Learning the lessons our fathers taught us

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Awareness flows like a fluid from introducer to receiver, sometimes trickling or dripping, other times flooding and gushing. Both ends of the flow are enjoyable; teaching and being taught, introducing and being introduced, encouraging and being encouraged. All these relationships endure past the moment of completion. They linger as memory treasures for the rest of our lives.

Standing with my sons at the edge of our yard looking from the mown grass area off into the forest, collecting the balls and toys that have migrated into the woods, I am stricken with the thought that we will not revisit this state again. Tomorrow will be another day, we will still be here, but the passing moments carrying their lessons and context are heading downstream.

I am the recipient of the accumulated experience of my ancestors, distilled and misinterpreted by transmission through the generations, but even if mistaken, still the information I posess shapes my perceptions. I feel myself to be the child of agricultural people; this partnership with the growing world is basic to my internal map. I see the landscape prominently as I pass through regions or phases, I remember the first prunings and plantings, and soil textures of my grandparent's yards are still immediately accessible in my memory.

We now live in a region far from mainstream agricultural activity; the focus of my perception is not Blue Lake Beans but Blue Spruces. The wild world is more a part of my experience than the managed soils of my youth, but the guidance given at my father's side still directs my steps. I see the shapes and textures of the overlaying plant communities as the first layers of contact with the world. Architecture, social forms and organizations, even geological processes come after the plants. This was not intrinsic; I was directed from earliest days along this path.

Stories of my parent's farm and ranch upbringings were part of the cultural framework of my young life. 4-H Club and County Fair were the shared community bond, crossing social, religious and economic boundaries. Agriculture interfaced with suburban housing all over the region, and the crossover experience was common.

Our community has a similar interface, but its predecessor, the wild world, replaces the agricultural face. We have suburban and even urban segments of our built environment interpenetrated with the resurgent forest and its creatures. Bears in the streets, eagles on the power poles and porcupines eating our gardens are our common experiences. The face of the natural world is an older, less-managed one, but the awareness of the power and primacy of the non-human is even more powerful.

A generation ago here, the trees were cut to the horizon, smoke and industrial noise were omnipresent, and the mines ruled. Erosion was rampant, gullies were artifacts of development and landforms we accept with satisfaction were being built. The Treadwell Ditch cut the drainage patterns of all this side of Douglas Island, AJ Rock filed the shorelands and coves of the coastline, and Sandy Beach was the edge of the stamp mill zone.

Current residents of Juneau have as little awareness or contact with the vanished mining era as do the current residents of the formerly agricultural areas of the San Francisco Bay area. What ties us to the locations of our residences and the natural cycles that dominate them are our perceptions and memories, and the introductions to those cycles we had as children.

Our parents served as bridges to the vanished era of the small farm dominated society of their youths, and that of their parents times, linking it to the post war period of suburbanization. Our lives have met the recognition of growth limitations, and the need to sustain and repair damaged ecosystems, and this will be added to the message we pass along to our children.

The limits of oral history are the stories grandparents can tell us of their grandparent's times. We will be telling our children's children of times they can only barely imagine. Carless, unelectrified days when most people grew most of what they ate and the forests were just outside our yards. Days when wild animals were common fixtures of the daily life and when we had just begun to build houses by the hundreds instead of one at a time.

The thread of connection to the natural world will be passed on too; we will continue our parent's task of knitting new generations into the fabric of the earth. We are teaching respect for other lives and need for intact systems as part of our heritage. As our fathers did, so will we, the ancient route will still be followed. We might ride new vehicles, but the journey will be the same.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

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