When we first moved down into the holler we were confronted by a confusing profusion of nature. Ten acres of land down here in the Piedmont never truly “lie idle.” It was the closest thing to a jungle (minus the tropical climate) that we’ve ever experienced.
Our vision for The Mill is to foster community… so we don’t want a place that’s just hacked out of the corner of a wilderness. Our guiding principle has been to work to make this place one where people feel they “belong”… “The wild” has a certain appeal, but, by nature, one never feels they “belong” there.
So, armed with sickles and scythes from our Ukrainian days, along with some newly acquired technology like weed-whacker, chain saw and lawn tractor, we set to work. Liz has a great deal of experience in landscaping crews… but as we pursued our engagement with the forces of nature, we realized that a different approach was required. In the suburbs, there is a sense in which landscaping is a sign of dominance… a vision of how the grounds should be transformed to reflect the desires of the owner is universal in scope. Eliminating the variables, an environment is constructed for which the land around and beneath are, basically, little more than the “frame and canvas” in and on which the picture will be displayed. Nature exists primarily in the form of raw material for realizing the vision of the owner or designer.
Well, that just doesn’t work here. First, there’s just too much life springing up with too much vitality out of too much ground. We realized right away that we had to “choose our battles,” that there was no way we could “transform” everything. We don’t have the time, energy or resources. Some areas will just have to “stay wild.” Not a problem – we like the woods and rocks and creeks and the critters that live in them.
However, we realized that we needed to do more than just limit our efforts to a part of the territory. You see, there really is a wildness to the wilderness… In March, we experienced a flash-flood that turned our little creek into a 300 foot wide torrent that left our holler littered with scores of automobile sized timbers, floated away our 500-gallon propane tank, and left a few dozen tons of sand as a present. (We’re still digging out from that one.) Plus, the entire creek-side environment is just too dynamic to permit any serious attempt at “control” at even a micro-level. Given the indomitable persistence of the native flora and fauna along with the very tenuous grip we realize we have on the land itself, “Man vs. Nature” is not on my fight card.
Rather than impose our vision or will on the land, we’ve realized we will have to work with it. We want to bring an element of order and beauty to the place which will allow people to breathe freely and comfortably, knowing they’re at a place they belong… But that belonging can never be defined apart from the terrain, the weather, the whole ecosystem. We must find our place here by observing, understanding, and working with the forces of nature… because if we don’t, they’ll sooner or later sweep us all away.
So there are large spaces here that are just as wild as ever they were. And some distinctly beautiful bits… but even those are not and will never be totally “orderly” – either they fit in with and adapt to the ebb and flow of the land itself, or they won’t last, no matter how much effort we expend trying to beat them into shape.
Similarly, I can’t help but wonder how many of us (and how many aspects of my own life) reflect a striving to build our lives, our careers, our marriages, our ministries by trying to control our environments, factor out the variables, and transform (at least a little piece of) reality to be what we feel it should be. Chaos, unpredictability and uncontrolled change are the enemy. Our vision must be clear so that all we do and are can be placed into orbit around it. Anything that crops up that doesn’t “fit the plan” is a failure … anything less than total recreation of our reality’s landscape amounts to a flaw in us. As such, we burden ourselves with an impossible task. We can no more recreate our own reality than we can landscape ten acres of wilderness with a pile of hand tools.
Instead, there is freedom in acknowledging our own limitations, embracing the complexity of our own environment, defining the steps that we can take to begin to belong… not as conquerors, or even managers, but as stewards, not to see reality reflect our “master plan,” but to move a little piece of it in a certain direction… a little closer to a place where a community can grow that is not in a state of war with the world as it is, but finds its own corner of the world sufficiently nurturing and affirming (even if a gullywasher is on the way) that it can sow the seeds of an alternative way of being-in-the-world that can impact that world far more than merely transforming its external shape ever could.