Monday, July 25, 2011


July 25, 2011:

Walked around the yard the other day and saw the work ahead: weeding. If you have a yard you have weeds. I rather like weeding, and don't know why. Thomas Carlyle used to sit on his patio at his house in London and pull weeds and grass out from between the bricks. My father, at the shore house, would spend part of every weekend he was there pulling weeds, mostly crabgrass, out of the sand and yellow gravel that passed for soil. Maybe it rests the mind. The usual thing at the shore was to go to the beach, and he would do that, go up in the late afternoon, take a dip, cool off, wash the dust off his hands. But he seemed to prefer to weed. I was at the old shore house last week, visiting one of my nephews whom I rarely see, who was in occupancy for a week, and didn't see a single weed; but then things have been much improved there since my father was alive: new shingles, paint job, the old rusted glider gone from the front porch, the deck over the car port rebuilt. I used to sit on that rusty glider and read Dickens during my two weeks of summer vacation. That was when I actually had a job. Then I, too, might go up in the late afternoon to take a dip, cool off.

Crabgrass, it's worth knowing, is not native to North America. It came over mixed with the wheat grain that the early colonists brought here to plant. They also brought dandelions, as a salad green, and plaintain weed, which the Indians called "Englishman's foot" because it seemed to follow them wherever they went. And did you know that honeybees followed settlers west? Or led them, actually. By about fifty miles. And certain cultivated plants act like weeds. We have mint in our garden, and every year in the fall I pull it up by the roots, only to see it reappear, and spread, in the spring. You can't get rid of it. We also planted a trumpet vine years ago to climb our shed and pulled it down, and out, reluctantly when we replaced the shed this spring. But it's back, and all over the place. The roots run like hoses underground for two, three, five, ten feet, and then the plant springs up in these new places. It grows very fast. I mow the lawn about every ten days, and I'm always mowing down trumpet vines that I've mowed down before and that regrow about half an inch a day.

Grass itself, too, might be thought of as a kind of weed. Lawn greass is not native to North America. Bunch grass is, but not lawn grass, which also spreads by underground roots. It was brought over to mimic the appearance in American yards of English manor houses with their magnificent lawns, and once there were suburbs everybody had to have lawns. Lawn grass thrives in the English climate, with its cool nights and abundant rain. Here? Not so much. Here it takes a lot of work, a lot of water, and a lot of money to make grass grow well and keep it weed free. My longterm hope is to replace the worst of our grass with groundcovers. I've already done that in part of the front yard, where the worst grass was. That patch is now occupied mostly by a creeping form of juniper, which, strangely enough, Meriwether Lewis was the first to discover, growing out west, and the first to see how good a groundcover it would make. What's left on that particular patch I intend to cover with Pennsylvania field stone.

It is relaxing. I do so much mental work, and to spend a morning or an afternoon pulling weeds seems to melt the stress of being a writer and trying to produce at the top of your form every time. Weeding, like writing, has to be revisited and redone, but that's all right; I actually seem to need the weeds. They represent the undefeated part of life on earth. Despite everything we do to them, they survive; it is evolution in action. So tomorrow I will go see my agent in the morning and talk about the book that won't sell and the crisis in publishing generally, and then come home and weed in the afternoon. Don't think it odd that it gives me pleasure. Emerson, in a letter to a friend, once lamented that he didn't do the work of maintaining his own garden, and thus couldn't fully enjoy the pleasure of calling it his own. We are, after all, dust, and we return to it. There's something remarkably satisfying about putting your hands in it once in a while.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


July 3:

I spent the last three days largely in the garden, largely on my knees, putting in plants, taking out the plants we know as weeds, laying down mulch to keep more weeds from germinating, and the results, while mainly very satisfying, included leg muscles that cramped off and on all night long and woke me up at least four times. Then there's the scar on the back of my hand I no longer remember the cause of, the occasion of. A scar on my arm I know very well; that's where Dr. Berger caught the melanoma before it became something that could have killed me. My white beard covers another scar where he caught another melanoma that could have killed me. Thank you, Dr. Berger. Then about three years ago I hyperextended my left knee and can no longer walk more than about two miles without it becoming painful. At my age things like that don't heal very well. Then last night at the party somebody made a joke about my age and I had to remind him that he's only a few years behind me; and what I should have asked him is, well, my friend, which of us is having knee replacement surgery and which of us isn't? But I didn't think of it in time. I'm not the one having knee replacement surgery. For my age, I'm in pretty good shape.

But it creeps up on you. It begins to call attention to itself. My mind is sharp, I write well, I think as clearly as I always have, I have acquired, some people think, a certain wisdom. But it creeps up on you. You begin to imagine scenarios of life in a wheelchair, say, or requiring metal parts to replace bone and cartilage, or being off balance and falling down the cellar stairs, which would not be fun. You feel more and more for friends who face crippling problems. A good friend is about to have quadruple bypass surgery. Another friend has just had part of her spine fused, after enduring a great deal of pain. Yet another has had a pacemaker installed in his chest, and a fourth is struggling to keep his sight. I keep track of the skill with which I do the Thursday thru Saturday crossword puzzles in the NYTimes, the hard ones; after my grandmother's senile dementia, my mother's Alzheimer's, you look for signs, for forgetfulness, loss of words, anything that might be indicative of that kind of decline, a kind that also creeps up on you, so that by the time you would want to check out of this life you are no longer capable of doing the deed.

So you wind up asking yourself: am I ready? Am I tough enough, physically and mentally, to face the inevitable, the decline and fall of faculties, abilities, of me myself? I have been so lucky: never spent a night in a hospital; never had a major operation, have broken no bones but my nose, have no arthritis I know of, seem to have a sound heart, certainly have a sweet life, and the garden is close to beautiful. More goldfinches would be nice, but maybe they'll come back. Can my luck hold, can I face the inevitable with the grace without which one cannot be said to have lived well?

You have to earn your soul, John Keats said in one of his letters. John Donne had his portrait painted in a shroud, and when the Earl of Essex walked to the scaffold where he was to be beheaded, all London in attendance to watch him die, he wore a black cloak; when he let it fall from his shoulders he was seen to be wearing beneath it a brilliant red doublet, and the crowd gasped. Dying, like living, is a test of mettle. You might think of life as an art form which requires, like all art, a sense of an ending. We won't know until it's over, therefore, whether we have performed well, and then, because we'll be dead, we still won't know. But we must do it well regardless. Otherwise what would life be for?