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irregular times logoOf Deer Fences and Deference

I just moved into a new house with a four-acre plot on the edge of a small village in Upstate New York, and now that spring has arrived, one of my great pleasures is taking walks through the yard and woodlot on the property, and seeing what kinds of plants are coming up through the ground as the snow recedes.

A patch of yellow winter aconite at the base of a twenty year-old sugar maple is my current favorite, but that's because, well, with the exclusion of the scatterings of small snowdrops in the lawn, they are the only flowers above the ground at all right now. The winter aconite is an cousin of the buttercup, a bright reflection of the sun in these early days of fickle spring.

Thirty feet beyond the winter aconite is a long flower bed filled with suggestive stalks and an old metal garden marker with the faint words still legible: Sun flowers. I see only twig-thin old stems, and wonder if the previous owner might have planted something bright yellow other than what is commonly called sunflower - perhaps a tall coreopsis of some kind. Four more months will tell.

What I can tell now is that whatever the previous owner planted in the flower bed, it was favored by deer. The entire 25-foot back side of the flower bed is lined with a chicken wire fence held up by four-foot tall metal posts.

The flowers in the bed must have been well worth protecting, but as I looked at the fence this morning, it seemed that something in their beauty must have been lost in the protection itself. Few gardeners would argue that a fence made of chicken wire and tall metal posts is a thing of beauty.

Gardeners too often make this sort of mistake, protecting their most beautiful plants with the most garish devices imaginable. A neighbor down the street, in what may be the most expensive house in my village, has a stand of gorgeous rhododendrons surrounded by a fence of steel wire. When the flowers come out later in the year, I imagine that their hot pink blossoms are cut to shreds by rectangular shadows. Someone told me that I could keep the deer away from the rhododendrons by my own back door by hanging human hair on fishing line strung between the branches. I don't know if this tactic would really stop hungry deer from eating the tender buds in the wintertime, but I do know that I would have to look at a city of little hairy clotheslines every time I entered my back yard.

The flower bed and its chicken wire fence thus bring me to a general truth: Sometimes, the means we use to protect a beloved thing cause that thing to be no longer worth protecting.

In America today, we treat our nation like the previous owner of my house treated her flowers. We have built so many barriers to protect us against an attack that we imagine may come at any moment, that our own movements have become restricted, and our freedoms have been pruned back to a level that is livable for most people, but no longer inspires respect. In fact, we have pursued enemies with such extreme determination that much of the rest of the world now reviles us.

America the beautiful is gone, sacrificed to America the secure. The question Americans must now answer is whether it is worth securing an America whose once-beautiful principles have been clipped into an ugly, stunted form.

A surprising and disappointing number of Americans seem to have decided that the beauty of American idealism is not worthy of sacrifice. They have decided to surrender the highest ideals of the United States in order to feel protected. The rest of us, a large minority at 48 percent, remain dedicated to the beauty of those ideals, and are willing to brave the consequences.

In fact, the consequences of keeping America's beautiful freedom intact are really not very dire. The Homeland Security State that has been erected as a great scaffold over our nation does very little to protect. It is very much like the chicken wire deer fence that was placed in back of the flower bed in my new back yard. You see, although the fence kept deer away, the front side of the bed had no fence at all. All the deer needed to do was walk around the fence to eat their fill. Complete security can only be provided by the walls of a surrounding tomb.

We need, as gardeners and as Americans, to mature from a focus on mere protection into an attitude of enlightened deference. No, we need not defer to the deer who eat our plantings, or to any terrorists who might be planning deadly attacks. We must, however, defer to the higher principles which have guided us into our back yard avocation and national identity. The pursuit of principled beauty in nature and in our nation is worth not fighting for.


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