On this Earth Day, a question: Take care of the garden or let it grow wild?

By Joel Achenbach
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C01

This is the year I'll get rid of Mrs. Wilson's roses. About darn time. I've tended them for 18 years, since we bought the house from the Wilsons, though "tended" in this case means supervising from a distance their inexorable decline and degradation. One by one, the roses have expired under my lethal care.

And yet for a few weeks each spring, the surviving bushes miraculously fire green canes skyward, and soon produce, pop pop pop, the kind of old-fashioned, fantabulous roses that you can smell down the block.

Then it's over. The leaves get scaly, black, fungal, and the stalks turn brown. By August, Mrs. Wilson's roses will be tangled in morning glory vines, choked by Bermuda grass and no more likely to generate a flower than to suddenly spurt forth a ham hock.

The old hybrids will thrive only if you douse them with fungicides and pesticides, follow up with doses of nuclear radiation, and then finally, in the ultimate desperate measure, hire a gardener. Otherwise, the great and powerful thing that is Nature will say nuh-uh. Ain't happenin'. Microbes and insects that first evolved in the Devonian will descend in force, and soon the rose garden is a flowerless patch of thorns.

So this year they're gone. I'll replace them with something hardy and no-fuss, like azaleas or crape myrtles or pavement for a parking space. This year there will be no scruffiness or rough edges permitted in the green grid that is my quarter-acre. The beds will be edged with laser precision. Gone will be the vines that run wanton and naked across the property, threatening to carry away cats and small children. My corn patch will not be the pitiful, postmodernist nod to fields of gold, but a real crop, something that requires an actual harvest (mental note: buy overalls).

Or does delusion once again masquerade as hope?

The sad truth is that having a hobby is not the same thing as having a talent. You can be bad at your hobby. My gardening is just a nervous reflex, a twitch incited by sunshine. When I look at my yard, I know the bitter truth: Failure is an option.

But surely this is a thought every bit as old as agriculture. Somewhere along the line we decided that we were the one species with dominion over the planet. Now we suffer for our hubris. Break it, you buy it.

Earth Day is shot through with guilt. We fear our footprints. We strive for sustainability without being able to figure out the most basic question -- whether that will mean a highly managed planet or one in which we pull back and hunker down.

Mow the yard or let it go wild? Impose order on the rose patch, run soil pH tests, soak it in chemicals and turn it into an expression of technocratic civilization -- or let it do its own thing and remain a hippie commune?

Agriculture bested hunting and gathering not because it was easier -- criminy, it was so much harder! -- but because it made larger human populations possible, and eventually the farmers simply outnumbered the hunters. The human population finally became, just in the last year or so, more urban than rural. The suburban yard is a compromise position of sorts. It's the air-quotes version of the landscape we used to know. It's not a lawn, it's a savanna!

And of course it's a biology experiment. Even the smallest yard is saturated in life. A handful of soil has trillions of organisms. And yet it's all the same kind of life, evolved and differentiated over 3.5 billion years. The rose is the distant cousin of the grub (as the grub never ceases to remind the worm).

The other night I joined a small group of journalists for a dinner with Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University and the author of many books on cosmology and life in the universe. His new book, "The Eerie Silence," ponders our inability so far to detect signals from alien civilizations.

He writes that perhaps we need to look for anomalies in space -- strange things we can't explain that might be the handiwork of aliens. Perhaps, he says, evidence of aliens is hiding in plain sight. We should, for example, look for signs of nuclear radiation from spaceships that landed long ago on our planet. We should look for messages in our DNA, implanted by aliens with the notion that someday we'd figure out how to read them.

Does Davies really believe this stuff? No, not really. He entertains possibilities, but in the end, he's a skeptic. Davies is struck by how complex even a simple microbe is. Life's origin may be, in effect, a miracle -- not technically supernatural, but a one-shot deal, he says. So it is that, on the penultimate page of his book, he declares that he thinks we are probably alone, that we're the only intelligent life in the entire cosmos. Not only that: "I would not be very surprised if the solar system contains the only life in the observable universe."

Wow. That's harsh. That's a lot of stars and galaxies without so much as a bacterium.

But there was a different view at the end of the table, from professor Harold Morowitz, who studies the origin of life at George Mason University. Morowitz sees a more optimistic scenario. He sees the connection between the periodic table of elements and the metabolic pathways of every organism. Life comes from dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- there's an unbroken connection. So it's not a miracle, this thing called life, but an emergent phenomenon of matter.

"Biochemistry is geochemistry," Morowitz said from his sunny end of the table.

I hope Morowitz is right, and life is common in the cosmos. Until we know, all we have is our one sample, our Earth life. And from this perspective, running a backyard is a big responsibility.

You do it on behalf of the entire planet, of the entire universe. Life has obligations to life.

This extends even to the life that's not entirely young and beautiful. There is a certain nobility in being, for example, an old rose bush, an improbable survivor, veteran of many a contest, somehow still in the game.

And so I find the organic rose fertilizer and give Mrs. Wilson's roses a little food and some water and another shot at glory.

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