As of today, I have almost finished ripping out the jungle that the previous owners of our house had allowed to grow where you might expect a garden to be. Last fall, I cut down something like forty trees, not counting the hundreds of little suckers that I pulled out by hand. I removed a dumpster full of broken cement slabs, bits of metal grating, dilapidated fencing, and other random garbage, like several pounds of engine grease, cat litter, oil filters, and bags of horrifyingly unidentifiable substances. I also planted garlic, to give me hope that I would be able to plant something again someday.
This spring, I dug out the roots of all those trees I had cut down. I also sent more than twenty brown yard waste bags and two wagons of brush to the recycling facility. Only a few hours ago, a woman who had responded to our internet ad came and removed the five trees that were small enough and healthy enough to be transplanted but had no place in our yard. I have only two stumps remaining. Then I will be able to plant things rather than tear them out.
That is, I have two stumps remaining and more gout weed than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Those of you who are unfamiliar with gout weed should pray that you remain so blessed. Though it is not an entirely unattractive plant, just a leafy green groundcover, it is incredibly fast growing, incredibly aggressive, and incredibly difficult to remove. Organic gardening sites do offer some methods for eliminating it, but they are all virtually impossible on a scale as large as my yard, and none of them offer any sort of guarantee of success. A neighbour of mine, who happens to do professional landscaping, looked at the problem and told me, “Luke, I hardly ever recommend herbicide, but I am recommending herbicide, several applications.”
This puts me in an ethical predicament, because it puts into conflict two ethical principles about which I feel very strongly: one, that gardening should be organic, for reasons having to do with the environment, with sustainability, with health, and with the maintenance of traditional skills; and two, that a garden should be edible as well as ornamental, for many of the same reasons. However, it appears that unless I use chemical means, I will not be able to eliminate the gout weed, and if I cannot eliminate the gout weed, it will choke out any of the edible plants that I introduce. I do not like either of my choices.
Now, because this is a singular and unique case, and because I can see no other way to have a productive garden, and also because this neighbour of mine had offered to apply the chemicles in exchange for a case of beer, I have decided to spray the gout weed, but I am unhappy with this neccessity, as I always am when following one ethical principle necessitates that I break another. Yet, this seems to happen far more often than not. I am almost prepared to say that every ethical choice requires this kind of decision, that it requires a choice, not only between what is ethical and what is unethical, but between two or more ethical principles. The choice I make is therefore always wrong, will always be wrong, and yet I am required to make it nevertheless. In this sense, living ethically may simply have to do with making these choices even as we recognize the impossibility of making them rightly, or, put differently, it may have to do, not with the rightness of the choice we make, which will always escape us in any case, but with our concern for the rightness of the choice and the will to make this choice despite its impossibility.