Tag Archive | Variety

Disdain and Tenacity

IMG_5355 (534x800)I like my lawn.  I like my lawn because it is not all grass.  There is an incredible variety of plants which live in my lawn alongside the centipede and Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses which have become all mixed up out there.  Some of those plants have broad leaves along trailing vines, like the dichondra and the dollar weed.  Some of the plants form florets of leaves around a center stem, like the dandelions.  Some of the plants even have fuzzy leaves; I am not even sure what those are called.  The occasional oak tree pokes it’s lobed leaves up in the middle of my lawn.  I even have one or two crepe myrtle bushes which have been trying for years to push themselves up into their towering shrub form from the midst of my lawn.  Each time I mow, I think I will finally discourage the poor things enough that they will just shrivel up and disappear.  But they don’t; they just spread broader and poke up more branches in their futile attempts at reaching their full potential.  Bless their hearts.

But even with all of their variety, taken together, the plants in my lawn serve the same function as the grass in any lawn in an average suburban neighborhood.  That is to say, those plants are supposed to serve no individual function at all.  They are not supposed to stand out in any way.  Instead, they are supposed to look like a uniform meadow of green.  Their role in the world is not so much to paint a picture but to create a mood.  Landscape designers will tell you that swaths of green are necessary to allow the eye to rest.  They provide peace and calm, order and structure, shape and form, so that the other elements of the landscape can shine.  They are like herbaceous background singers, offering their rhythmic hums and do-wops so that the diva-like soloists can strut their stuff on the front of the stage.  That, I believe, is why dandelions are so offensive.  They plant themselves in the middle of the lawn, and although they have a different texture than what surrounds them, they are not, on the whole, ugly.  But then they shove their uppity, yellow blossoms toward the sky, and it becomes obvious that they have forgotten their place in the world.  The nerve!

Contrast the role of those varied plants in the lawn with what is in my flower beds.  That is where you will find the real stars of the kingdom plantae.  I have plenty of springtime divas out there right now:  the brilliant pink calla lilies glow, the gerbera daisies strut their primary yellow- and red-colored stuff, the oriental lily hybrids attract attention to their blushing petals, and the caladiums I bought earlier this spring show off the dazzling variegation of their leaves.  Or even contrast the workhorses of the vegetable and herb gardens.  The tomatoes and peppers and strawberries and oregano are not as gorgeous as the callas, the lilies, the daisies, and the caladiums.  But the flavors they bring rival the glory of the ornamental superstars.

Each of those plants serves a positive function, and they are special because of that function.  The plants in my lawn serve a negative function:  they are not supposed to compete with the plants in the flower and vegetable beds for attention.  And that is all.

And so, imagine my surprise and shock a few weeks ago at what I saw in the middle of my lawn.  At the top of a lobed-leaf plant poking up from the middle of the lawn, about equidistant from the river birch which dominates the front yard and the flower bed which lines the front of the house, there was a tiny, white flower.  And I recognized that flower and the leaves that accompanied it at once:  it was a blackberry.  A wild blackberry was trying with all its little might to grow and bloom and produce fruit in the middle of the front lawn.

I took some time to admire the little thing.  Its disdain for the overall function of the lawn that surrounded it, along with its sheer tenacity, earned my respect.  It didn’t care where it was planted.  It didn’t care about the horror its presence would cause the landscape designers; it didn’t care whether my eye had an opportunity to rest between gazes at the prettier things coming up in my yard.  It didn’t care that the rules say the fruit-bearing flora belongs in the back yard.  It had no interest in suburban propriety.  Its one mission in life was to fight for the right to bear its fruit, and by God, it was going to fight hard.  It had even armed itself with a score or more of spikes up and down its three-inch stem, daring someone, anyone, to tell it that it couldn’t do what it was destined to do, right in the spot where it found itself.

There are any number of metaphors that could be drawn from this little berry bramble asserting its right to do its thing wherever it grew.  I think of my son, whose intelligence and uniquely beautiful personality I can see, but who sometimes gets lost as necessary order is imposed on the jumble of dozens of kindergarten students who are made to sit still at their tables and stand straight in line and listen to the teacher and avoid distracting their neighbors.  I think of activists and artists and other saints in many times and places who have stood up not only for their own right to show their unique beauty and skill in the world, but who have organized and taught others to stand up and stand out, too.  I think of the narratives of my Christian faith, which give example after example of times when God has unexpectedly lifted ordinary people out of their ordinary circumstances to mediate extraordinary blessing to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Any of those thoughts could lead me to lessons potentially learned from this little, wild blackberry which dared to bloom in the middle of my lawn  But I am not sure a lesson is what is needed here.  For now, I think I am ready to simply appreciate that a disdain for order and tenacity of purpose are not exceptional in this world; in fact, they are very natural.

I like my lawn because it is not all grass.

