about all this in a 1982 essay, "Nonmoral Nature," arguing that nature does not subscribe to ethical concerns. Theologians and scientists of the day, trying to find a purpose for such behavior, weighed in on the issue, including none other than Charles Darwin himself.

Here's what Darwin had to say: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars." So in the garden, you can attract handy critters at the expense of a deity who may not care about you. Unsettling, true, but anything for unnibbled bulbs, right?

Maybe theology has no business in your bushes, in which case www.gardeners.com has some advice for luring parasitic wasps to the garden: "Small and shallow-faced flowers provide easy access to these tiny beneficial insects. Plant alyssum, herbs from the dill family, and flowers from the daisy family. If you have a bird bath or pool in your garden, place stones in the water so wasps have a place to land and drink safely."

Because we want the wasps to be safe, after all.

Don't think that the animal kingdom is the only one responsible for what the garden pacifists might call cruel. Consider the black walnut tree, which wages chemical warfare on other plants to prevent competition in the immediate vicinity. The tree emits juglone, a compound that inhibits growth in other plants and leads to wilting and death. If it could poison people, no doubt it would. But if you have well-drained soil, the Pseudomonas bact eria can flourish. The bacteria feed on the juglone, and your tree is suddenly manageable.

But none in the garden is more savage than the grinning madman with the flowery gloves: pruning, uprooting, poisoning, mulching, trapping, creating a world that might cause even the most malevolent God to switch from HBO to Lifetime. Now, especially, gardeners are laying down the weedkiller, carefully engineering the aesthetic population.

Suppose you do want nature to have a presence and decide to go with a wildflower garden. Virginia Cooperative Extension gives all the grisly details: "Early spring when the first weeds begin to emerge, is the time to make your first application of a broad spectrum herbicide (e.g., Glyphosate). Ten to 14 days after your application, shallowly cultivate the area, allow weed seed to germinate, and apply herbicide again. Ridding the bed of annual and perennial weeds and their dormant seeds will enhance establishment and greatly lessen the problem of weeding during the summer."

It's all sex and death, sex and death, which is what's selling on the networks these days anyway. But let's leave the last word to Darwin, who traveled far and wide in pursuit of greater scientific meaning and found, sure as Cinemax, sex and death: "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!"

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