We took Beren to the ocean for the first time this year. It was early March and still wintry-- the beach plums were without leaves and the sea "breeze" cut stiffly through our scarves and hats.
We walked out onto the beach at Cape May, and Beren was transfixed. Just 15 months old, he was surrounded by a vast rolling plain of sand and shells. I crouched down to his level, and realized he couldn't even see the Atlantic stretching from breakers to horizon... just beach in all directions.
He meandered across the surface of the sand, leaving small footprints and larger impressions where he bent down to lift up another shell or tawny stalk of beachgrass.
He was still a baby and generally needed more or less constant parental interaction, but here he wandered freely and was wholly absorbed by the multitude of shells, the bigness of sky, and the undulations of sand.
Looking through his eyes, I saw pure abundance, natural variety and endless forms as far as one could see.
And it struck me, with clarity and sadness, that there once had been inexhaustible abundance of all life in much the same way as the sand and shells at this beach... wildflowers on the prairie stretching from sky to sky, passenger pigeons darkening the sun's light in their passing, throngs of fish migrating upriver.
The view from knee-high had me rapt for a moment.
* * *
We've visited a few places where abundance still overwhelms the senses and the mind remembers only detail from the mass of life. Most of those places have either been old growth, or vast natural areas, or both.
First in memory always, we made a pilgrimage to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old growth cove forest in the North Carolina Appalachians.
We arrived on April 1st, just in time for the spring wildflowers. I remember looking at spaces no bigger than shoulder width and seeing trillium and hepatica and toothwort and forest phlox and the unfurling stems of blue and black cohosh and more besides. The fallen trunks of massive trees dripped with curtains of partridgeberry, and galax and yellowroot filled in the little crests at the edge of the trail.
Flowers that I might see one or ten of in New Jersey I saw in the hundreds at once. Carpets of trout lily filled the space between trees and they flowered not in loose constellations but in dense swards. I imagined then, not a parent yet, how rich the sense experience would be of a child raised in terrain like that, food and medicine, detail and also danger but most of all life in incredible abundance.
We've encountered similar abundance at Congaree National Park, a vast ancient forest floodplain in South Carolina, where prothonotary warblers were nest-building at every turn from moss harvested off of bald cypress knees, and in the Adirondacks, where the lakesides alternated between meadowsweet and joe pye weed, cardinal flower and gentians, buttonbush and shrubby cinquefoil at every meander of the shoreline.
Dwarf Palmettos at Congaree NP
Someone once asked me to answer the question "how do I know if my forest is healthy"? I struggled for a simple answer that would take no botany skills, no sophisticated biotic indicators. "If there are lots of flowers at every level, and of many shapes and sizes, through the growing season, from earliest spring to the first hard frost, your forest is healthy" was more-or-less my answer. If plants are flowering, they're thriving and have excess energy to spend on reproduction, if they're doing so throughout the year, then there are many species, and if they are lots of them, there will be lots of nectar for pollinators, lots of seeds for birds and mammals, lots of leaves and stems for herbivores large and small, and lots of sunlight converted into sugars to feed root zone soil fungi and animals. In short, abundance and diversity.
* * *
My sense of beauty is closely related to abundance. A landscape rich in detail and difference is beautiful to me.
The wintergreen smell of birch leaves decomposing in the fall, the flame hues of hazelnut foliage, the mottled green hepatica leaves peeking up through the bleached parchment of beech duff, the glow of seafoam-toned lichens after a fall rain, the scatter of rotten wood where a flicker investigated a stump, the fluted trunks of musclewood, christmas ferns on the high banks of a small stream, skunk cabbage on the low, the echoes of a pair of pileated woodpeckers calling to each other across the camopy, the crunch of sticks and tuliptree seedheads underfoot.
A beautiful place is a one where I know I can find food, I can find medicine, and I can sate my curiousity and desire to grow and transform with a thousand mysteries and challenges for the body and mind.
The area where we live is notably diverse, but not very abundant. The woods are stripped by years of resource extraction, and the overbrowse of the a vastly overpopulated deer herd. The overabundance of one or two species can lead to the degradation of all the others. Here, too, is the issue with invasive plants. I work to control them not because I can't stand "foreign species" (quite the contrary, many are food and medicine and pretty, too), but because intrinsic to their aggressiveness is the disappearance of the many species that once grew in their stead.
* * *
I think of freedom and abundance as being inextricably linked. As long as we can provide for ourselves from a healthy landscape with water and rich soil and thriving plant and animal life, we remain sovereign. When we occupy a depleted landscape with no means to provide for ourselves, we become serfs, to food mega-conglomerates, to pharmaceutical companies, to a structure that provides for our needs the same way animals in cages are provided for. They never go hungry, but they never experience purpose, either.
* * *
Some of the more abundant landscapes I've seen recently have been cultural landscapes. Ecological restorations, like the new meadows at Duke Farms, or the reclaimed cranberry "bogs" at New Jersey Conservation Foundation's Franklin Parker Preserve. The oak woodlands at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, managed with fire and carpeted with phlox, lupines, and spiderwort.
I think abundance is a value, an ethic, a goal, a focus for culture. Restoring natural and cultural areas to abundance, blurring the two so that the divide between people and the rest of life is cast aside-- this is the skill set I want to hone and pass on.