(about planning, happenstance, predictability, and death)
Goodale Park’s green space is orderly and controlled. Planting beds are structured, grass is mowed, memorial tree locations are carefully selected – very little happens by accident. Almost nothing is chaotic. On spring Saturdays we choose patterns for the new annuals, and throughout the year Rick Frantz even maintains a secret plan for future tree species.
This is like my own yard, and possibly yours. My boxwoods are just where I want them; I planted the hedge a decade ago and shaped it over the years. Our ivy and cannas creates an organized soft barrier in the back yard, our trees are placed strategically, and the hostas circle our Norway maple in a nice, symmetrical pattern.
But there are elements of chaos, too. The Friends of Goodale Park fight ongoing battles with incorrigible weeds that emerge from nowhere and everywhere.
And the chaos doesn’t end with weeds. “Volunteer” plants behave in a similarly chaotic (though not as voracious) way; they pop up just like the weeds do, without any deliberate planting or planning on our part.
We don’t usually see the volunteer plants in the park, since each one that pokes up through the grass is efficiently chopped off by the Rec & Parks mowers. But they exist in spaces like the garden around the north porch of the Shelterhouse, where Greg Krobot nurtures leafy surprises that spring up between cracks and under foliage. This happens in my yard, too. An elephant ear plant appeared like magic in a completely inhospitable area next to our air conditioner last year (I moved it to a more welcoming location).
This maple leaf thing showed up here, and keeps returning each year. Both were chaotic volunteers.
An extreme example of this chaos is the untamed planting bed on the east side of the Shelterhouse. It’s a maelstrom of native species, weeds and homeless debris.
I think of this area as complete chaos. And yet, there is an underlying structure in it, too. It’s just not what I usually think of as structure. Human structure (what I usually think of) is easily recognized with its patterns, balance, shapes and straight lines. I see stereotypical examples of this kind of order in orchards, or in the orderly rows of the vegetables that I helped my mom plant when I was a kid, or anywhere trees are planted in rows for some sensible (or compulsive) reason.
The “chaos” of that untamed planting bed reminds me of the “order” of a forest; the plants emerge where they fit best, guided by nature’s organizing process. This is a different kind of structure. Seeds fall or are carried by birds or squirrels, and they sprout seedlings. In the right soil, shade, and climate, they flourish, and the order, diversity, and structure that emerges is the natural sustainable order. Over time, this looks like the nature preserves at Inniswood Metro Park and Sharon Woods. I wouldn’t call those “chaotic”. I call them calming. Peaceful. Beautiful.
This “Nature Preserve order” is based on a particular reality; in a forest, I only observe what survives. But there is that other side to the order of nature, and it affects everything, including Goodale Park. Many plants sprout, but in the wrong conditions, they die. We might control the initial location of the trees, shrubs and annuals in the park, but we’re not in control of whether or not they live. As we’ve seen before, the park is vulnerable, and although the carefully cared-for memorial trees usually thrive, sometimes they die, too.
No one can predict for certain which will survive, and for how long. Unpredictability is death’s partner. But there is also a tendency, a predictability, to survival and death. Leaves die in autumn and fall haphazardly from the trees with no individual leaf falling at a predictable time or place, and yet as they fall, they create a pattern. The pattern seems predictable.
This is like everything in nature, including us.
No one knows for sure when any one person will die. My mother-in-law just visited her local funeral director to make financial plans for a casket and service. But she couldn’t meet with him, because of an unexpected flurry of “business”. He apologized, saying, “I never know when I’ll be busy.” Death is rarely convenient.
And yet one of my dad’s friends, an insurance actuary, predicts with uncanny accuracy how many people in specific demographic groups will die in any given year. He knows how the pattern of falling human “leaves” will arrange themselves under the tree of humanity. It’s because of this predictability, this organized pattern of our mortality, that insurance companies are able to reliably turn a profit year after year. There is an underlying order in nature, in the fabric of the universe, amidst a sea of apparent chaos and unpredictability.
Another example of nature’s strange balance of chaos and order is weather. I regularly hear people ridiculing meteorologists who are paid to guess the weekly weather. Weather is famously chaotic, affected by too many variables to allow us to really “know” anything about what will happen. And yet, we can predict with great reliability that summer will be warmer than winter, every time, and that fall will follow summer, every time. Well, nearly every time. When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, the world experienced a famously unpredictable “Year Without a Summer”.
Unpredictable changes are afoot in our world today, too. Rick probably shouldn’t make plans to add a grove of avocado trees in Goodale Park. But who knows? Maybe in 30 years, Ohio will be the new California.