My Lawn

In my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations are organized into presbyteries, for mutual support and accountability.  Historically, presbyteries have organized geographically.  For instance, the congregation I serve is a member of Savannah Presbytery, which includes all of the PC(USA) congregations within certain geographic boundaries in Southeast Georgia.

This summer, our church’s national General Assembly is considering a proposal to allow congregations to experiment by forming new presbyteries which cross those geographical boundaries.  These presbyteries could include congregations which decide to constitute a presbytery because of what they have in common.  The impetus for the proposed change came from people who identify as conservative; they want to be able to associate with other congregations who share their perspective on theological and social issues.

This proposal has me thinking a lot about my lawn.  I think the majority of the square footage in my front yard is still covered by centipede grass.  But I also have a significant and growing patch of Bermuda grass and even some small, shady places where some of the more delicate St. Augustine grass took root long before I moved into this place.  As you look closer at my lawn, you see a lot of other stuff, too:  some dichondra; some dandelions; a few sandburs, which have been the object of some graphic language as I walked barefoot this spring; and a bunch of other, unidentified greenery.  A few places, especially where it is shady and you can see the thick tree roots, there is plain dirt where nothing will grow.  A week or so after I mow, my lawn has all manner of spikes sticking up, flowers budding, and broad-leafed vines trying to creep all over the place.

It’s the kind of lawn that probably makes some of my neighbors crazy.  A few people on my street have lawns that are all uniform.  Most of those lawns are made of the strong, thick-bladed bermuda grass, but whatever the variety, there are certainly no “weeds” growing in those lawns.  As the blades of grass get longer, the whole thing is still uniform in height.  There is no dirt exposed to the potentially critical eye of someone who might stop by long enough to, perhaps, let his dog pee on the perfectionist’s mailbox.

I do not refuse to keep a monoculture lawn because I am lazy.  If I wanted to, I could get my lawn to look like the uniform ones on my street.  I keep my lawn the way it is by choice.  I have made that choice because I think it is healthier for my lawn, for myself and my family, and for the ecosystem I am a part of.

Suburban streets like mine were developed to fulfill a vision of houses dotting an otherwise peaceful, open meadow at regular intervals.  But what I realized a long time ago is that meadows are always made up of a whole bunch of different plants.  Nowhere in nature is there an open, green meadow which is uniform in species, much less in height.  Sometimes the plants in a meadow complement each other, with one species providing extra minerals for the soil or a certain amount of shade which helps the other plants around it.  Other times, some plants try to push all the other plants out of their way.  Sometimes new species find their way in.  But eventually, everything settles out so that the meadow can flourish together with all of its variety.

So why should my lawn be any different?  Why should I work against what is natural and healthy to create a uniform height, color, and texture in my front yard?  The person who owned this little piece of land before me tried.  Soon after we moved in, my neighbor looked at a big brown spot in my front yard with a chuckle.  He told me about the time that the previous owner had one of those nationally franchised lawn services come out and spray all kinds of chemicals on the lawn to get rid of the weeds.  But he didn’t think the lawn service did an adequate job, so he bought his own weed killer and applied it to the lawn the next day.  That night, it rained enough to make puddles in the lawn, and within a few days, the lowest spots began to turn brown and die.  I have been trying to coax something, anything, to live in those low spots ever since.

Meadows are not monocultures, and churches are not uniform, either.  Some people have a hard time when all the members of a church do not agree on the answers to questions that are significant to some members of that church.  But I don’t.  I think that it is only natural that there are different people, with a whole bunch of different views, in any community.  I have never been a part of any congregation that can speak with one voice on significant issues; when pressed to make a decision, some people always disagree with the majority, and those people have to decide whether they will quietly submit to the will of the others or withdraw from that congregation.  This is not good or bad; it is just the way churches are.

So why fight against the nature of the church?  I worry that any attempt to create uniformity might be toxic:  some people in the congregations which associate only with other congregations with a particular perspective on theological or social issues will be less likely to find a place in their church.  Whether the congregations shrink or thrive in a monoculture presbytery, over time, maintaining that appearance of agreement will take a lot of work, use a lot of resources, and may still fail because nature has a way of throwing weeds into the mix despite our best efforts to suppress them.

There is something healthy about taking whatever happens to grow in certain geographic bounds and doing what we can with it.  It is not uniform in any way.  The neighbors don’t always understand it, and they might even be aggravated by it.  We might curse at the burrs that come up in it and poke our bare feet now and then.  But accepting variety means that we don’t have to fight so hard against what is natural, and we might discover ways of living together that are healthier for the church, for ourselves, for our sisters and brothers, and for the ecosystem around us.

Jesus spoke about the farmer who woke up one morning and found that a whole bunch of weeds had grown up among his carefully tended wheat.  Everyone thought that he should pull the weeds right then and there.  But he said no.  He realized that, like it or not, the weeds were intertwined with the wheat, and pulling the one would harm the other.  So he let it go until someone could sort it out at the end of it all.  And Jesus said that the kingdom of God is just like that farmer.