Fields of Dreams
A Backyard in Toronto, Ontario, 2016
Three years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to buy a house in a lovely neighborhood near High Park, in the west end of Toronto. A friend joked that I bought a yard with a house on it, and there was truth to her teasing. The house, built in the 1920s and badly renovated at least twice, is a bit of a mess (which I discover, bit by bit). But it’s a detached house, which means that it sits on a full-sized lot, which means that it has, for Toronto, a comparatively large area in the back for a garden. When I first moved in, the backyard consisted of a sloping expanse of apologetic grass with an ugly aluminum shed at the rear fence and a path of square concrete paving stones leading up to it. Even then, however, it was a field of utopian dreams; all through the first, long winter in the house, I looked out at the nasty shed in the snow and envisioned a garden [End Page 111] full of organic herbs and vegetables, lush native ferns and delicate wildflowers, abundant fruit trees, bright perennials, and hardy boreal shrubs happily coexisting in an oasis of urban fecundity.
When it came time to actually planning and planting the garden, I had to make some difficult choices. Even a full lot is not an acreage, and shade-loving native ferns do not have the same requirements as, say, tomatoes. I made many compromises, but the one thing I was not willing to forego was my desire for a so called “pollinator-friendly” garden. I wanted my little backyard to be a welcoming habitat for different kinds of birds and insects in order to be able to share my oasis with these other species (in addition to the resident legions of squirrels and raccoons, which are the subject of a very different essay). I did my homework. I had brilliant help from experts on native plants and other gardening in the region. I went to different garden centers and sourced organic plants that had not been finished with (insect-toxic) neonicotinoid pesticides. And I chose some great favorites: echinacea, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, aster, elderberry, sumac, lilac, blueberry, and even some of my staple cooking herbs such as mint, thyme, and chives.
Attracting monarch butterflies to the garden, however, presented a more precise problem. Of course, some of these pollinator-friendly plant species are also monarch friendly—the adult butterflies rely on the Southern Ontario nectar of late-flowering asters, for example, to fuel up for their epic journey south to Mexico. But the real key to attracting monarchs is one genus—milkweed (Asclepias)—because the adult butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed; these plants, in turn, are [End Page 112] the only source of food for the young caterpillars. And that’s where it gets complicated, as not all milkweeds are created equal. Although there are many different milkweed plants available in Toronto garden centers, many of which are bright, very attractive hybrids and cultivars, only three kinds—Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)—are appropriate for monarch butterfly caterpillars in my region. (Other species can attract monarchs, but only these three can sustain the caterpillars: they are toxic, and in passing their toxicity on to the caterpillars, they protect them from predators.) In addition, it is not enough to plant just one milk-weed plant in the middle of a mixed native plant garden and hope for the best. Not only do the caterpillars eat voraciously, requiring the presence of multiple plants to sustain a whole brace of them (one estimate is that a single monarch will eat twenty large leaves over the course of its larval stage), but also the adults are primarily attracted to large patches of orange, red, yellow, and purple flowers (the garden should also, I discovered, be sunny, sheltered, and include things like flat rocks for the butterflies to bask). In other words, gardening for monarchs involves a sustained, specialized commitment to the habitat needs of one creature, not just a general desire for multispecies community.
As I planned and planted my garden, I asked myself on several occasions what, exactly, I thought I was doing. Monarchs are in dramatic decline in North America due, primarily, to habitat loss in all parts of their long migration path (and also to climate change). As a result, every year, I see fewer and fewer butterflies; even in my local railway corridor—a place that supports a magnificent proliferation of A. syriaca because it is unsprayed and unmowed—there has also been exponentially declining evidence of monarch predation. What difference did I imagine that my little garden could make? There is a quote peppering the memeosphere attributed to garden writer Marina Schinz that reads, “Gardening is an exercise in optimism. Sometimes, it is a triumph of hope over experience.” Although I agree that all gardening is hopeful—hope for bounty, beauty, renewal, cyclical continuity, relationship, multispecies futurity, or what have you—I think there is something particularly hopeful about gardening for monarchs, especially in a context in which the scale of the garden is so completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problem making the garden necessary in the first place. So what is the nature of this hope? Is the hope misplaced? Should I be spending [End Page 113] my time protesting against deforestation in Mexico and urban sprawl in southern Ontario rather than nurturing my little patch of A. incarnata? Or is there something more at work in my garden than just the reasonable possibility of its tiny habitat contribution to the larger ecological project of the viability of the eastern population of Danaus plexippus?
