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Book in Focus
A Philosopher Looks at the Natural World
Twenty-One Acres of Common Ground
By Daniel C. Fouke
The following text is adapted from the Prologue
Having settled ourselves into our new home, wreck that it is, we exit through the front door and make our way across the concrete parking lot. It extends, twenty feet wide, across the southern front of the house and turns into a parking lot on the west side. On our left, we pass the driveway—a gravel road with parallel strips of concrete textured with grooves for traction, sweeping straight down like a ski slope to the street 350 feet below. On this driveway, a previous owner of the house once put his newly purchased tractor into neutral, causing it to roll towards the street. Unable to put it into gear, he hit the driveway, picking up speed as he found his brakes too weak to stop him. Still unable to stop when he hit the street, he crashed into the trees and rolled down a ravine on the other side, losing one of his legs as a result. I am reminded of this accident as we head up the steep road cut into the hill that takes us roughly 190 yards to the plateau on the top of our property, machetes and tent in hand. Once we reach this spot, we pass through a seven-acre field, now growing alfalfa, and reach the eleven acres of woodlands.
A wide-mowed path encircles and divides the woods. On one side, it divides the largest part of the woods from land that borders a series of ravines, some of which have springs. Over time, we will notice a difference between the rich loamy soil in the ravines and the flatter portion of the woods and the field. We will learn that some twenty-five years ago, a previous owner illegally stripped off and sold the topsoil of every part of our property except the ravines, flattening the hill in preparation for a housing development he was unable to get approved. Ravines aside, all the other soil is hard clay, which the shedding leaves from the surviving trees have been unable to coat with a significant layer of leaf-mold.
As we approach the woods encircled by the path, we see mounds of lush, emerald green, the luxuriant result of countless honeysuckle and bittersweet vines. However, these are not the lovely, noninvasive native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but the invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). This is our first careful examination of this part of our land. Looking upward, we see the honeysuckle has encircled the tops of even our tallest trees—tulip trees, oaks, locust trees, and maples—with a web that impedes their growth and cracks their crowns with ever-tightening nooses. We see tree trunks that have been squeezed into corkscrews in the clutches of Asian bittersweet vines that wind around them and swell with new growth each season.
Our first self-appointed task is to free the trees, cutting away the vines from the trunks to stop the damage above. We each pick a point of entry into this tangled mass. Swinging our machetes, we cut our way through the vines and discover an understory filled with another invasive plant—honeysuckle shrubs (Lonicera maackii). This, along with many other invasive shrubs of the same family, was introduced from Asia into North America as an ornamental plant in 1752. It turns out that Southwestern Ohio, where our township of Spring Valley is located, is one of the areas most infested with this shrub.
All of these plants, and other introduced invasive species we will find here, such as tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)—also called garbage tree—garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that will spring up after we’ve cleared much of the honeysuckle, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora) all have allelopathic properties. This means they alter the chemistry of the soil to inhibit germination by seeds of native plants. Our soil is polluted with these chemicals. This, and their rampant growth, are taking over natural areas and systematically endangering the native shrubs, wildflowers, and trees of our region. Variants of this problem are found across the United States.
Having made separate entry points, Barb and I lose track of each other. I call out her name and hear a faint answer. I have no idea from where it is coming. I trace the path I’ve beaten back, find where she started, and follow her tracks to where she is located. We behold each other, covered with sweat and bloody scratches, breathing hard from our exertions. We begin to realize the enormity of the task we have set ourselves in thinking we could ecologically restore our property and refashion our house into something livable.
The house was originally an underground structure built in the 1970s, with walls and ceilings fashioned from twelve inch-thick concrete, two glass doors, and a southern-facing window. Another owner dug away the soil that embedded the house in the hill and added a second floor with two narrow glass doors but no windows that would enable us to see the valley below where the Little Miami, a state and national scenic river, winds through along with the scenic and historic town of Spring Valley. Nor can we see the hills that surround the valley which turn pink in the spring as the redbud trees bloom.
The floor of the upper level is the tar-covered concrete that was originally the roof of the underground house. It is one room with a ceiling fourteen feet tall at the center, large enough to allow us to play some version of basketball if we wished to, along with a bathroom. There is also something wrong with the electrical system. Upstairs, the polarities of the outlets are reversed. Downstairs, flipping a switch often elicits an electrical shock. There is no central heating. The back concrete walls of the downstairs are covered with drops of moisture and patches of mildew. One bathroom is so moldy that we close the door, not to open it again until we are finally able to remodel the downstairs. There are two small bedrooms and a bathroom along the back side of the downstairs, as well as a pantry covered in red wallpaper that our niece says looks like it came from a tattoo parlor. The front side of the house is one long room. On one end is the living area partly filled with a huge brick fireplace that is unusable because it is not connected to a chimney. On the other end is an open kitchen with a few cabinets and a stove that, by the time we remodel this area, will be down to one working burner. The roofers wait some time to install the shingles after laying down the tar paper. A violent storm will tear off large sheets of it and water will infiltrate the downstairs where we are living. After this, we will move under the moisture-stained wallboard and loosened strips of joint tape. We will live in this dungeon for about six years.
Addressing the problems of the house, trying to clear the woods of invasive species, and planting native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers to create a biodiverse landscape will occupy us for close to thirty years. However, on that first day of clearing vines, we have not yet grasped the enormity of our project. We are in our mid-thirties, full of vigor and dreams of life among wild things.
That night, we put up our tent in a part of the woods less infested with invasive plants. We start a fire, cook our dinner, talk for a bit, and then lie down wearily on our sleeping bags. An early riser, I awake to the sounds of birds and leave the tent with my binoculars. Entranced by the unspeakable beauty of these songs, which are like nothing I’ve ever heard, I try to track down the birds to view them. Their ethereal song has a flute-like quality and they seem to have ventriloquial abilities since parts of the melody seem to emit from more than one location. Later, I will learn that I am hearing wood thrushes and that the unearthly quality of their songs is partly attributable to the males’ ability to sing duets with themselves by singing harmonizing pairs of notes simultaneously, one in each branch of their y-shaped syrinx, or voice box. Many have tried to describe the song, but none can do it justice. It is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. Of it, Thoreau wrote, “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. Wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.” Though their songs fill the woods, I am not able to locate a single one.
Even so, this is magic. This earthly magic that we discover among the ordinary life of this place, however damaged it is, will help to carry us through the next twenty-eight years of labor—a labor still unfinished. As we steadily increase the habitat of our property, the magic will increase as more wild things move in. However, as we have grown older, we sometimes wonder whether the labor will wear us down and question how long we will be able to keep it up. Looking at our neighbors’ properties that are in the same condition as ours was on that first day, we wonder whether our inevitable surrender of the land because of old age or death will allow the seeds from those invasive plants to take root on our property and make all our efforts in vain.
In A Philosopher Looks at the Natural World, I will describe what led up to that first day in the woods and what has followed until the present time. Since I am a professional philosopher who has concentrated on environmental philosophy in the later part of my career, I will provide both a narrative of our journey and an attempt to describe the philosophical lessons I’ve drawn from it—lessons about what we are, the nature of this amazing planet, and where we fit in its rare and precious system of life. Much of what I say will, I’m afraid, be tinged with sadness about what we have done, how we have fashioned ourselves, and what we are losing. However sad these things make me, I write this book in the hope that we can find a way to change, understand our place in the natural order, and discover a more constructive and wiser path forward.
Daniel C. Fouke is Professor Emeritus at the University of Dayton, USA. He has authored numerous books and articles on early modern, environmental, and political philosophy.
A Philosopher Looks at the Natural World: Twenty-One Acres of Common Ground is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.