Published in the Rains County Leader on April 27, 2021:
Several years ago David and I watched a documentary that projected, in the event humans went extinct, how long it would take nature to reclaim the earth. It seemed fanciful to watch computer animations of trees breaking through major highways and vines creeping up and over crumbling infrastructure and collapsed skyscrapers in a century or two. However, after a walk around our property last weekend, it no longer seems so impossible.
When we first saw the 2.3 acre plot that has been our home for the past ten years, the front acre was clear enough that, after the removal of a couple of large trees, we were able to place our mobile home with enough space left over to park several vehicles. The rest of the lot, however, didn’t look as if it had been cleared in recent memory.
We rented the house twice over the next couple of years, but neither tenant stayed long or did much in the way of outdoor maintenance. By the time we became permanent residents of Rains County, the wilderness had advanced significantly, and we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. We were not yet entrenched in the community life of our new home, so we spent a lot of time working outdoors. Within a few months, David had burned up his city push mower and had invested in a riding mower, a chain saw, a machete, and various other trimming tools. After several close encounters with poison ivy and sunburn, we also learned to wear hats, gloves and long sleeves regardless of the temperature.
Keeping in mind that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, we developed a system for attacking our little overgrown homestead. Today we’ll clear the triangle between these three trees, David would say, and we’d go to work. I’d pull vines off the bigger trees and cut down briars while he attacked the saplings, the low hanging branches, and the dead trees. Sometimes we’d only manage to clear a few square feet at a time, and we had lots of bonfires.
Eventually we cleared all the way to the creek that forms the back property line. We left the steep creek bank in its natural state, hoping to slow down the erosion, and David was able to keep the rest of the lot under control with the mower. Meanwhile, we became more involved with our church, we began going to the Senior Center on a regular basis, we made more friends, and we spent less time at home. After I published my first book, the writing bug bit me hard, and I spent more time at the keyboard. And as the birthdays continued to pile up, working the land became harder on aging joints, so it was easier to stay inside.
I gave up gardening several years ago when the neighborhood critters ate more of the produce than we did, and I’ve pretty much given up on flowers since all the trees block too much sunlight. Then, we had a nice covered porch built a couple of years ago, and I spend most of my outdoor time in a rocker with a book or my laptop. David still goes out every week or so to pick up fallen limbs and run the lawn mower, but he often comes in saying that he got it all done except this or that section. Last Saturday, I was on my laptop when he walked through the living room carrying his rubber boots. It had rained almost three inches the day before, and I knew he was going to check on fallen limbs.
“I’m going to take a look around. Wanna come?” he asked.
I looked at what I was doing on the computer and decided it could wait. “Why not?” I replied and went to get my own rubber boots.
For the next half hour or so we wandered around the property pointing out dead or crowded trees that needed to come down and other maintenance that needed to be taken care of. I was surprised by how much the wilderness had advanced while I wasn’t paying attention. The area where I once grew tomatoes, peppers, and purple hull peas is now totally shaded by the five or six saplings we never got around to taking down. And saplings left on their own tend to turn into full-grown trees. In spite of our attempts at erosion control, our back property line has been reshaped as water seeking its lowest level has washed out new gullies and undercut the roots of tall trees. The natural vegetation we left along the creek – aside from not doing its job – has crept inland, some places by several yards. The extensive clearing we did initially won’t be required, but a little work will be needed before David can mow it again.
While watching that documentary, it seemed unbelievable that traces of man’s existence might disappear from the earth within a few hundred years. But after taking a closer look around here, my doubts are fading. If this place was left uninhabited and untended for a few decades, our house would probably be a pile of rubble, and the land would once again be a wilderness of briars, poison ivy, wild flowers, and weeds of all descriptions. And the wildlife would probably enjoy it almost as much as they enjoyed my garden.