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior (2012) includes what is probably the most realistic portrayal of monarch butterfly decline in contemporary North American fiction to date. It is unequivocal in its identification of habitat loss and climate change as the major causes of monarch endangerment; it is also a powerful feminist, multispecies narrative about the entwinement of diverse human and monarch hopes in the Anthropocene. For all its admirable feminist narrative and scientific accuracy, however, it doesn’t explain my garden; there is a hope, in my backyard, that overflows her careful realism. For an understanding of that hope, I turn to a much more unlikely fictional source: W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (1982).1
A Cornfield near Iowa City, Iowa, 1978
In the opening scene of Shoeless Joe, the protagonist, Ray Kinsella, is sitting on the verandah of his Iowa farmhouse, “at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin’s egg blue and the wind as soft as a dayold chick” (3). Out of that blue, a disembodied ballpark announcer’s voice speaks to him: “If you build it, he will come.” Ray knows without [End Page 114] question what the voice is telling him. He is to create, in the middle of his smallhold cornfield, a baseball diamond: “Dimensions of ballparks jumped over and around me like fleas, cost figures for light standards and floodlights whirled around my head like the moths that dusted against the porch light above me” (4). This task is not an easy one: “In reality, all anyone else could see out there . . . was a tattered lawn of mostly dandelions and quack grass that petered out at the edge of a cornfield perhaps fifty yards from the house” (3); chipping away at the cornfield would also mean removing a piece of precious land from production on a farm that is barely turning a profit. But Ray, responding as if to a divine Middle American commandment, sets earnestly to work and spends the next year “seeding, watering, fussing, praying, coddling that field like a sick child” until “it glows parrot-green, cool as mint, soft as moss, lying there like a cashmere blanket” (8).
The purpose of this unlikely ball diamond is, in the first instance, to create a magical space in which disgraced Chicago White Sox left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson can play again; Jackson was part of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox Scandal,” in which several Chicago players were banished from the sport because they were alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series for money (“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” but he has not been reinstated). And one evening during the second spring of Ray’s ritual tending of left field, Shoeless Joe does come. As Ray describes, “Moonlight butters the whole Iowa night. Clover and corn smells are thick as syrup. I experience a tingling like the tiniest of electric wires touching the back of my neck, sending warm sensations through me. Then, as the lights flare, a scar against the blue-black sky, I see Shoeless Joe Jackson standing out in left field” (12). Ray, immersed in the magic, watches Joe play; inquires about the new left field, “true as a felt-top table” (13); and begins to ask him about his love for, and banishment from, the game. Once play is over, Joe asks Ray if he can come back when the infield is finished, bringing along other disgraced Black Sox players: Chick Gandil, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch. “Consider it done,” says Ray, committing himself to more months of labor that he can scarcely afford. “God, what an outfield,” says Joe. “This must be heaven.” “No,” replies Ray, “it’s Iowa” (18).
Shoeless Joe is definitely a story about baseball. Ray is obsessed with it, and his passion for the game fires the faith that propels his increasingly [End Page 115] eccentric actions. As if building a diamond for dead White Sox players were not enough, over the course of the novel he kidnaps J. D. Salinger to watch games in Boston and, eventually, in his own field; searches out and has otherworldly conversations with one Archie “Moonlight” Graham, who played for exactly one inning with the New York Giants in 1905; magically reconstructs the nostalgic lies of an old man, Eddie Scissons, who claims to be the oldest living Chicago Cub; and, perhaps predictably, manages to convince Joe that his dead father, once a minor-league player in Florida and California, would be the ideal catcher to round out the spectral team in the clearing in the cornfield.
Of course, being about baseball, Shoeless Joe is also about a certain kind of nostalgic American Dream, one in which a player with humble origins but great talent and heart can make it in the big leagues. Jackson was the uneducated son of a South Carolina sharecropper. His extraordinary batting talent was that much sweeter to an early twentieth-century American public precisely because of his background, and his culpability in the Black Sox scandal has been called into question at least partly on the basis of his illiteracy (“Shoeless”). In this frame, Shoeless Joe is a novel that is about, and also itself provides, a kind of restorative justice; creating a sanctuary for Joe to play again—in his White Sox uniform—allows Kinsella (both Bill, author, and Ray, protagonist) to imagine a world in which Joe is not only pardoned but also allowed, recuperatively, to enjoy the playing life that was unjustly taken from him. In both the fictional diamond and the actual novel (not to mention the 1989 film Field of Dreams), Shoeless Joe thus offers Shoeless Joe a potentially infinite afterlife, one in which his alleged sins against baseball are deleted from the record and in which, more importantly, [End Page 116] the American Dream can proceed with only a minor interruption. As Salinger says to Ray, “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked time. . . . It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history. . . . It continually reminds us of what once was” (Kinsella 234).
