Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One Step Ahead

or A Rake's Progress

The earnest, much-pierced young stock clerk at the natural foods co-op was doing his best to persuade me that spending $26 for the 32-oz. bottle of certified organic maple syrup was a good idea.  The ex-Vermonter in me, on the other hand, was doing her best to convince the clerk that all maple syrup is produced organically, and that spending an extra $10 for the label was just plain wrong.  The conversation went something like this:

Clerk:  Organic producers can't use pesticides.
Me:  Sugar maples grow in forests.  The trees aren't sprayed.
Clerk:  Then how do they keep the insects under control?
Me:  Well, the trees grow in forests, where there are natural predators.  Besides, the sap starts running in early spring, before the insects are out, and anyway, it comes from deep underground, where insects aren't a problem. 
Clerk (sceptically):  Sap?
Me:  Uh-huh.
Clerk (visibly debates calling security and changes his mind):  And the land has to have been chemical-free for three years.
Me:  The syrup comes from trees.  Trees take a lot longer than three years to grow.  And they're growing in a forest, not in an orchard or on farmland.
Clerk (confused):  How can they grow in a forest?
Me (confused):  They're trees.  Trees do that.
Clerk (sceptically):  What, on their own?
Me:  Well, you know, with ferns and brambles and birds and deer and stuff.
Clerk:  But that sounds like one of those Eastern forests.
Me (confused):  Yes.
Clerk:  How do they harvest a forest?
Me:  They go around and tap the trees.
Clerk (possibly suspecting a conspiracy):  "They?"  Who are "they?"
Me:  Guys.  Just, you know, guys.
Clerk:  You mean farmers.
Me:  No, just a bunch of guys in the woods.  They get permits to tap trees on state or national forest land, and maybe ask if they can tap their neighbors' trees.  You know, guys
Clerk (startled):  You make them sound like the guys around here who harvest piñon nuts.
Me (startled):  Yeah, I guess so.
Clerk:  But that's, just, like, some guys in the woods.
Me:  Yeah.
Clerk (desperately):  OK, but for maple syrup to be organic they have to use organic fertilizer, too.
Me (blank confusion):  It's a forest.
Clerk (blank confusion).

(Light dawns:  the clerk is young, maybe 20, and a local—he's probably never seen a deciduous forest.  He knows pine and juniper woods, with the occasional deciduous tree thrown in as make-weight, but nothing that would support large-scale commercial production.  The orchards he's encountered have been heavily managed apple or pecan orchards; his experience of "soil," if any, is mineral-rich, nutrient-poor "decomposed granite."  Deciduous forests occupy a theoretical place in his awareness, but he hasn't had a reason to think them through.)

Me:  When the leaves fall every year they just stay there on the ground and get covered by rain and snow.  They pretty well decompose by spring.  It's like the trees are self-mulching and self-composting.
Clerk (light also dawning):  Oh, like in an eco-system or something.
Me (beaming):  Exactly!

With that little misunderstanding cleared away, we both go about our business feeling pleased with each other, as if we are mutual converts to...well, we don't know what, but we're both pleased.

All to say, I'm not planning to rake the garden this winter.  The sand cherries and desert olives have never shed enough leaves for raking to be an issue before, so this is the first time I've actually faced the choice.  Whether to rake can actually be a rather heated issue in the gardening world—the impulse to tidy the garden for winter is deeply ingrained (and yes, some of us are just getting around to that now here in Albuquerque), and many of the reasons for doing so are good.  On the other hand, my garden doesn't exemplify any of the good reasons:  it doesn't have lawn or easily smotherable, delicate perennials; it's in the high desert where crown rot and slugs are ogres we frighten badly behaved children with, not things we ever expect to encounter in real life; and garden-magazine tidiness is not really an issue.

I did consider gathering all the leaves into a pile, putting them in a corner to compost, and then replacing them on the garden beds come March, but besides not having the energy to do any of that, something about the process struck me as...redundant.  The whole sense that raking is something I "ought" to do was making me feel like the serious young stock clerk, whose ideals were perhaps one step ahead of his information.  Like most of us when we're in a fundamentalist mode, he just wanted to do the right thing.  Yes, zeal and a pure heart do count for a lot, but weighing circumstances correctly is even better; the right choice doesn't always have to be the most difficult one.

The sand cherries and desert olives are native plants; somehow they manage just fine in the wild without having someone come along to rake the leaves and compost them specially before returning them to the soil.  A tiny, urban garden may create different growing conditions than, say, the vast expanse of the Gila Wilderness, but I don't see any reason why these plants shouldn't be as self-mulching and self-composting as they would be in the wild. 

Ooh—like in an eco-system or something!


  1. Such a rebel! I find myself caught between the two camps: on one hand, I like things neat and orderly, on the other, I want it to be all natural. I try to let the natural side of me win.

  2. Alas, Dan must rake because if he leaves too many leaves on the ground in our yard (pun intended), we get oodles of rot and icky insects that far outnumber their natural predators. I wouldn't mind the insects so much if they would just stay outdoors, but they like to come in and visit me. Ewwww.

    But if you don't need to rake, fallen leaves do have a natural charm.

    Please tell me you DIDN'T buy that syrup, lol.

  3. Ha! What a funny conversation. It's amazing how a landscape isn't real, no matter how many pictures you've seen, until you're standing there in it, processing what's around you. Glad you both worked through it and came to an understanding :)

  4. Shelli--I definitely feel rebellious about it! Or maybe just defensive. :) The natural look is certainly an easier one to maintain...

    klbrowser--With all the moisture you get, I could see the bugs being a problem. Ewwww, indeed! I didn't buy the syrup. :) Hopefully that young man will be able to save a lot of money from here on out, too.

    Zoe--It took us so long to realize we were talking at cross-purposes! It's that pesky word "forest"--just doesn't compute in the same way out here. You're right--the knowledge just doesn't count, somehow, without actual experience to make sense of it.