Posts Tagged ‘May Theilgaard Watts’
September 25, 2013 | by Abigail Walthausen
A number of years ago, on a plane returning to the United States from Mexico, I sat next to a garrulous doctor who was also the head of New York’s cactus and succulent society. He told me about plant sales, about the traditional Bajan candy that was a great threat to one-hundred-year-old cacti, and about an earlier plane trip on which he smuggled an uprooted barrel cactus back to America wrapped in a ball of dirty T-shirts. But cacti were not the reason for this trip, he explained as he showed me a medal he had just won in a long-distance race up a Guatemalan volcano, running alongside other men in his age group, forty and older. He had been busy conquering a different harsh element of the Central American landscape. After landing, as we parted ways on the elevator up to ground transportation, to myself I thought, This is a character for a short story. But even though the stories that Ivan told me revolved around botany, geology, man’s will to bend nature, it never once occurred to me until reading May Theilgaard Watts’s essay “Looking Down on Improved Property (or an Airplane View of Man and Land)” that Ivan and his chatter might be just as suited to a short ecology study as to fiction.
In this essay from Reading the Landscape of America, Watts begins her narrative with a conversation overheard between businessmen about the evergreen plantings they had been collecting for their yards; she then reflects on the great landing strip on an orchid pinned on a fellow passenger’s lapel. Once she has sensed the small presences of nature, even in the vacuum of the airport, we find her looking out the plane window at the passing city grids and farm grids and reporting that “under this net, Nature is squirming and resisting.” At every margin, every mark on the human neatness of borders, she reels off the names “dandelion, cottonwood, ailanthus,” like a refrain announcing the little victories of hardy wilderness. In another essay from the same collection, “Prairie Plowing Match,” the concern with finding pockets of “native” flora among the “foreign” plantings imported by humans is the same, but this study finds a different refrain. She refers back to seventy-five years of local literature for text suggesting the original Illinois landscape she seeks, and she uses fragments of these historical tractor-pull programs to punctuate her description of a walk around the prairie. When she finds her “natives,” she finds them along a fence rail, on the grounds of a churchyard, and inside an abandoned school house. Read More »