In the Belgian suburbs, the whine of the chainsaws

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

My wife and I spent more time and energy planning our move to the Belgian suburbs than we did our move overseas a few years back. The overseas move was decided in less than a minute, a decision made easier by the intoxicating spirits of a great California wine. The move to the suburbs, fifteen minutes away from Brussels, proved to be a much more complicated and byzantine process.

What motivated our move, in part, was the arrival of Covid-19 on Belgian shores and a long-held desire to expand our gardening activities beyond our small terrace. Gardening, we felt, was good for the soul.

Armed with this ancient knowledge, for it was the ancient Greeks who first drew our attention to the power of gardening, we recently moved out of our modern apartment in the city and leased an old house in a charming wooded street just steps away from an even more charming forest.

One week into our lease, we had already sowed hundreds of wildflower seeds collected from far and wide and we’d begun building a small greenhouse for our Silky oaks, a very special plant raised from seed on our Etterbeek terrace. Strawberries were growing by week two, and works on our 900-litre pond had begun by the end of week three. Dug out with borrowed tools and our bare hands, this pond is our family’s Delta Project, one that is slowly turning into a wondrous bird habitat.

The owner of the house has tolerated all these activities with a bemused bewilderment, but that might not be the case when he sees the cardoons and the teasels growing to their full height. Or when he sees all those bumble bees building nests in his garden to reap all the bounty on offer.

We did not add this clause to our lease contract, but perhaps we should have: ‘The kid of the house will work on the garden as part of his liberal education, and his parents will join him in the endeavor. The kid will build a Bumble Bee Empire that will transform an otherwise nondescript rectangle of soil into a wilderness of wildflowers grown from seeds that were harvested gratis in Belgium and beyond.’

To work another man’s land without pay, you might say, is unwise. To spend time and energy adding beauty to this same land, you might add, is downright foolish. Not if you think that gardening can keep you sane during these times of plague.

Our city friends were supportive of our move to the suburbs, and I felt vindicated when one of them confided to me that it had been smart of us to move during the summer break, while everyone else was abroad recovering from their May lock-downs, seeding the October wave of the pandemic.

The next wave is now gathering force in ski resorts across Europe, but we’re still at home, immersed in our suburban homesteader experience, following the recommendations of experts whose last names we can’t quite pronounce, and kneading our own dough to make a pizza that can give the best pizza maker in town a run for his money.

If the city-dwellers reading this get the impression that life in the Belgian suburbs is not that bad or something akin to a plant-hunting expedition to a foreign land, then they’re right. But I should be honest and report on some of the terrible things that I’ve noticed since we moved here a few months ago.

My guess is that most economists or demographers would describe our street as an upper-middle class street, with a couple of millionaires thrown in. And they would probably infer that the people who live here have attained a ‘high level’ of education.

This might pass as a fact in such academic circles, but it fails to explain why so few of our neighbors bother to put out those pale-green bags that our commune has designated as Compost Bags, for all the organic waste.

Might it be because these neighbors are composting in their backyards? I did some careful field work, without trespassing on anyone’s property, and I can confidently report that there is a dearth of compost bins (or composting activities) in this street filled with millionaires and almost millionaires. Which means that most of the organic waste generated by our neighbors is sent to the incinerators.

You’ve heard people say how most of the world’s environmental problems are caused by over-consumption and waste in rich industrial societies – well, here’s exhibit seventeen for you. Near-zero composting in a rich suburb.

The gardens here are a similar story. Our neighbors have unfortunately forgotten the old adage, that one that says that there is no waste in Nature. And this is why armies of mowers descend on our street every day of the week. Armed with chainsaws that whine all throughout the morning and into the afternoon, these mowers haul off all the green rubbish that our neighbors have no idea what to do with.

Ten million years of evolution haven't quite prepared the resident owl for all this noise, but who cares about owls and their habitats in an educated millionaires’ suburb?

This is exhibit eighteen for all those people who blame the world’s environmental problems on the birth rates of the poor.

Exhibit nineteen is my next door neighbor, a lady who often sits in her driveway with her Mercedes engine idling, waiting for her iPhone battery to recharge or doing something I quite can’t comprehend.

There’s more: I was out seed hunting the other day when it dawned on me that all the gardens on this street are self-contained units that bare no ecological relation to each other or the surrounding forest. No one here has taken the time to open a crawl space for the lonesome fox or the curious hedgehog. Creatures that have as much a right as we do to eke out a living in this wondrous and difficult planet.

We have abused our rights to property and privacy and parceled up complex habitats into absurd Lilliputian fiefdoms that are essentially ecological dead-ends. Places bought and sold without anyone asking what type of soil the garden has.

This last exhibit is so damning to our cause, that it’s hard to see how anyone in the ‘developing’ rural world might be expected to take any of our economic, technological or commercial hubris seriously.

As for fruit trees, I’ve counted a grand total of two on this street, one of them abandoned. Indeed, why should a wealthy suburbanite grow anything in his garden when he can spend his time lecturing foreigners about land use?  

I could go on, but then the city dwellers reading this might start getting their airs of superiority vis-à-vis their suburban friends. For, I must admit, I’ve met more composters and re-wilders and card-carrying tree-huggers in the wilds of the city than I ever will in the complacent Belgian suburbs, which are probably no different from the suburbs in the rest of the ‘developed’ world.  

As for my family and me, to paraphrase an old book, our work on the Bumble Bee Empire continues.

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