Because it is about baseball, because it is about nostalgia and recuperation, and especially because it is so lovingly about Iowa, Shoeless Joe is also a story about the restoration of a particular dream of the American Heartland, one in which love for the land itself takes precedence over the commercial value it provides. Throughout the novel, Ray repeatedly declares his love of the place: “I came to Iowa to study, but I fell in love with the state. Fell in love with the land, the people, the sky, the cornfields” (10). At the same time as he is busily kidnapping Salinger, his brother-in-law Mark is also busily trying to foreclose on Ray and Annie’s mortgage in order to turn the small farm into a cog in his large-scale, “computer farming” corn empire. Ray, however, is determined not only to keep his farm but also to preserve his ball diamond, clearly a use of the land that has far more to do with dreams of meaning and justice than it does with profit. Ray’s quest to maintain his diamond in the midst of corporate centralization thus ties his “field of dreams” to a project of local resistance against Big Agriculture, in which his love for the place—and especially his loving, artisanal curation of the field—is opposed to a model of corn farming in which the whole point of land is to wrest out of it as much money as possible through the imposition of efficiencies: “‘But you owe the land something,’ I complained weakly to Mark. ‘It’s not just a product. Not plastic and foam and bright paint . . . [End Page 117] meant to be used once and discarded.’ But my words went unheeded, and I can see the ghostly accountants, technicians and bankers lurking behind Mark, counting money and reinvesting profits” (179).
Indeed, the redemptive magic in the story derives not from some abstract, demanding God but from a deep relationship with the land. Eddie, from whom Ray and Annie bought the farm, knows it: “I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the magic has been here all the time, that it was what drew me out here from Chicago” (214). And Ray attempts to explain it to Mark: “‘You have to be touched by the land,’ I cried. ‘Once you’ve been touched by the land, the wind never blows so cold again, because your love files the edges off it. And when the land suffers from flood or drought or endless winter, you feel for it more than for yourself, and you do what you can to ease its pain’” (179). The novel, then, makes a strong connection between environmental stewardship and the individual experience of grace. Ray’s baseball diamond is what eases the pain of the land, and the story of baseball—its ability to both elevate and redeem even in the unlikeliest of circumstances—is what is really at play in Shoeless Joe’s left field.
Obviously, there are serious challenges to be posed to this novel, not least that its nostalgic reliance on a colonial narrative of redemption through agrarian stewardship is even more deeply flawed than is the story about baseball’s “level playing field” for the rewarding of individual (male) talent and hard work (to put it mildly, it would also utterly fail the Bechdel test). But there is something oddly enchanting about the novel: the almost-random connections among events and relationships; the stippling of outlandish fantasy with historical fact (the real J. D. Salinger was not amused); and perhaps especially the language, which is, I think, purposefully overwrought in order to draw attention to the metaphoric slippage between the worlds of fact and fancy. Similes pock Shoeless Joe like hailstones on a ball field in a freak summer storm; in every one of them, we experience a slightly clunky collision between the world that is and the one that might also be. Combined with all the other slippages—for example, among the multiple, intertextual Kinsellas both in and behind the story—I think the fact that the novel is built on such an exaggerated scaffolding of simile highlights a sort of surreal experience of worldly and otherworldly doubleness; the entities that are “as” and “like” are as tangibly present as the ones the figures describe, which has the effect of making the coexistence of the White Sox and the [End Page 118] cornfield all the more plausible (everything is always part way to being something else).
Of course, the book itself is also a work of worldly and otherworldly doubleness. Kinsella not only allows Shoeless Joe to be redeemed in the fictional cornfield but also, by writing the story and inserting it into the world of readers, actually creates a magical space in which he is redeemed in reality. In reading, the reader experiences the redemption, thus giving life to the fiction beyond the text. This act is one of sympathetic magic, in which a new world is enabled by the creation of a concrete wish-image that embodies it. And this magic is powerful.
