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The Death of Zane Grey

            It’s a total mess, this so-called garden of mine.  Nothing remains where I plant it.  The Virginia creeper climbs all over the front and north sides of the house, threatening to engulf it.  Clematis piggybacks on the creeper and climbing roses, using both and creating a thicket so dense the windows all but disappear in summer.  I have black-eyed susan, phlox, dame's rocket, daisies and asters every  place I didn’t plant them.  Strawberries wander everywhere, their stolons leapfrogging sidewalk, rock walls, and even low-growing groundcovers.  Nothing appears as I’d hoped, and I sometimes feel like such a fool, a clown of a gardener.

Yet I've seen black snakes and garter snakes crawl through the dead leaves on the hillside out back, perhaps hunting the tiny toads that, now and again, hop into sight in the front flower garden.   I’ve found long-tailed salamanders, their sleek, caramel-colored bodies studded with inky black dots, wriggling under small piles of sodden, rotting leaves in the curbside gutter, somehow surviving in the cold artesian water that never stops flowing there.  They come out onto the cool, damp summer grass at night to hunt tiny slugs, which they devour in one gulp.  The summer before last, I found a raccoon right outside an upstairs window that overlooks the side garden; it had climbed the grape vine in the dark to eat the sweet Catawba and Concord grapes that hung in thick bunches.  We got no grapes that year. 

Every spring, within a week or two, catbirds strip the hundreds of tiny fruits from the weeping cherry tree growing in front of the picture window.  Every single one.  In midsummer, goldfinches balance on long, thin coreopsis stems and patiently peck into flower heads the shape of tiny, green Beefeater hats.  In late summer, they hang upside down from drooping sunflowers, heavy with seed, or hop sideways, like Beijing acrobats, along the upright stems of anise hyssop, gobbling the seeds of the long, lavender flower spikes.  In winter, with their brilliant buttery yellow summer colors turned a dull greenish brown, they perch atop blackened coneflower heads and pick through the stiff, brown, prickly spines to find the thin seeds.   They know no rest.  I also have coreopsis, hyssop, sunflowers, and coneflowers in places they were never planted.

Chipmunks, like refugees from a Beatrix Potter story, scurry and scamper front and back, sometimes with cheeks stuffed with unknown seeds or with mouths full of soft grasses for their nest. Sometimes I spy them atop the small stone wall beside the herb garden next to the front door, leisurely munching a strawberry they had found in the front garden.  Bees, wasps of all kinds, darters and dragonflies, butterflies and skippers dart and flit among the flowers that bloom throughout the summer, while aphids, ladybugs and assassin bugs prefer their more measured pace.  Leopard frogs occasionally leap out at me from under a tangle of basil and tomato leaves in the vegetable garden on the south side of the house, though nary a slug do I ever find there.  Hummingbirds zoom in, hover, and probe for nectar in almost every flowering bell of monarda and honeysuckle, as well as the hyssop and verbena. 

Amid all this nightmare tangle of leaf, stem, vine, and root, this landscaped disaster of a garden, with the Virginia creeper engulfing the picture window, strangling the gutters and eaves, even climbing onto the roof and up to the chimney top, with the purple clematis running rampant over this growing green scaffold and the yellow climbing roses following behind, I contemplate this eyesore that so infuriates and perplexes a buttoned-down, Chamber of Commerce member of the family.  “What’s the point of it?” he asked me once, exasperated to see the overgrown mess that is our house in summer, so out of place amid the more neatly kept lawns and well-pruned shrubs of the other homes on the street and throughout the development.  Feeling a bit foolish, I just shrugged.  I had no answer.

What’s the point of the creeper whose leaves are finally turning crimson, in the cool of the late autumn, to complement the deep, dusky blue of their seeds, which hang in bountiful clusters like tiny grapes?  What point, indeed?

Looking at this too obvious failure of the garden beautiful, with little sense of order or organization lasting more than a year, with everything growing everywhere, I have more than once felt utterly defeated.  Yet amid this slovenly affront to suburban propriety, I keep finding small places and moments of breathtaking beauty, wondrous compositions of color, shape, size and texture that I couldn't have imagined.  With each of these stunning delights to the eye, I began to see.  And now, failure that I may be in many ways, I think I understand.  

All that you do will turn to dust, which wind and rain will wash away.  And when this so-called civilization collapses, waiting to move back will be the rabbits and deer, groundhogs and box turtles, turkeys and owls, bears and raccoons, copperheads and foxes.  And to that I say amen.

 

Copyright © Mark McTague, 2007