I used to have a singularly long and skinny backyard, thirty-six miles from end to end and about ten feet wide: the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Sometimes I shared it with others, on Sunday afternoons with the leisurely sorts and at either end of the workday with the jogging sorts. The canal was dug by Irish immigrants in the 1830s, and for the next hundred years or so mules and boats toted coal up the canal from the Delaware River at Bordentown to the Raritan River at New Brunswick.
The mules are gone now. Instead there are painted turtles ranging from an inch to a foot in length, perched on fallen logs in the river amidst brightly labelled debris, tipping themselves off with a panicky little plop at the slightest passing glance. The fish didn’t mind human company; they were more worried about the black snakes, long enough to look uncommonly dangerous to a jittery homo sapiens. In fact, those snakes are pure pescatarians. I imagine they waited on the bank and darted their heads like spears into the water to snatch the catch of the day. I never did see this happen, but I often saw the result, a motionless black coil with jaws clamped around a fish whose heart and gills beat uselessly until, after a long interval, death and the snake won. It was the chief instance of nature, on my towpath, not being cute.
Of course, cute is no guarantee of nice, either. It is tremendously hard not to attach moral significance to everything, that being the peculiar burden of our species, meaning- and morality-makers that we are to a fault, so not even wildflowers escape. That ten-foot-wide strip through overdeveloped New Jersey bristled with flora, and I came to love the hunt for new flowers season by season, learning their myriad popular names and stubbornly shunning the unmusical Latin ones. In some cases my delight was righteous and good. Jacks-in-the-pulpit (renamed, by an offended girlfriend, Jills-in-the-pulpit), skunk cabbage, yellow and sweet white and violet violets, spring beauties in spring, exploding touch-me-nots in autumn, pilewort to cure your “piles” (read: hemorrhoids), mayapples like cocktail umbrellas, blue vervain like fireworks, trout lilies with blotchy spots on the leaves like those of the eponymous fish: all nicely native, unintrusively reseeding themselves year after year.
But the jacks-in-the-pulpit were johnny-come-latelys in my personal quest for flowers. First I learned the truth about chickory: invasive; and then common and English plantains: invasive; then garlic mustard, black mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, creeping charlie, daylilies stretching like little children wanting to be picked up, taller-than-me purple loosestrife, butter-and-eggs, masses of multiflora roses—invasive, invasive, invasive, and far more pervasive than the nice natives. No one would defend cheap and sleazy dandelions in their noxious fecundity, but what of the innocent-looking oxeye daisy, whose demure petals spoil the flavor of milk? Farmers dub the orange hawkweed “devil’s paintbrush” and the yellow kind “king devil,” but I defy you to find a cheerier field than one sown with the pair of them. And all too many of the nice, well-behaved flowers are invading foreigners too, if a little less aggressive toward the indigenous: Queen Anne’s lace, periwinkle, shepherd’s purse, dame’s rocket, deptford pink, bladder campion, asiatic dayflower, crown vetch, yellow and white and white sweet and red and hop clover, heal-all, lady’s thumb, moneywort, buttercups, Indian strawberry, moth mullein and plain old mullein, corn speedwell, deadly nightshade, birdsfoot trefoil. My skinny backyard in diminutive New Jersey was quite the international crossroads, with low tariffs and tolls for seafaring botanica.
The trees remained largely innocent. My heart was always with the sweetgums, decked out in spiky gumballs, for their most spectacular of all fall foliage. Sweetgums turn colors that sugar maples have never even heard of, kaleidoscopically all in one leaf, red orange yellow green (skip blue) but yes, purple! and a demure splash of brown, a respectful nod to imminent death. Locusts drop their pods, shellbark and shagbark hickories their nuts, always wormy; squirrels skitter and store them away, forgetting where they put 90 percent of them. Squirrels are not very smart. But like the trees they are innocent.
There was one tree that was not so innocent, though, because it was not a tree. This sinister specimen was the remaining trunk and principal limbs of a former tree, its personal identity card with genus and species long since lost, strangled to death by another favorite resident of the towpath: poison ivy. Poison ivy is deceitful, a shapeshifter, refusing to be one thing or another, sometimes a vine, sometimes a bush, sometimes a flowering plant, and sometimes, as in this case, a tree. The vine had wound around the dead trunk, shot down every limb, and drooped over, forming the most inviting canopy, the Parisian café of trees, leaves gleaming with the unnatural sheen of poisonous things, appealing to the media-saturated eye unless you were savvy enough to prefer matte everything when going au naturel. It was a wicked tree; once I knew it for what it was, I always passed it by with a sneer and rejoiced to see it finally collapse of its own dishonest weight.
Birds, for their part, have something to learn about improved gender relations in our day and age. They insist upon highly neanderthal notions of male superiority, and I fell for it every time—give me a male over a female any day. I am a sucker for color and glitz if it is on a feather and not on a lying leaf. Along the towpath red-winged blackbirds flash their targets, flickers fly with their undulating white bottoms, woodpeckers of the downy and red-bellied (which is really red-capped) variety twinkle in their black-and-white ginghams with Sunday-best red hats. The female red-bellied woodpecker is decently, if not flashily, arrayed; I know this because I kept a perfect specimen, found dead and intact, in my freezer for several months until I found the time to draw her. She had a lovely splash across the back of her head and I decided not to resent her for not being a male. But I was grateful at least for the good example set by the swallowtail butterflies to their fellow winged things—the blue females are much more alluring than the pedestrian yellow males. And I am glad that the generic names for ducks (mostly mallards on the towpath) and geese (noisy, prolifically defecating Canadas) belong to the females, the males being the ones who need the specialist terms: drakes and ganders.
Mammals were more elusive. A muskrat built his winter hut near my section of the towpath some winters back, and on blue-and-white afternoons out for a walk, the sun about to set at four, I’d see him shimmying through the water with his snaky tail wiggling behind him. Once I saw a deer pee, which is an astonishing sight, quite beyond description. Mostly I spotted mammals dead or dying: a shrew, a half-eaten raccoon, a fallen baby possum with fly larvae already laid in its poor little ear, whom we rushed off to the wildlife refuge but to no avail. Such encounters provoked unpleasant thoughts of mortality. By contrast, the invasive plants were relentless witnesses of hope.
And then there was the canal itself. It was unflappable, impassible, so still that when the wind was blowing you couldn’t even tell which way the water was flowing. The surrounding land was all swamp more or less in denial of that reality, the shopping mall and condo developers being the most credulous deniers of the swampiness. My side of the canal was the high ground, topographically if not morally. The other side was low ground, and each spring and fall it got flooded like the sons of God had been taking the daughters of men in marriage, leaving little emerald isles of golf course greens poking up out of the temporary lake. At such times you could kayak the golf course just as easily as the canal, and the intersecting road became perforce a dam, the Wadi Quaker’s miniature cascades puckering over the rim of the asphalt, signalling that there are places even SUVs can’t go. Nearby forests stand drowned all together, regardless of the time of year, the bleached limbs of the dead trees like bones spiking out of the ground, resigned to the inevitable.
Whenever I’d walk alongside the canal, I would always be struck by the fact that I am natural and it is not. It would rather have been seeping all across the countryside. It yearned to be the swamp it was meant to be but instead was hedged in on either side by unnaturally straight boundaries and flowed on with unnatural calm. The canal was a compromised piece of nature, offering asylum to invasives and charlatans, but I was the indigenous, anthropomorphizing, moralizing homo sapiens on the towpath, occupying unimpeded my proper place in the natural scheme of things.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is editor of the journal Lutheran Forum and adjunct professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research.