Back to Toronto
Although I may also be accused of clunky collision, I would like to argue that a similar doubleness—and a similar wish-image—lies at the heart of gardening for monarchs. Specifically, the act of creating a monarch sanctuary, refuge, or way station in the middle of a city in order to cradle an endangered, nearly quasi-extinct species—recent research estimates the chance of quasi-extinction of the Eastern monarch population at up to 57 percent in the next twenty years (Semmens et al.)—is very much akin to building a ball diamond for the quasi-dead in a cornfield. Indeed, monarchs are sometimes understood as the souls of the dead (they arrive back in Mexico at the same time as El Día de los Muertos), making the connection even more plausible. If you build it, they will come; growing milkweed and nectar plants in a backyard is not only a gesture of faith in the possibility of the monarchs’ return, which is by no means guaranteed, but also a commitment to nurturing the land in a way that aims at a restored relation of environmental stewardship. This commitment (like Ray’s) is the sympathetic magical ritual that will attract the monarchs: not just milkweed but the possibilities that milkweed opens up for fostering spaces for multispecies flourishing against the anthropocentric grain of capitalist economic development. Read as a field of dreams, a monarch garden thus reveals the doubleness of an everyday ecological utopia: the act embodies, along with the possibility of caterpillars and butterflies, the wish-image of a restored and restoried world in which capitalist ecologies do not necessarily prevail. In this respect, I am tempted to think, along with Michael Taussig, that perhaps sympathetic monarch magic, “with its capacity to combine [End Page 119] sensuousness with copy, provide[s] the immersion in the concrete necessary to break . . . from the fetishes and myths of commodified practices of freedom” (254, my emphasis). Gardening for monarchs may just turn out to be, in other words, a tiny moment of what Taussig calls “mimetic excess,” a moment of tangible “access to understanding the unbearable truths of make-believe as foundation of an all-too-seriously serious reality, manipulated, but also manipulatable” (255).
The serious reality is pretty grim. By most estimates, the eastern population of migratory monarch butterflies has declined by approximately 80 percent in the last decade (Semmens et al.). Although other factors are clearly at work, including ecological changes wrought by the introduction into monarch habitats of new species of plants, predators, and parasites, the three major causes of their decimation are generally understood to be (1) dramatic loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico (including in the area of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere reserve in Michoacán) due to economic development such as logging and mining (Aridjis); (2) climate change, including a disastrous tendency toward relatively cold, wet winters in overwintering areas (monarchs can tolerate one or the other but not both, as dramatized in Flight Behavior); and (3) the increasing use of agricultural herbicides in the wide swath of land in the United States and Canada in which the monarchs find food and lay their eggs in the spring and summer.
[End Page 120]
Specifically, Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) is often considered a nuisance species by farmers who require monocultural fields in order to facilitate, on the large scale that is generally necessary in order to make a living, mechanical harvesting and crop uniformity. Milkweed also contains glycosides, which are toxic to humans and livestock if ingested but key to monarch self-defense: eating the leaves makes the caterpillars toxic to predators. For about the last fifteen years, the herbicide of choice in most of the monarchs’ summer egg-laying area is Round-Up, a potent glyphosate that is used in conjunction with genetically modified, herbicide-resistant corn; milkweeds are exceptionally susceptible to glyphosates. As a result, a survey by Iowa State researcher Robert Hartzler found that there was a 90 percent reduction in milkweed density in Iowa cropland between 1999 and 2009. A subsequent study by John Pleasants and Karen Oberhauser noted that there has been a corresponding “81% decline in monarch production in the Midwest from 1999 to 2010” (1). To put not too fine a point on it, the industrial corn and soy production that now forms the bulk of America’s heart-land agricultural industry is directly responsible for declining monarch populations.
Wait. Corn. Iowa. It would appear that Ray’s brother-in-law’s aspiration toward a model of large-scale, industrial “computer farming” in the cornbelt won out after all. And although Ray built a little, magical diamond, there is no milkweed left in left field, either. The midwestern United States—prior to 2000, the origin of an estimated 50 percent of monarchs overwintering in Mexico—is now a vast, barren monarch no-lay zone in which some of the only places to find milkweed are [End Page 121] roadsides and ditches that, to add insult to injury, tend to be mowed right in the middle of the crucial egg-laying season.
Enter monarch gardening, which can mean anything from the general exhortation to “plant milkweed everywhere” to the creation of precise monarch microhabitats advocated by organizations like Monarch Joint Venture and MonarchWatch. Although many garden centers often now have special butterfly sections selling larger plants, MonarchWatch also collects and redistributes different species of milkweed seeds, for free if your plans are large enough (minimum two acres). They were able “to offer 200,000 free milkweed plugs for large-scale restoration projects [from] fall 2015 through spring and fall 2016” (“Bring”; note that the funding for the distribution of the plugs came from a grant from Monsanto). In addition, several monarch-support organizations offer easy online instructions for saving and planting milkweed seeds (Gomez).
