It all started innocently enough. Naturally even. As a children we were allowed to roam, feral tribes and wild individuals, from neighborhood to mesa to mountain. Fortunate enough to be at the margin of civilization, where a few steps from the front door hurled you into a mesmerizing miasma of life. No plan, nothing more than chasing a lizard, or the call of a bird. Before you knew it you were lost.
Not lost as in not knowing your physical location, but lost in wonder, the best kind of lost. You began to notice where the lizard led, or the Burrowing Owl called home, and a tapestry emerged over time and observation. It seemed that some plants grouped themselves together, and among those communities were others, reptile, mammal, insect, bird.
Initially it was unconscious, you just absorbed your observations. But then patterns emerged as your attention became focused. Close inspection of the soil revealed roots that led to stems or blades or branches and leaves and flowers and all the life associated among them. I didn’t realize I was being drawn in, it happened so naturally, so willingly. I couldn’t stay away. I was hooked.
“Why are you always in the mountains?” my mother would ask. I couldn’t tell her how much better it was than home, where an alcoholic raging father screamed through constant cigarette smoke and beer, two wars behind him but still holding him tightly with ghosts that would never let him go. By now a teenager, I knew the healing wonder of Mother Nature.
Camping and backpacking became addictive. There was always something more to see, and learn. And I was learning. The names of the plants and all the life forms of the forests and mesas. The natural cycles of germination, growth, reproduction, decay and death, all clearly laid out before me. I had a plan to become an artist and a rock star, but I couldn’t stay out of the mountains or off the mesa.
Houseplants, I thought, would help turn my inside into an outside. I began to surround myself with green things. I got a job at a flower shop caring for the plants and making terrariums, miniature tropical worlds that mimicked the landscape I was falling so madly in love with. My bedroom burst with them, every possible nook and cranny filled, based on light requirements and room.
A nursery job followed, and another. I had learned so much it became my accidental career. A move to the west coast to pursue music and art was short lived. I missed my mountains and huge open New Mexico skies. Like the interconnected web of life that we are all a part of, I knew it was futile to resist. At another nursery job I began to design landscapes, then immersed myself in the pursuit of all things horticultural and habitat related.
Water conservation was becoming a topic of conversation in the desert I call home. Permaculture arose out of growing awareness. Water harvesting, native plants, food forests, edible and medicinal landscapes. Wildlife habitats and pollinator gardens. All of these ideas and practices collided and danced for my education and enjoyment. For some, one piece is enough, all that time can be made for. For me, it is all part of the whole with which I am gratefully, blissfully, and lovingly engaged.
The world can be harsh. People can be cruel. Life can be brutal. So can nature I suppose, but I choose to make the natural world my temple. My support network. My drug of choice. I have become an addict, and if there were a twelve step to wean me from my mother earth, I could not do it. We would not do to her what we are doing as a species, if we could see how interconnected we are, and how hopelessly lost without her we would be. I am so fortunate that she grabbed ahold of me and refused to let go.
Wes Brittenham is an artist and gardener living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A lifetime of outdoor experiences in the mountains and deserts of his home have inspired his art and his passion for the natural world. A horticulturist with over four decades of hands on experience, he is a teacher, a student and an advocate for awareness of our responsibility to each other and our dear Mother Earth.