“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” was the moral injunction my teachers used on me when I was a kid. It was nice as far as mottos go, and I’ll admit it did prevent me, in a moment of temptation, from dropping a shiny gum wrapper on the side of the path up to Brainard Lake on a school field trip. However, like most mottos, it drops the second half of the equation. That is, the teachers who passed this saying along to us naughty children made no reciprocal demand on nature. But maybe they should have. After all, even if we play by the rules and refuse to leave a little of ourselves in nature, it will undoubtedly leave a little something of itself on us.
For instance, ticks. When I was a kid the only unpleasant part of a hike was that last bit, coming home. In the springtime, just when alfalfa was getting up lush in the green valley, the ticks came into their own. My mother warned us from the front door when she saw us returning, and we had to be very careful checking for ticks before going into the house. Too often I found them, nursing my armpit or cradled in a knee-crook or – horribly – swinging, roguish, on strands of my hair. To get rid of a tick, I had heard from another kid in the back of the school bus, you can use a match. Hold the red tip of an unlighted match out to a tick, he said, and the booger will jump ship, abandoning your skin for this bright new “blood.” Not true, I learned. By the time you discover a tick on you he’s usually lodged his mouthparts firmly into your skin and can see little but the blood he’s already drinking. The only real way to get rid of a tick is to pull him straight out with your finger and thumb, an intimate violence of skin on chitin. Because when it comes down to it, a tick’s will to live, his will to keep on eating and mating and making more ticks, is as strong as anyone’s to do anything. No party tricks with illusory blood will do. A tick’s will is carried out only by violence, and only violence can stop it.
Ticks are not the only clingers-on. There are the stickers of all stripe that collect in my hiking boots. Now, whatever else we might say about them, stickers are at least good at their job. They have been simply and evilly engineered to do exactly what they’re called — to stick. As far as I’ve read, the humble thistle is the product of millions of years of natural selection, the most perfect specimens resembling nothing so closely as the scratchy half of Velcro, surfaced with countless nubile hooks and pleasantly rough as cats’ tongues. Their purpose is as vital as their methods are perverse: to export the seed of their mother plants. To do so they’ll hitch a ride on anything soft – in times past on animal fur and in times present on L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. This meant that after even the most lovely of hikes I always had at least one unpleasant task at the end to pick out and maroon dozens of these stickers on a rock by the gate into the garden.
Often in extraction mode I am torn between frustration and a kind of grudging admiration for the sticky little problems. At times I am even moved to something like aesthetic rapture in looking at their forms, like Susan Tweit gushing in her Colorado memoir, Pieces of Light, in the description of one such sticker: the bladder-pod mustard seed. This seed’s mother plant has “the look of a miniature microwave tower with its ranks of round dishes” (35). Detached from their origin the pods are, as Tweit points out, “perfectly round” the shape and color of lentils and downed all over with hair-thin catches. They have a peculiar liking for socks and betake them to the soft underlip of sneakers by the handful.
More noxious – and more ingenious – is the aptly named cheatgrass, a wiry stock brachiating to clusters of wine-colored thistles. When dry, its grass heads stick like the dickens in the mesh of sneakers, looking for all the world like giant desiccated sperms, and sharply hooked as miniature harpoons. Cheatgrass, you can imagine, has made its fair share of enemies. Such a public irritant is it that it appears routinely on the county parks-and-recreation list of top ten most loathed weeds. In fact, according to one little (un-ironically officious) publication, “Twelve Most Unwanted Weeds in the Estes Valley: Identification and Management Guide” cheatgrass’s “[d]ried seed heads are a nuisance to livestock, pets, and hikers because of prickly nature of seeds,” and, more gravely, poses a fire hazard to Colorado open-spaces because it “spreads flames quickly across large expanses” (17). Incidentally, the booklet also mentions that the best way to dispose of such fire-spreading weeds is to spread them over a fire at a facility located, if you can believe it, at 666 Elm Road.
