At first, we thought they were tire tracks, and were disturbed. Great shovels of sod were torn from the field, leaving open the clay beneath. Hundreds of these holes, nearly a foot deep in places and as long as it would take for a four-wheeler to skid out of a slick patch. We recalled the headlines about vandalism at Max Patch. But these tracks weren’t made by tires.
“Looks like we may have some hogs,” a neighbor said.
Hogs? Like wild pigs?
“They can do some damage,” he said, inspecting the clod of upended earth as if this confirmed his diagnosis. I’d had a mechanic look at the underside of my car in this way, and it wasn’t an inexpensive look. Calculations were going on beneath the surface that words weren’t quite fit to express, and so remained inaccessible to me.
What kind of damage?
“This kind, nothing more. They’re not usually dangerous. But if they find a place they like, they can last a while.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. During the ten years or so we’ve lived here, we’ve been besieged by an army of deer that stripped our yard of anything even remotely considered edible. They ate our vegetables, our tomatoes, our peppers; they also ate our azaleas, our new plum tree, even the hollies. They ate rhododendrons into strange little nubs. There were better years and worse, but for the most part we agreed that there wasn’t any use in planting unless there was a fence, and even then there was no guarantee.
Meanwhile, plants were growing similarly unbalanced. Asian bittersweet, a lovely vine with a red fruit encased in a bright yellow shell, grows as quickly as kudzu but with the strength of a steel cable over trees and deep in thickets. It doesn’t confine itself to perimeters, but forages underneath trees as well as broad open meadows. The deer didn’t seem to like it, and it was often the only growing thing. Except for the poison ivy, which seems worse than ever, and, although it’s not properly considered invasive, it couldn’t be considered much of anything else either. They’ve actually done some studies on the itchiness of poison ivy, and these studies suggest that we’re not wrong to think that this noxious weed is doing pretty well in the new extremes of climate conditions.
My neighbor rigged up a couple of cameras in order to confirm his guess about hogs and has been sharing his findings with the community. Yes, we have pigs, but that’s not it. There are coyotes, deer, raccoons, bobcats, feral cats and dogs – or at least, unidentifiable night-visiting dogs. The pictures show the blurred outline of their bodies, the flash of opaque light in their eyes.
And so, now what? That is the question we’ve been considering.
I won’t lie to you. My father, and his father before him, took great pride in their yards and gardens. I was raised mowing grass, trimming bushes, shaking sevin dust over gardens bright with fertilizer. Control of your yard was tantamount to moral discipline; the idea that wild animals could run amok within the perimeters of your property was essentially accepting moral dissipation. My vote, at one point in time, would have been eradication: of poison ivy, of bittersweet, of deer, and certainly now that of wild hogs. And I would have kept doing it, because that’s how I was raised: to keep a clean yard. And there is something beautiful about it, I can’t help admitting; there’s something absolutely satisfying about seeing a clean, weedless garden, a lawn of thick unbroken grass. But at what price, and how sustainable is this precarious idea of beauty?
Josiah Royce, a founder of the interfaith peace organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, coined the phrase, “the beloved community,” that was later taken on years later by another member of the same organization, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The beloved community is all of us, and as such includes not only those we would select as our beloved, but all of us, as beloved by God.
I believe that we’re given an opportunity to practice love in all kinds of ways, not least among them the manner of living within a world that’s wild with living, growing things we didn’t choose. In people, we have a tendency to imagine that within each of us, there’s somehow a better person, someone who doesn’t have the problems, the hangups. The disabilities, the damage, and our tendency is to love that pristine inner person, claiming that the other doesn’t matter. In nature, we long for the pristine virgin forest, unsullied by human contact. But our challenge, in creating the beloved community, is not to love what is all around us in spite of its lack of pristine-ness, but because of it. Loving not just the neatly trimmed lawn or the minuscule patches of old-growth forests, but the clumps of Johnston grass, and the prickly wild yam vine. To love not only the loveable, but the broken, the mean, the petty. To love what is, in all its wildness and damage; and in so doing to live our way into the beloved community, a home of resilience, faith, and love.
Which is great, in theory. But what do we actually do about the pigs? We’re not sure. Love doesn’t mean spinelessness; acceptance shouldn’t imply lack of responsibility for living in a way that’s meaningful and productive. As soon as sorrow crowds our vision, we’re no longer seeing the beloved community. Acceptance may simply mean that we’re willing, at least a little bit, to look with interest at the rutted earth.