From a Front Porch
I live on the second floor of a century-old brick house in the avenues of Salt Lake City, a recent transplant from the valleys of Western Montana. As such, the foreign swirl of traffic disturbs me out of sweet, dark sleep nightly. Giggles, rummaging clangs in trash cans, and private-public arguments ring through the alley below—a thoroughfare for domestic disputes and private conversations heard too keenly. I smell burnt toast from the apartment building adjacent nearly every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Why do they keep burning the toast? Change the setting, I think, as I toss and turn into a newly urban lifestyle.
In Montana, it is easy to recognize the natural world, as it clearly dominates the urban. Here, though the occasional willful raindrop careens through a polluted screen, and the soft scent of some distant sage sneaks through on the odd forbidden breeze, I feel almost wholly disconnected from the land around me, sitting amidst my lofty abode in the polluted sky. I would like to alter this perspective by embarking on a practice of witness in the style of the late Aldo Leopold. While I may not have access to the “liberal education” provided by the ample farm woodland that Leopold enjoyed in his natural education, I do have a front porch, my one piece of sacred ground (Leopold 73). I commit one full day of my body and mind to observation from the confines of my little deck, accompanied by a plant identification book, a laptop for the occasional read, and a bottomless cup of strong coffee, and will report back with details.
Morning, or sitting in rain.
From my front porch at 8am, it’s quickly become clear that I, unlike old Aldo, am not the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over, nor am I willing to awaken at dawn. Last night’s rain cleansed the mountain firs, the oak-brush hills, and the oil-slicken city streets—even found its way to the round yellow cushions that pad my porch chair, and now, to the seat of my pajamas. An old man with wispy hair rustles by with his miniscule, panting dog, speaking in familial tongues only a dependent species could love. Dozens of poised people adorned in vibrant scarves have sauntered into the salon across the alley, dragging bags filled with devices meant to distract. But here I am, distracted by the human when I intend to explore the entirety of the biotic community. But was it not the interplay of the biotic community, weather, and human that changed their wardrobes from those of shorts and tanks to sweaters and scarves? Autumn begins to play its part. Yet the bees still happily buzz through the Trumpet vine crawling onto my porch railing from the ground below. Upon further investigation, I find a thriving community of gardeners who detest this vine for its “sinister...spreading roots that submarine underground far from the original plant and pop up suckers everywhere. Fighting rampant trumpet vines is a war you can’t win without herbicide” (Bender). Sounds too much like the habit of homosapiens towards multiplication and survival—doesn’t it? Though sunlight has yet to reach my seat, it dances and twirls within the lime-green leaves of the Trumpet vine, proclaiming a new day, “announcing [its] place in the family of things” (“Wild Geese”). I feel more peace than I have in a while.
Afternoon, or a story of neighboring trees.
A tired, tall Sugar Maple stands before me, half-brown leaves bending to the suggestion of a cool breeze. I consider William Denison’s desire to explore the enchanted interplay of the biotic community of Douglas Fir treetops in western Oregon, and notice that I, too, am visiting the realm of treetops. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants but do not kill them, like Spanish or Hoary-fringe moss. Denison climbed trees to understand. I stare at a tree to try. Brown lichen covers a majority of the trunk, and though I can’t discern what type or relation to the declining health of the tree, I assume the overwhelming abundance of this lichen spells bad news for the life of the tree. I feel a twinge of grief. I like the tree more. While Denison focuses on the contribution of epiphytes to forest nourishment and viability, he neglects to mention the membership of parasitic plants and fungi in the canopy community. What role do they play? No tree, moss, or person can live forever, I suppose. And what leads me to dictate the hierarchy of biotic importance? Nalini Nadkarni says “trees can be as familiar to us as our own bodies,” containing a head, limbs that extend from a central trunk and roots rather like feet (Nadkarni 19). J. Baird Callicott posits that “family obligations in general come before nationalistic duties, and humanitarian obligations in general come before environmental duties” (Callicott 159). So does recognizing fragments of humanity within a tree hybridize my humanitarian obligations and environmental duties, and allow for a hierarchy of the biotic community to emerge out of a dense humanism? It seems I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a philosophy. I’ve decided to keep a watch for the next several months on both my humanism and the Maple. I hope my distant supervision and care might do something for its state.
