Wendell Berry loves to talk about how we need to maintain healthy hedgerows where the wild meets the cultivated. Those hedgerows are places where foxes live, where biodiversity is maintained in favor of monoculture.
My wife does most of the gardening. Along the south side of our house, nearly invisible from the street, we have a variety of fruits and vegetables in a narrow strip. (We have a city plot so I’m talking about a strip south of the house between our foundation and the property line only six feet wide.) There are squash, tomatoes, rhubarb and raspberries this year. I know my veggies, but I’m always making up names for the flowers because I never know which name goes with which blossom.
“Look at these chrysanthemums, they’re nice,” I say.
“Those are peonies,” she says.
“I like the daisies,” I say, and she tells me they are lilies. I shrug. Doesn’t matter. Can’t eat them. As a writer I’m more Garrison Keillor in this way than Barbara Kingsolver. Keillor admits he doesn’t know from trees. Kingsolver manages to write novels that are more about plants than they are about the people who cultivate and destroy them.
But I know milkweed; I’ve known it from childhood, and I’ve become more excited about it since reading Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I’ve allowed it to come up in a corner of my back yard. That’s because milkweed is the only plant on which the monarch butterfly will lay her eggs. It’s called a weed, but the blossoms do have a sweet smell. Today, while I was looking over the raspberries semi-productively, and suddenly, halfway through our second summer of allowing milkweed to stand in my mini-hedgerow, I got the reward: a monarch butterfly showed up and flitted about.
Making space for hedgerows are important to biodiversity, and when we strive to become better listeners we also need to make space for a hedgerow. The analogy works two ways. First is the milkweed. That’s the space in your own life for time to create; I mean down time. It’s really hard to help someone slow down if you haven’t practiced it yourself. Taking time today to snap photos of “our” butterfly was that creative down time when it doesn’t matter if anything really gets accomplished.
The second hedgerow is like the butterfly itself showing up, and it happens during a listening session. This is a conversational border area, a place (usually at the beginning and end) of a conversation where we aren’t just cultivating our usual corn and beans, that is, trying to be productive with our time. Instead we’re just wandering through some down time together. The biodiversity in the hedgerow of a conversation can show us that wild side in our humanness. There’s value in that wild side, beauty, moments of migratory musings and shy potential which can lead to the best stuff. It’s why I prefer an hour session to a half hour. In 30 minutes, I can coach and issue beginning to end, but I don’t have the time for that extra moment to notice the best little pieces of life. Hedgerows have to be cultivated, too, but it’s a cultivation of non-plowing, non-sowing. Make space for these kinds of margins in your week (allow milkweeds), and then in your conversation (be alert for butterflies).