All winter I plotted how to improve the garden, my first focal point for exercising “good stewardship” over the acre plus we moved to a year and a half ago. Last year’s garden had gone all right. I loved every minute in it, especially the time spent with animals, like Woodhouses’ toads and cliff swallows, which helped keep the garden in good order. But I got a late start and the harvest fell short. This year, I pushed to start my tomatoes on time along with other herbs and veggies that don’t mind sprouting indoors. I schemed how to improve our red, clayey soil. I saved money to hire a local man to till our ground.
Jed, the tiller guy, drove his little blue Ford tractor way out to our edge-of-the-desert lot. In less time than it probably took him to mosey out from town and back, there it was: the garden plot, opened up and turned over, ready to accept the least stroke of green intention. The day was cool. Very little sweat of the brow fell.
Walking over the tilled dirt, I mentally rotated pepper, tomato, bean and melon beds. Planning was fun, but my bliss shattered when I discovered the body of one of our Woodhouse’s toads lying on the garden’s surface in mortal tatters. The tractor’s blades had caught it as it lay torpid underground finishing out its hibernation.
Two days later I discovered another toad, dead, its right arm and foot severed. The tractor had struck this animal, too, as it lay buried. But the blades hadn’t churned it up as they had the other toad. With its good arm and leg, this toad dug its way out, crawled a short distance then died from its injuries. I stood looking at it thinking what an idiot I was for failing to foresee this problem and prevent it.
This stewardship thing’s tricky. “Be a good steward of the ground,” people say. “Exercise good evironmental stewardship.” I’m willing to accept personal responsibility for being what’s popularly called a “good steward” over the earth and its creatures. But just as with questions regarding love, what it is and how to do it well, people (or is it just me?) seem confused about what a good steward is and how to be one.
Originally, the office of steward belonged to servants responsible for keeping the castle table stocked with food and drink so their masters could glut on it without interruption. The role expanded to include the management of property, finances, or other affairs belonging to some other person or entity. In all cases, stewardship required running any and all matters smoothly and conscientiously.
The work of a good steward, as NT parable demonstrate, profits everyone in the environment in which he or she operates, from the “master” of the vineyard to the vines. So it’s fair, I think, to posit that a good environmental steward has a working knowledge of how an environmental system ought to function efficiently, even profitably, for everyone involved, including those who might inhabit the environmental system in the future. Then the steward acts well upon that knowledge.
But unlike the comparatively closed system of a castle or household or the controlled one of a business, we don’t understand to any degree of completeness the nature of nature. Even where we think we’ve been paying attention and ought to know it all, scientists make discoveries that require re-tooling everyone’s beliefs about what’s going on.
And if, as some have proposed, the human brain is evolving and human consciousness along with it, where can we settle in our thinking about how to be in the world?
The obvious answer: We can’t. A truth about working with nature is that at times we will act without knowing what is necessary or true. We will make mistakes. We are making mistakes, as we do in other realms of our behavior and beliefs.
The oft-referenced stewardship model is a venerable one and has its uses. It comes with challenges yet remains workable in castles, businesses, church callings, and household responsibilities. It even makes sense that a few individuals of special gifts and training step up to assume environmental stewardship roles.
But the good steward model doesn’t clear up the murk in the average person’s behavior toward nature, especially where the concept is bent to mean something like managed exploitation rather than the NT good steward standard of the profitable servant. We lack the omniscient creativity of God, so where work-a-day environmental stewardship is concerned, are we doomed to play the role of the unprofitable servant for the foreseeable future?
My guess: Any model we seek for improving peoples’ relations with nature ought to improve relations between people. Because I believe our clumsiness with other species is an extension of the clumsiness we experience within our own, and it will hardly work to buoy matters up on one end without thought for the best interests of the other.
Well, you know, I love my toads; I need their help in the garden. After the tilling fiasco, I loaded my kids in the van and we drove to a gravel pit where we scavenged as many big stones as we could carry, threw them in the van then unloaded them in the garden. Over the next two days we moved rock till middle-aged me could lift not one stone more. We built five raised beds, ten feet or so by three feet or so, and filled them with a mixture of our clay-soil and store-bought, mulchy compost. Next year, I’ll have only to mix new compost or manure into the top few inches of soil. I’ll do so with hand tools. We’ll drive up to the gravel pit, collect more stones, and build raised beds till it hurts. Gradually, we’ll eliminate the need to till our ground. The toads will be happy and safe. I’ll be happy. No sweat. At least, not that bad kind.