Some years ago, after a reading by Wendell Berry, I pressed into his hands a copy of The Monthly. In one of my columns within its pages, I quoted him: “I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.” I mumbled something to that effect. I was expecting gratitude followed in time by recognition and praise. His brief look, if my brief look interpreted correctly, was a mix of annoyance, exhaustion, and confusion. What did this guy want? I made way for the next in line. Nonetheless, we have remained the best of friends.
Perhaps not. But he continues to be an inspiration, a beacon in a world increasingly unmoored, and someone who, if his poems can be believed, is occasionally joyous. His reaction to me was perhaps similar to how I respond to the flood of emails requesting my help in saving the countless things in need of saving. I feel my wings coated in oily guilt when I click, JUNK. This morning, before I went to work, President Obama asked for my signature to pass his clean energy agenda, which I gladly contributed, and for money afterward, which I didn’t. Isn’t he the president? Why is he asking me for money?
Today was going to be one of those days when I worked hard for it. Serena’s garden is one I go to on a sporadic basis—when it’s overgrown, basically. So I was prepared for the knee high bunch grass and the jasmine assaulting the camellias, but what I hadn’t expected were the requests to move the clump, large as a bathtub, of agapanthus, to eradicate the still larger acanthus, and to transplant the two lemon trees into the vacated spot. Ooof. My whine-o-meter clicked on. Not only were we dealing with baked, root-congested clay, but also a huge amount of heavy plant matter to bag and carry up the treacherous path, through a labyrinth of weird construction at the back of the house, up a flight of stairs, through the cluttered garage, up another flight of stairs, to the street. Ooof squared.
The choices were: do it; do it and whine doing it; or not do it and feel like a doofus. If you did it, you’d feel like a hero, said the doofus.
Were the tasks worth doing? Yes. Having a well-watered acanthus next to a path is like having a baby elephant in your romper room. The Napoleonic agapanthus would be justly banished to the rocky Elba next to the house where it, and very little else, could survive. The lemons would get more sun.
Early in my attack on the acanthus I had an idea which might have been obvious but struck me as a revelation: cut the fleshy stems and leaves into small pieces, easily done with a hedge trimmer, and layer the pieces on the lowermost bed of the garden. At worst, they’d dry like fallen leaves, losing almost all of their weight. There was nothing down there but thirsty calla lilies anyway.
Not only was I a hero, but a damn genius, too. What do geniuses do? See beyond the cliché. I didn’t have to carry all that stuff out.
Hero and genius. And ass. Even with the stalks and leaves disposed of, there were the roots, a lot of roots, eight bags of roots, to hump out. Spreading those in the garden would create a sea of acanthus. I reminded myself, people pay monthly fees to hoist weight in gyms and you get to do it for free. Had there been someone to whine to, I would have whined.
By the time Serena got home at 2, the job was done, all but the citrus trees. “You are so fricking fast,” she said.