Living Land Column: The Messy Middle

Have you ever remodeled a house? I’m talking a full-on remodel, not just replacing some fixtures. I mean tearing out plaster and pulling up floors. 

If you have, you know the feeling you get about halfway through the demolition process when you look around and the plaster dust floating in the air and the big hole in the floor and think, “Oh dear god, what have I done?” 

But some time later, you finish the project (over budget and schedule, of course), look around, and think, “Yes! It was all worth it.”

That’s life. And not just a remodeler’s life. I’m convinced that home remodeling is just another activity prone to the natural forces that work on everything. And there’s a natural force that dictates that things have to get messy before they become beautiful. 

Beauty arises from messiness. Order rises from chaos. Calm from turbulence. You get the idea.

Take the process of prairie or pollinator plot establishment, for example. This is fresh in my mind because we’re in the middle – dare I say, the messy middle – of doing just that at our Chautauqua Park east of Mediapolis. 

To re-establish native prairie plants in an area, you first have to eliminate the unwanted vegetation that’s already there, if any. At Chautauqua, the park was covered in turf grass. Last year, we killed it off with a couple applications of herbicide. Then we planted the whole area with almost a hundred species of wildflowers last fall. 

Here’s where things get messy. There are many fast-growing plants that will happily rise up to fill the void created by the elimination of the turf grass. They’re called weeds. Meanwhile, the wildflowers we planted focus their efforts on putting down roots for the first couple of years. This is what makes them so well adapted to life on the prairie. Once those deep roots are established, they can come right back from the prairie fires that swept the landscape before we settled it. Those annual weeds however, couldn’t handle fire and would be eliminated.  

So here in our pollinator plot’s first full growing season, we’re basically at that remodeling point where the air is filled with plaster dust and all we can do is keep cranking away, trusting the process and knowing that from the chaos will come beauty. Our plot at Chautauqua Park is a weedy mess right now, and that’s exactly what we’d expect. We’ll mow it occasionally which allows light to reach the leaves of the wildflowers that are coming up, but we won’t mow it short. If you chop a plant off too close to the ground, you remove its ability to photosynthesize, to harness energy. Without that energy, it can’t put down those deep roots. 

But by mowing it tall, you knock the top off a lot of the weeds and keep them from shading out the plants you want there. 

It’s not “pretty” in the golf course sense, but it’s effective. And the end result will be pretty great – a field full of wildflowers that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Bees and other pollinators buzzing from flower to flower, and likely some local wildlife like deer and rabbits browsing on the abundance of new growth. And sure, there’ll be some weeds, and probably a few complaints. Our society has become so hopelessly enamored with manicured lawns and monocultures of crops in straight rows that we forget why those lawns and rows are possible in the first place. It’s because the same prairies that fed bison and butterflies for millennia built the soil that now feeds and fuels humans and their cars. 

Most processes are messy. Raising kids is a messy process, as my living room can attest. So is cooking meals, making art, fixing cars, exercising, learning new skills, or finding your soulmate. The process is messy and sometimes even painful, but the end result is worth it. Usually, at least. 

And that painful messiness is, I think, the real benefit. Because without it, there would be no growth, no intrinsic motivation to improve. Without the prairie fires of life, how would we ever develop resilience? If we could snap our fingers, or cast some seed, and *poof* have a fully established prairie, well-defined biceps, perfectly cooked filet mignon in our fully remodeled kitchen, and a restored ’68 Corvette in the driveway, would we even want such things anymore? I say not. 

It’s the messiness, the hard work, the struggle that makes the juice worth the squeeze. We know it’s worth it because that’s how nature works. It’s called “survival of the fittest,” not “survival of the ones that always take the easy route.”

Those wildflowers won’t plant themselves anymore than that wall will take itself down. Embrace the messy process. It’s only natural.