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.