The branches of the neighboring tree droop irresistibly in the mid-day sun. Light green seed pods collect and bounce elegantly like the hoop skirts of Scarlett O’Hara. If, as Nadkarni says, to each person there are only 61 trees on Earth, this very well may be one of mine! Pondering this relationship, I decide to cheat and take a walk to get a better look. The unfaithful close observation of our neighbor discloses a mosaic of bark teeming with biodiversity—what interesting little ants scurry to and fro, what tender footsteps the red-black boxelder beetles light upon woody ridges, what a varied song its pinnate leaves sing! This beauty, teeming with a life unimaginable, is a Boxelder Maple, native to Utah. I am surprised to find it described as a tree of little ornamental value to homeowners, with soft wood of no commercial value. I’ve gazed at this tree for a pathetically short time, and already find great beauty, dignity, and worth in its existence. I wonder how many stories it will feed me over the years. I wonder how many stories it has fed others.
Night, or a visit from the owl.
I move inside for a few hours to make a taco dinner and sit awhile in my large, fuzzy papasan chair. Four low hoots from the darkness call me again to the front porch. When I lived in Denali National Park, those same four hoots would awaken me out of midnight dreams, and into the land of the midnight sun. In Utah, however, the sun sets at an equatorial pace and darkness envelops the great creature behind the call. I briefly consider flashlighting the Boxelder and the Sugar Maple, but think better of it. I have seen Great Horned Owls before, and will see them again, I hope, in due time. For now, the call is enough. In moving to the city, I never thought I would receive the gift of a Great Horned Owl visit so near my front porch, though I suppose there must be as many mice here as in the foothills of the Wasatch. Why not? The urban remains an elemental player in ecosystems. Why else would coyotes roam Chicago by night, and Peregrine Falcons settle the hollows of Central Park? The owl reminds me of the tethers that connect all living and nonliving things, our biotic and abiotic community. He or she wouldn’t be here without small mammals, who wouldn’t be here without plants and trash, who wouldn’t be here without soil and humans, etc. As muir so aptly put it: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (Muir 110).
But where, exactly, is the universe hitched to me? Where do I play into this biotic and abiotic community, not in an abstract or distant sense, but rather, in a literal sense? My exhalations throughout the day have produced carbon dioxide necessary for plant photosynthesis. Perhaps the same trees I watched today have given me oxygen in exchange. I struggle to find other examples of my existence serving the biotic community, and I won’t bore or sadden you with the many examples I considered that show my obvious detriment to the biotic community.
A day on my front porch elucidated the biotic community outside my front door, serving as a reminder that nature is not in the foothills or distant mountains free of people, but all around and in us. As a being capable of cognition and reason, I believe it is my duty to serve and protect the biotic community. So perhaps, in the days to come on my front porch, I can dream up more ways to do just that while listening to the snap of a locust on a warm September night. Perhaps you can too.
Bender, Steve. “Just Say No to Trumpet Vine.” Southern Living, www.southernliving.com/garden/vines/invasive-trumpet-vine.
“The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic.” In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, by J. Baird. Callicott, State University of New York Press, 1989, pp. 149–160.
Denison, William C. “Life in Tall Trees.” Scientific American, vol. 228, no. 6, 1973, pp. 74–80., doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0673-74.
Leopold, Aldo, et al. A Sand County Almanac: and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, 1989. Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Sierra Club Books, 1988.
“What Is a Tree?” Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, by Nalini Nadkarni, University of California Press, 2008, pp. 19–58.
“Wild Geese.” Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017, p. 347.
Morgan Coyro-Lawrence is a wildland firefighter and recent graduate of the Environmental Humanities Masters Program at the University of Utah. Through fire, forest, salt, and sky, she writes and lives to ground herself in the ecosystems of the American West, and is curious about how human perception can physically alter landscapes.