Tuesday, November 10, 2009


During my training, my host mom was fastidious about maintaining the area around her house, aka the patio. She had several beautiful flowering bushes, a couple of pepper plants, and some fruit trees. But everywhere that she didn’t have something planted, she liked to have bare dirt. Any little speck of green that appeared was summarily removed. As a child of the grassy-lawned suburbs, I didn’t really get it. Why would my host mom want to surround her house with dust in the summer and mud in the winter? I watched with fascination every day as she weeded and then swept – with a broom – her dirt patio.

Now that I have my own patio to maintain, I have come to understand the beauty of the bare dirt. It all started with a visit from my boss. He complimented my garden, and then he said, “You see all of these weeds around your garden? All of them have a virus. See how their leaves are turning yellow? You should pull them out or cut them down because this virus can spread to the plants in your garden.” Suddenly, I saw these little plants in a whole new light. No longer did they seem innocuous; in fact, they were deadly killers. I set to work with a machete, cutting down all the weeds with yellowing leaves. I felt like Buffy, slaying vampires, battling the undead. Even infected, they were tenacious. I gained a whole new appreciation for the Spanish word for weeds – maleza – which means something like “badness.”

The next week a neighbor was passing by my house. He commented on another part of my patio, where I had allowed an uninfected variety to grow rather tall. “You know,” he said, “snakes like to live in maleza like that.” Since that day, my battle with the wild parts of my patio has grown more intense. I am out there every day now with a machete or my bare hands, cutting down the weeds or pulling them out from the root. How I long for a clean, bare dirt patio like the one my host mom had in my training.

In addition to maleza, Nicaraguans have another word for unmaintained wild growth – monte. People will talk about wild animals – poisonous snakes, armadillos, rabbits, spiders, etc – having come “from the monte”. There is no direct translation for “monte”, but I like to think of it as wild growth that occurs in the absence of human intervention. I was visiting one of the older women in my community the other day, and I asked her about what was here in our town while she was growing up. “Nada,” she said. “Only monte.” I asked her about roads, wells for water, schools. Over and over she said, “No habia nada.” There was nothing. “Solo monte.” Only wild land. “Things have gotten a lot better since then,” she said.

I’ve often heard people in the US say, “I love nature.” They use it to indicate – I don’t know what, exactly – maybe that they love camping, or that they believe in recycling. I’ve been thinking about that phrase because I might have once been one to use it. But no longer. First of all, saying “I love nature” is kind of like saying “I love living on Earth”. It may be true, but it’s obvious, and it means practically nothing. What else is there besides nature? Where else would you live besides Earth? Second of all, many parts of nature I don’t love at all; in fact, many parts of nature I actively dislike. I don’t love scorpions, or intestinal parasites, or tarantulas – all of which, by the way, I have had encounters with here in Nicaragua.

As one who holds a degree in geography - the study of how humans interact with the natural environment - I have spent a lot of mental energy considering how we in the Western world relate to nature, especially those “nature-lovers” who are part of the environmental movement. Too often, I think, the subtext of environmentalism is that the world would be better off without people. The rhetoric goes something like this: human beings have thrown off the natural cycles, interrupted the workings of Mother Nature, and generally made the planet an uglier and unhealthier place. If we weren’t here, things wouldn’t be this messed up.

Now, all of that may be true, to some extent; for the first time, humanity is realizing that it is possible for us to make an impact on the natural world on a global scale – not just on the scale of the patio. But despite how much damage it is possible for us to do, I don’t believe that all human intervention necessarily leaves the natural world worse off. The key is balance. In the case of my patio, I honestly believe that there are benefits from my intervention. And more importantly, I believe that as a human being I have a right to live in this world and to take steps to change my surroundings so that they are safer, healthier, and more beautiful for me. Even if that means that I am making those surroundings less hospitable for other species. Scorpions? Tarantulas? Virus-infected weeds? They’re fine out in the monte. But not in my patio.

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