Diamonds in the daytime don’t give pause
To many, yet I turn my head, admire
The tips of meadowgrass, like bluebird’s claws
They snag the dew and snarl the sunrise fire.
And who has noticed humble chicory
Monarch of the margins, pinning down
The stardust from the owl’s balcony
To then bloom softly from the flower’s crown?
And I should give my thanks to which fine cook?
No cosmic palate scorns the glory here
Of forage-foods at every touch and look
Weeds, to any hungry walker dear.
To here I give my love, this earthly shrine,
No space here wasted, every inch divine.
-“In Praise of the Waste Space,” a sonnet I wrote this summer
Since returning to Bay country, one of the aspects of my old life I longed for the most was the wild. I have always been drawn to the arcane layers of a landscape, where the features of a place speak a language older and stranger than the relatively gentle tones of the Eastern Shore. After four years of knowing the blue emptiness of the open ocean or the tangled forests of Maine and Guatemala, the wild’s hold on me has only increased. Yet every now and then I’m reminded that even here on Eastern Shore, sandwiched between monocultures and paved downtowns, exist little patches of the unclaimed. I found one last week by the boathouse.
Ben had asked us to meet him at the WAC waterfront for a photography assignment. It was late morning, sunny and dewy, and the group of us squinted at Ben as he told us to spread out and start taking pictures. I was soon drawn to the meadow on the southern side of the property. It wasn’t an imposing space, maybe three hundred yards by two hundred, and mostly composed of thigh-high grasses, sprinkled with bolts of color where the wildflowers raised their flashy crowns. At first I was apprehensive– my sandals and leggings were useless against chiggers and ticks– but I tossed off the worry and stepped over the lip of the waste space. Just twenty feet in, the sounds of the morning were muffled. I could no longer see my faraway classmates. The meadowgrass was taller on the north side, forming a head-high buffer between me and the boathouse. I was abruptly alone, which was why I had come.
Alone, but hardly lonely. As I walked, camera held above the night-damp touch of the grasses, I cast my senses outward. Cicadas rattled and churred from unseen perches. The quieter white noise of other insects was peppered now and then with the call of a bird. Grass swished on my shoes and stroked my legs with gossamer fingers. The further in I went, the more I felt myself slipping into the primitive, tapping into the collective consciousness of the meadow, the same way I do when walking alone into any space unmarked by human hands.
With my camera before me, I started to study the space and its residents. I knelt in the dampness and took pictures of a cicada upside down on a twig, two powder-blue butterflies mating on a stalk of grass, a spider in her web turned crystalline with dew. I dodged wasps and skirted bees, flinching minutely with each step in fear that I should be unlucky enough to discover a ground nest the hard way. Flowers still flushed with summer’s abundance exploded out of the greenness, Queen Anne’s lace and Jerusalem artichoke swishing their bright skirts alongside dancers whose names escaped me. At every hand was the world in slow motion as the meadow existed quietly.
I was in deep at this point, surrounded for a good distance on each side by the thick grass. I couldn’t judge how long I’d been in the meadow, but I figured we’d be gathering again soon. The stinging insects were starting to wig me out too. In a few long, quick bounds, I traversed a low patch nearby and jumped onto the lane of trimmed grass bounding the southern side. I continued to poke along the edge. Before I started back to the boathouse, I knelt to photograph some chicory, my favorite flower. I straightened, and read the sign below which the chicory grew:
FUTURE SITE OF
Oh. Right. This was where they would be building the new waterfront classroom. I tried to temper the sudden flare of confused sadness brought on by this reminder. It was hardly the first time I’d seen a waste space suddenly disappear under some new development. But this was a unique and conflicted sting. I wanted the new classroom to be built. You can learn all there is to know about something from a book or lecture, but until you experience it with every sense, taste and touch and smell it, you will not truly know it. A classroom on the water would help with this. Yet I mourned for the meadow, its quiet bustle, a mosaic of detail which the students in that future classroom will never know about. Where is the line drawn between progress in the name of helping and teaching, and preservation in the name of aesthetic and ecological integrity? Practically, we cannot leave the wild perfect. We never have; even now, with our technological advances, we need it to survive. But we certainly cannot keep our current trend of using it all until there is nothing left.
In his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon points to the Romantic movement and pilgrims seeking the sublime in the wild to ways in which the concept of wilderness gained power and started to feed the modern environmental movement. “Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality,” writes Cronon. I have known these spaces personally, where the metaphysical membrane between this world and others grows thin. Yet I would argue that this power is also present in the median of the highway, in the seagulls picking garbage from the landfill, in the lot about to paved under. As a reminder of this, I ask the future keepers of the Semans-Griswold Hall: do not dock the land around the building. Do not make it perfect. As a reminder of what was, and of the balance we must maintain, let the space grow up around again, erratic and untouched. Let it be wild. Let it be.