ster·ile /ˈsterəl/ adjective
1. not able to produce children or young. (of land or soil) too poor in quality to produce crops.
2. free from life
It is a common misconception that Death is the opposite of Life. Out of this belief, modern society takes great pain to reduce, hide, and otherwise eliminate death from its view. We go out to rake up the dead leaves, hiding the seasonal slumber of fall. We paint our faces, wrinkled with age, experience, and wisdom, choosing instead to appear young and far from Death. We preserve our food with petrochemicals, hiding its inner decay and rot to please our eyes and feign freshness. Death, however, is not the opposite of Life. As every good gardener, composter, hiker, and lover of this Earth knows, Death is Life and Life is Death. From every death springs many lives, and every life leads to many deaths. The dying tree plays host to a myriad of insects, fungi, and birds. From the dying animal, other animals and bacteria find sustenance. The opposite of life, then, is the lack of life: the Sterile. In our continuous conquest for a life free of Death, we have instead bred the Sterile everywhere we look. The apple that is free of parasites and free of nutrition. The house that is free of cracks and free of warmth. The person that is free of pain and free of soul. The aseptic mindset of modern society has glorified the bland, the acceptable, the average, and in its wake a has damaged our opportunities to create true health in our bodies, our communities, and our ecosystems. When we can again look to nature for her wisdom we will find that only by accepting and celebrating both Life and Death that we will once again restore vitality and vibrancy to our society.
The body of nature is perpetual transformation. — Masanobu Fukuoka
The suburbs are the ultimate manifestation of the Sterile. The suburban landscape is neither abundantly beautiful nor immediately displeasing. Perfectly symmetrical homes dot the landscape with their faux-shuttered windows, their square hedges, and bland color schemes. The suburb is anywhere and everywhere. Driving out from your suburban home in California, Texas, or Virginia and you will be greeted with the “comforting” sight of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Kohls.
The landscapes of the suburban world reflect the ambiguity and generality of the homes they decorate. The grass, seemingly lush, is kept alive by a potent mix of poisons and drugs, hiding the lifeless, sterile soil beneath it. The blades of grass stand straight and tall, chopped at the top like a well tamed military unit. Rainwater, wild and unruly, neatly leaves the garden through a series of gutters and drains, swept into the ocean and disappeared within minutes. Water is instead provided by evenly spaced sprinklers, turned on daily by electronic ghosts. The suburban garden is not to be used, touched, walked on, stepped in, or smelled (except by Illegal Aliens). The suburban garden, like the rest of the suburban world, is cared after, but not cared for.
The surburb bears no relation to the land it is placed in and the ecosystem is replaces.The natural world is erased from the suburb because its diversity and energy is upsetting to the Sterile. Full of life, death, fragrance, stink, beauty, horror, pleasure, and pain, Nature is a myriad of connected contrasts. The disgusting aphid giving life to the beautiful ladybug, The dried and dead leaves feeding the bountiful and generous fruit tree, the aging grandmother caring for the newborn grandchild. Death and life are connected in a virtuous cycle. In attempting to control and inhibit death, humans unknowingly limit and dampen life.
The most beautiful, abundant creations of life are built upon a foundation of death, decay, and destruction. A healthy garden, full of fruits fragrances, and fertility, is built upon the dead and decaying bodies of previous plants, animals, fungi, insects, and microbes. Compost, the perennial life giver, is embodiment of nature’s life-death principle. Compost is death is expressed as life. Made of the unwanted, the unused, and the feared, compost brings vitality and health to the soil and plant worlds. Compost validates the virtue of death. Death can not be escaped, can not be refused, but can be celebrated as the beautiful alchemy that it is.
Many cultures today still celebrate the life and death they are immersed in every day. Modern society, in its futile journey to escape death, has instead diminished the quantity and dulled the quality of life in favor of the safe, acceptable Sterile . Though many of us now live with great material comfort, the spirit and spice of life has receded as we have accepted the forward march of the Lysol ideal. As the Earth convulses with the spread of the Sterile, we must draw upon the healing powers of death to restore our ecosystems and communities to balance. We must, like compost, chew up and transform the structures and ideas which are the foundation of the Sterile and use them as energy to create the healthful and fulfilling lives to we deserve. We must allow our landscapes and our bodies to sing the songs of death, so that our communities and our Earth can once again resound with the rhythms of life: the morning songs of the birds, the afternoon buzzing of the bees, and the evening chatter of friends. And we must accept our own true role within the cycle of life, not as all-powerful gods controlling and directing, but as humble participants accepting and flowing.
Allowing the cycles of life and death to return to your life is easy when you have a garden. Death bring health to all parts of a garden, as the materials of life break down to feed others. A few easy changes in a gardeners daily practices and attitudes can re-establish the earth’s natural rhythms.
Let Plants to Mature, Seed, and Die
Most gardeners cut down or remove plants as soon as they start to get past their prime production. For example, when lettuce plants begin to grow upward and put out flowers, they are no longer good for harvesting leaves. Instead of removing these plants, choose the largest, healthiest looking plants and allow them to flower, develop seeds, and die completely. The dead plant will look like a dried up Christmas tree. Leave it around for awhile and let bugs and fungi eat its dead leaves. The bugs manure is great for you soil. The seed produced by that plant can be harvested for use next year. When you need the space again, cut the dead plant down and chop it up for use as mulch.
Let the Leaves Lie
In the fall, deciduous trees drop their leaves and go into hibernation. They draw their energy our of their leaves, and store it in their roots. Most people will rake of the fallen leaves and throw them away. These dead leaves are actually a vital part of the trees yearly cycle. They store nutrients over the winter, and release it back to the trees roots as it comes out of hibernation. Next fall, don’t pickup the leaves from underneath your trees. Not only do they feed your tree, they provide vital habitat for beneficial insects, fungi, and worms. They also shade the soil and prevent evaporation.
Repurpose Tree Trimmings
Every winter, many trees need to be pruned to open them up for light and maintain their height. Instead of throwing these trimmings into the green bin, repurpose the dead branches into trellising for vining plants. Long branches can be stuck directly into the ground to support climbing beans, peas, or even tomatoes. Smaller branches can be joined together with screws or nails (see example below). After a few months, you may begin to find small holes have been drilled into the branches. Congratulations! Small bees have made a home in your branches.
Become a Green Waste Station
Many people in urban and suburban areas don’t know the value of the dead plant matter they throw away every week.Make your host a Green Waste Processing Station by calling local Tree Trimmers and allowing them to dump their wood chips in your garden (they normally pay to throw it in the landfill). Wood chips are excellent for making beautiful pathways, and will eventually decompose and enrich your soil.