Starve or be sucked dry. Burn or be burned. Who would have thought that living would depend so much upon death, predation, or in the last instance, getting your hands on another being’s resources? And yet somehow it is this opportunistic streak that inspires so much admiration in me, this blind and basic perseverance (I almost wrote perverseness) just to keep going. Splendid, and selfish. Exhibit number three, the dwarf mistletoe plant, whose parasitism Ms. Tweit extolls later on in her narrative. Dwarf mistletoe a kind of modified ivy that preys on ponderosa and lodgepole Pines. You can tell if it has insinuated itself into the Pine’s feedbag just by looking at it. Along the pine’s branches the mistletoe enweaves its own branchlettes, as if to caress the tree it’s starving. Tweit’s interpretation is something more sinister. Mistletoe makes its host look to her “as if it was possessed, its gnarled grey body inhabited by a spiky green spirit” (33). And how does the mistletoe penetrate the pine? In the cleverest way, equal parts earnest and insidious: “when mature, the seeds are shot out of the fruit like bullets, hurled up to forty-five feet. If they hit a conifer needle, the seeds stick until the next rain and then slide down the wet needles to a branch, where they germinate and root” (32). So much for “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
But maybe this whole relation is a bit more complicated than a black and white them-vs.-us, who-leaves-what-on-whom scenario. When I think of weeds, for instance, I think of them as other, different, barbaric even. However much Hopkins I might read, – “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!” – I can’t help feeling that the weed and I are intractably, cosmically opposed and that we were born that way, and shall remain so world without end, amen. Far from Hopkin’s praise, I am more likely to side with Isaiah, who fears the weed as a supernatural agent of Divine Justice, an alien assault on civilized life. After all, when Zion falls “thorns shall come up in its palaces / Nettles and brambles in its fortresses.” And thus I read every vacant lot as a neon sign, a direct threat from nature: if you loose your grip on the land even for one summer, all of this will go back to the way it was.
Turns out, though, there is no going back to the way it was, because the way it was never was that way. A vacant lot’s weeds are as much a sign of previous civilization as whatever buildings used to be on that same space. As Pollan explains in his Second Nature, weeds will only move in where soil has already been broken and enriched by previous plantings. No wonder they delight so in empty parcels and fallow fields. In fact, most of the weeds we associate with the “wild” American landscape – Gatsby’s “green breast of the new world” – are imports from Europe, that bastion of human culture. “It’s hard to imagine the American landscape without St.-John’s-wort, daisies, dandelions, crabgrass, timothy, clover, pigweed, lamb’s-quarters, buttercup, mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, plantain, or yarrow,” Pollan explains, “but not one of these species grew here before the Puritans landed. America in fact had few indigenous weeds, for the simple reason that it had little disturbed ground” (111).
In Pollan’s view, “the way it was” is a fool’s paradise, illusory, unattainable. Life swarms, generations emerge and disappear, marking the land, leaving their remainders, altering the complexion of things if only a little bit. More than that, Nature itself changes, adapts. For instance we tend to think of wildfires as disturbances, baleful forces that raze landscapes and alter some pre-existing natural blueprint that ought not to be altered, and we usually feel guilty about it. We think of nature as so delicate and violable – which of course in a lot of ways it is – that we end up extending the thinking too far, imagining nature sans man as if free from taint or blight, virgin, in some ways, immutable. In this picturing man equals fire, and there again is the ancient enmity between nature and man. But many fires, yes even fires that clear old growth forest, that decimate beloved hardwoods, that clear out old species to make room for new ones, are natural. And in fact these natural brushfires are quite capable of changing the makeup of an ecosystem drastically – all without the “help” of mankind. If there is a blueprint for all this, destruction is baked in.
If nature can be blamed of anything, and I would extend the blame to man who moves within nature’s patterns, it is of nothing truly sinister but merely everyday selfishness, and also, well, something like bad taste. Whenever I am tempted to think of man as the ultimate defiler — what idiots we are to festoon the ocean with single-use plastics! What philistines to chuck slurpee-cups onto the green margins of our highways! What jerks to keep making shit that will end up in thrift-stores and landfills! — I think back to the ticks and the weeds and to all the ugly things in nature that spawn and sprawl and basically just do whatever their stomachs and —- pardon me — dicks tell them to do. Annie Dillard has called this brainless multiplication fecundity. I maintain that it’s just bad taste. And perhaps it’s bad taste we humans learned from nature. Maybe we have spent all this time trying to leave our footprints on nature, without realizing how much she has walked all over us…