Does America like nature?

Strange question. And yet one that can legitimately be asked as a foreign observer in the United States especially when comparing the local habits to a European’s.

In Europe, nature is a benevolent green substance that appeases and pleases the senses. There are flowers, birds and little animals that we enjoy spotting if we get the chance. These are mostly squirrels, badgers, deer and foxes.

In our soul, we know that nature is a well-meaning element whose role is to make humans feel better. We can name a variety of birds and we know the names of flowers. In Summer, we know where to find blackberries and apple trees.

We get particularly excited when we hear a woodpecker or if we spot a kestrel. We think frogs, bats, owls and hedgehogs should be helped, and we put out food and water for our garden birds.

Naturally there are aspects of nature we avoid, such as nettles that sting little children’s legs and leave them with little stinging bumps. Ouch! Watch out also for wasps in August!

My first year in America was one of marvel and wonder. I saw great birds like hawks circling the skies and excitedly inquired which species they were. The rather plain “What birds?” did not dampen my enthusiasm and I directed my inquiry towards the hundreds of insects hidden in the forest, all coming together and dusk for a symphony unlike any I had ever heard: “shh shh shh shh” – they all went. “Oh those? I think they’re cicadas?”

I spotted a forest for my weekly jogging and embraced my communion with Mother Nature. I tasted the pine cones, bathed in the forest’s marshes, raised my arms to the rays of the sun while I danced beneath the tall trees…

It is then that I felt a little itch.

Back in my bathroom I took off my trousers and discovered a rather scary-looking rash on my legs along with liquid bubbles. I also had a second explosion of red bites between my fingers and on my feet. Little white bumps could be scratched off with my nail and burst into a liquid.

I was brutally being introduced to the joys of nature in the USA. The first rule being: You do NOT leave the path in the forest and you do NOT walk barefoot in the garden!

“But how could this be?” I protested. “Nature is kind and glorious and we are allowed to enjoy its rejuvenating qualities.”

Soon, my rash got much worse, as did the bubbles on my legs and the bites on my hands and feet. I considered saying a last goodbye to my parents and perhaps go through my favourite photos once more. “Oh, don’t be dramatic”, scolded my wife.

It was Poison Ivy in all its glory coupled with mites, and god-knows-what other man-eating insect. No introduction, no easing into it, just a full-on attack of the best that the American fauna had to offer the foreign visitor.

“Couldn’t you have bloody told me!” I yelled at my family. “Since when are people made to be cautious of the outdoors?”

“I thought you knew. Everyone knows about Poison Ivy and insects. Always wear shoes, that’s a rule.” they answered.

And yet the warning signs had been there but I had put them down to “unnecessary Americanism”: The insect guy who sprayed our garden at regular intervals, making sure no bugs came to attack us. It appeared to me like an unnatural desire to control and subdue the beauty of Nature.

Or how about the guy who came to inquire about our interest in having all bees, ants and wasps sprayed? I told him “We’re European, we like bees. No thanks, we’ll manage”.

And the mice-exterminating company we used to get rid of the pitter-patter in the attic, and well as the mouse traps and countless little droppings I found in the garage. The bags or rodent repellent for the garden…sure enough, there had been signs.

The longer I live here, the more I realise that nature is perceived as an annoyance that needs to be kept under control. Walt Whitman wrote poems to its beauty, but as a whole they do prefer to keep it at bay.

The Summer I planted green beans, I eagerly projected myself into a family communion where we all carried a basketfull of sun-grown string beans at harvest time as we laughed in joy at the pleasure of crunching the sweet produce in a primal feast.

Well, I left on holiday for a week and when I came back I found the lot decimated. Eaten all the way down to the ground storks and all.

My sunflowers suffered a similar fate despite protecting them with tubes of mesh. Of the 6 that made it to knee-high, 5 got eaten whole. I never figured which pestilence of animal did this. Squirrels? Chipmunks? Rabbits? I even resorted to mouse traps to try and catch the devil but never could.

The philosopher in me put it down to a minor seasonal inconvenience. After all, we could do without vegetables or flowers and instead live by the animal’s rules. We get the house, they get the garden yes? Think again. When Halloween came around, we placed with pride our two hand-carved pumpkins on the front porch. Within days, something had carved a new face into it. Only the Christmas wreath seemed to have made it out alive…

When I now go running in the forest it is with all senses on high-alert in case a bear crosses my path. “They have bloody bears!! How is that even allowed???” Don’t ask me, mate. They seem to say they’re not dangerous to humans. Until you meet an odd one. Or one with babies. If it attacks you’re supposed to not back down and target the muzzle with stones and sticks.

I don’t so much mind the snakes which add an interesting feature to a common garden. Especially when opening up one’s garden shed and spotting a big one under the door. At least they’re not poisonous, eh?

When the seasons change in the North East of America, I have learned that it is with a similar sense of dread of the troubles the new season will bring. Power cuts? Floods? Storms? Tornadoes? High winds? 4 feet of snow? Excessive heat?

Europeans complain about the weather also, but it is usually in relation to the overcast sky. And since the sky is mostly overcast, it has at least the advantage of narrowing down the list of complaints.

The Summer in the Northeast is moist, sticky and hot. So moist that it makes the chassis of the doors and certain types of metal sweat. The winter comes with heavy snow falls, which we clear from the drive with our snow shovels. (I initially felt comfortable with a snow shovel until I realized I had never actually held one in my hand!)

Having been deprived of sun most of my adult life, I was quick to celebrate the event. “Close the F’ing doors already!” they yelled. The curtains were drawn, the air conditioning was on, and it was the game of patience to see them through to the next season unharmed. Well, at least we can enjoy the nice Summer evenings? No we can’t. The insects come out.

The reactive stance towards nature is also seen in the defense of certain aspects which Americans have chosen to care about and which Europeans have not.

When in Europe it rains, the grass grows and stays green. When it doesn’t rain enough, it might go yellow for a few weeks until it rains again. We know that the grass isn’t “dead” and that it will grow back. Although we appreciate grass in our gardens, it isn’t a defining feature of one’s home. We equate “heat” with lack of water and climate change and for these reasons few people ever think of watering a garden.

But in America, there is an unwritten rule that is deeply sunk into the psyche of all homeowners: the grass MUST be green, come what may. I have personally seen neighbours water their lawn as late as November. Never mind that the weather forecast said it would rain in three days, the lawn is thirsty NOW. So shall it drink.

(We have a little joke about disgruntled people looking at the weather and saying “I wish it would stop raining, I want to water my lawn”)

I dare not think of the millions of tonnage of water that is poured onto gardens every year in the middle of a climate crisis. Essential to our survival are Oxygen, Water and a maybe third one in this list. “No water, no life” is the essential equation of our planet but onto the gardens it goes.

The sprinklers are turned on for months on end, and not just in gardens. Businesses all over the country that happen to have a stretch of grass by the road also have sprinklers on that are set to sprinkle all week and Sundays also. The beauty of it is that it may well be raining on Sunday when the offices are closed but at least the lawn gets a double watering.

“Ah, yes but what if they enjoying using their garden? What if the kids want to play in it?” The matter is that I’ve never seen anyone actually “use” the garden. The watering is done for pure aesthetic purposes, mostly for the pleasure of other people. Gardens get as much use as the double rocking chairs on the porch. They’re decoration.

These observations outline two different approaches to nature, at times due to culture and in other cases necessity. Whereas Americans have to battle harsher conditions, Europeans have a much milder fauna and weather. Europeans couldn’t care less about the allure of their garden, Americans can’t face the thought of it not being lush green.

Different strokes for different folks.

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