Although there are many ways in which the broader movement toward pollinator gardening is resonant with the more precise goals and practices of monarch gardening—particularly the notion that we need to create gardens that are habitats, requiring considerable readjustment of urban and suburban horticultural priorities away from gardens as landscapes—the thing about providing a serious welcome for monarchs as opposed, say, to mason bees is that the bees, once they have an established habitat, can be kept in place (they hibernate and are fairly gregarious pollinators), whereas monarchs need to be attracted every year (they migrate only to wherever the milkweed is as they are extremely fussy eaters). Also, of course, monarchs are charismatic in a way that mason bees simply are not (nothing against mason bees); where the latter are often thought of instrumentally—farmers can actually rent mason bees for pollination services—monarchs are both iconically beautiful and carry a lot of symbolic baggage on their migratory journey, including powerful tropes of transformation, rebirth, resurrection, and hope. It’s interesting and ironic, then, that Mexican seasonal migrant workers are sometimes called monarcas; where the butterflies are actively encouraged to fly, unfettered, up and down the longitude of the continent—“insects without borders”—migrant workers are clearly not.
Monarch gardening gestures, then, to both ecology and mythology. The butterfly on the backyard milkweed plant is, in multiple senses, an emblem of resurrection: the rebirth of the butterfly from the chrysalis; [End Page 122] the manifestation of the soul in a new body; the return of the butterfly to newly welcoming, northern urban-pocket habitats. Again, then, it is not far-fetched to equate monarch gardens with Ray’s baseball diamond. They are fields of dreams, acts of faith, feats of sympathetic magic that attempt to alter the overwhelming reality of the capitalist destruction of monarch habitats, through the creation of tiny bursts of mimetic excess in which a different logic of butterfly-flower-human relationship is, concretely, planted, tended, and allowed to flourish. If you build it, they will come.
As Martin Jay points out (emphatically) in relation to Taussig, magical thinking has its limits; borrowing from Adorno, Jay argues that it is “imperative to temper it with a non-instrumental notion of reason that involve[s] the capacity for judgment through the better argument” (81) in order to truly disrupt the “commodified practices of freedom” that shape, in this case, our ecological relationships. And Reason tells us that comparing the major problems that monarchs face—capitalist agriculture and industry, deforestation, and climate change—to the minutiae of back-garden milkweed patches reveals huge potential problems of scale, politics, and even denial. There are thus anxious, even helpless, notes to some campaigns (plant milkweed everywhere!); all the A. syriaca in the world will not produce a single monarch caterpillar in southern Ontario if the parent butterflies got wiped out in a bad winter (or by mining) in Michoacán. Where are the public connections between monarch gardening and climate change activism, or tropical forest conservation, or organic growing and food justice? Can we ask, just for a moment, why it is that so much agricultural land is wedded [End Page 123] to corn, why Monsanto is so interested in funding milkweed distribution, and even how heartland mythologies like Kinsella’s participate in covering over the relations of colonization, dispossession, and exploitation that brought corn to Iowa in the first place? (It’s interesting to note, here, that currently depressed commodity prices for corn and soy are contributing to some Iowa farmers’ decision to turn their land over to pollinator habitat as part of a US federal government conservation reserve program; see Eller.)
These questions are all crucial, and fictions like Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Ozeki’s All Over Creation help us to ask them. But so does Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, in that it investigates a different dimension of the politics of hope: if I build it, will they come? And so I plant, hoping that a magical invocation to a magical creature, both ecologically and symbolically, will allow me to think about the possibility of a transformed and restored relationship, right in my own backyard. Each milkweed is a little wish; each garden is little utopia that enfolds, within the stark reality of the hostile world that we have created for monarchs, the tiny promise of what our shared world still might, just might, become. Perhaps it’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Fields of dreams may yet be planted at the edges of Monsanto cornfields.
Catriona (Cate) Sandilands is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. She is a 2016 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow, a former Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Culture, and a past president of ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) and ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment and Culture in Canada). She has published extensively in the environmental humanities, including works on queer and feminist ecologies, environmental literatures and politics, new materialist and multispecies thought, park and protected-area histories, and plant studies. Her current projects include a queer ecocritical reading of the life and work of Jane Rule, a community-storytelling anthology on climate change, and a book of literary nonfiction about urban plants. She is also an avid gardener, with all the ecological and ethical contradictions that the practice entails.
My thanks to Cheryl Lousley and Susie O’Brien for inviting me to submit what was originally a performative “flight of fancy” for publication: quite an act of faith. Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers of the original version, whose comments were very helpful. The essay remains, however, decidedly fanciful; like a pollinator garden, it is a small gesture of invitation rather than a carefully worked-out strategy of transformation. All photographs are credited to the author.
1. W. P. (Bill) Kinsella died September 26, 2016, between the first and the final versions of this essay. I am not sure if he would have liked it or not, but I dedicate it to his memory nonetheless.
Erratum: An earlier version of this article was published under the erroneous title “Fields of Dreams: A Backyard in Toronto, Ontario, 2016.”