Thursday, March 3, 2011

The last Silphium dies: caring about nature for its own sake

My first garden, about eight years ago now, changed my attitude toward plants. I planted it because I wanted food out of it: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and herbs. I expected I'd care about the plants in my garden because their welfare was a necessary condition of my eating some delicious meals. After a few months of nursing seeds and transplants into full-grown plants, that isn't really how it turned out. When a neighbor accidentally snapped the stalk of a flourishing habanero, I wasn't mainly sad at the loss of a dozen peppers. I was sad that the plant didn't get to finish out its life. Which is to say, I was sad for the plant.

Once I discovered I that I can care about plants for their own sake, entirely apart from what they can do for me, it became clear that a lot of talk about conservation and environmentalism at least partly misses the point. Casting environmentalism as a means by which to improve the lot of human beings may be a good political strategy, at least in the short term, but it's only half the story. Acts or policies that harm the environment are prima facie bad, whether or not those environmental harms affect people.

I've known some people who have had similar experiences that led to similar conclusions. (Most people I know who garden, in fact, have had similar experiences.) The problem is, there's no way to argue that someone ought to care about plants for their own sake if they haven't had the relevant experience of caring about plants for their own sake. That's an uncomfortable position to be in, and it risks being insulting or infantilizing. ("Oh, you wouldn't believe the things you believe if you had a little more experience with nature.")

I just finished Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. It's great for lots of reasons, but one in particular has me excited: it includes a passage that I think might, maybe, be able to give people a little bit of vicarious experience of caring about a plant for its own sake. It's a little long, but definitely worth it:
Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remaining of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840's. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant, or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July. When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have 'taken' what is called history, and perhaps 2,500 who have 'taken' what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these, hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.


Silphium first became a personality to me when I tried to dig one up to move to my farm. It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour of hot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock. I got no Silphium, but I learned by what elaborate underground stratagems it contrives to weather the prairie drouths.

I next planted Silphium seeds, which are large, meaty, and taste like sunflower seeds. They came up promptly, but after five years of waiting the seedlings are still juvenile, and have not yet borne a flower stalk. Perhaps it takes a decade for a Silphium to reach flowering age; how old, then, was my pet plant in the cemetery? It may have been older than the oldest tombstone, which is dated 1850. Perhaps it watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreat from the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River; it stood on the route of that famous march. Certainly it saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as they retired, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem.

I once saw a power shovel, while digging a roadside ditch, sever the 'sweet-potato' root of a Silphium plant. The root soon sprouted new leaves, and eventually it again produced a flower stalk. This explains why this plant, which never invades new ground, is nevertheless sometimes seen on recently graded roadsides. Once established, it apparently withstands almost any kind of mutilation except continued grazing, mowing or plowing.

Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas? I once saw a farmer turn his cows into virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo's pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.

It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.
(Excerpted from "Prairie Birthday," p. 44-50 in my edition of A Sand County Almanac.)

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