Breathing Space

Exuberance leads to overpruning and removal of a daphne destined for replacement.


“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

—Margaret Atwood


It rains and continues to rain. The gods have heard our clamoring, or at least mine. A time lag was involved: I started doing my incantations and prostrations three winters ago. I am not complaining. Eternity has its own speed. Lake Tahoe is at a record high. Weeks ago, Tom in Santa Barbara told me their reservoir was half full after being bone dry. By now it may be full.

My garden is where I take the rain into my bones. The leaves have a glossy radiance. Although rains are forecast for next week, I assume they are winding down, devolving into fitful showers. I’m sad about it, but then I wasn’t flooded out. The worst that happened was a drip, drip, drip in the closet.

Spring is here. What could be more ordinary? What could be more monumental? The garden feels like one long breath. You can practically hear the subterranean activity. If my deafer self can hear it, so can the opossums and the raccoons that nose around and  dig nightly. I’m hoping they get so fat on worms they can’t climb onto my roof and frolic. I’m not going to worry about them until the day they do something unforgivable, as they surely will. If they are pulling down my house or decimating the garden, I’m not aware of it.  Ignorance will do for bliss. It seems important to put this on notice: Here, now, in this garden, there is peace, even with the  political noise abounding. I’m grateful, to whom it may concern.

How receptive the soil is. My decades-long experiment in extreme mulching has, if nothing else, had a wonderful effect on the soil. Instead of raking assiduously and putting leaves in the green bin, I scatter them, layers of ginkgo, maple, and boxwood clippings from my garden and frequently from my neighbors’ if what’s collected is uniform and free of weedy grasses, branches, etc. Keeping it uniform mitigates the unsightliness, but looking tidy is not on the docket. At times, momentarily, it looks better than tidy, say when lagoons of gold ginkgo form under the apple trees. It looks curious, artistic (said with raised eyebrow). The sun of color sets, and the leaves sink into their gray, moldy fate. Last fall, on top of all this roughage, I added a four-inch padding of straw taken from bales left over from the annual Halloween block party. I let them sit in the rain before I took them apart in damp slabs. Wet, the straw is much easier to handle; dry, you end up with strands caught in the grasses, like hair of blond cheerleaders. Nestled snuggly, the straw is butt-ugly, but it’s definitely, without a doubt, artistic.

I talked to Rita today. Her avocado tree, one of the few trees in her garden that seemed to have weathered the plague, has gone limp, another straggler on the road to the Land of Shades. Shade is what she planted the umbrella tree for. She sent me a picture. Fallen over. Eaten out by termites.

Last September, I visited her in Nigeria. It was the rainy season. For the remainder of my traveling existence, I will visit countries only in the rainy season. It rained five times a day. For two weeks, I planted and transplanted dozens of trees, shrubs, and seeds. Everything was growing great guns, and I wrote about it, “Universal Love and Sowing Seeds,” in the February issue. The garden was ripe with all the promises a garden makes: peace, beauty, abundance.

In the dry season, the termites arrived. The Golden Showers vine shriveled. The coconut palms turned gray. Can termites delight? If so, the queen must have been delighted with delicacies from far lands. Yum. Coconut. Bring me  the head of a papaya. Acres from Rita’s garden, she lounged and  gave orders, sequestered in a fortress of roots, inaccessible. She couldn’t be dug out. Termites are the world’s best architects. A bath of poisons was drawn and sent below. The workers hadn’t planned  on that. The termites were terminated. Then the ants moved in,  ants that, Rita says, eat bark. Au  revoir, avocado.

It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s for a moment take a different view. African termites have been around for over 50 million years. They didn’t last so long by being nice. The African savannah is their territory. Aerial photographs show that the immediate areas around the termite castles are greener than the surroundings, with more animal life. They are an enrichment, in that particular ecology. Life begetting life, the absolute opposite of what happened and is happening in Rita’s garden.

Sure, Rita’s garden is an intrusion into an ecosystem. So is every other from Eden onward, mine included, with its straw, its camellias, Chilean ferns, and thrips. A garden by definition is disruption that exists on borrowed time and at nature’s discretion. We stumble onward. I’m trusting the bacterial playground I’m creating with the organic matter is beneficial (meaning, to me).

The apple tree is in bud, big white blossoms. It is thrilled with the rain and, I daresay, with its new straw shawl. I have to believe in the inevitability of a large crop, extra juicy and extra sweet. That Pie Day will continue into eternity.

Just now, some hard news has flashed through the cloud of unknowing: Areas of my garden,  sizeable areas, look downright  slovenly. The parts that are presentable, which once I was proud of, now have an unmistakable, irredeemable mediocrity. The daphne I took so much delight in over the years looks weary unto death, having hungered too long for more light. Something must be done.  I rip it out. Be merciless. Beauty  demands it.

I am happy to get to it, to crawl around on that tender dirt. OMG, how did I not notice the asparagus fern has put its claws into the ground beneath the Freedom Bell camellia? Of course, I saw how it popped up through the leaves into every open space, but it was a delicate and sweet rampage. Getting the bugger out by the roots is a fine battle. I’m enjoying it.

Another thing I schemed to ignore for months: the thrips infesting three of the four camellias. I thought the rains would diminish their colonizing but apparently not. The leaves of Taylor’s Perfection are white, although there are new leaves emerging ignorant of the battleground they are born into. I am almost resigned to remove the three diseased ones. One of them, a Doctor What’s-his-name, I never liked with his poofy red flowers. He was another plant I craved once upon a time. The one camellia I would miss, Freedom Bell, is still unscathed. No thrips. Why? Who knows. Good vibes.

In Rita’s garden, there are four masquerade trees on the side of the house in a row: two are dead, two fully alive. Why?

What if Freedom Bell gets infested? Why has it not yet? What would I spray it with? Not nasty chemicals. I write Rita: Tell them to stop with the chemicals. But what do I know about termites? Or thrips? Someone will no doubt recommend a mixture of wistful thinking and garlic with a teaspoon of dish detergent and six Hail Marys.

Is procrastination a response? Truthfully, I didn’t procrastinate.  I cut off every leaf of Doctor Who’s-it and put them in a brown paper bag and into the green bin.

What if a beetle were killing  the apple tree, and one blast of the latest lab miracle bomb was just the thing? Do you get a whiff of hypocrisy?

When humans have done their dirtiest, Nature will make a snack of us. Next time, she’ll order from the other side of the menu. She  has all the time in the world.

I have the rest of the morning.  I have energy. They both last a  little less than three hours. By noon, I’m pooped. I look around and see that I may have gone too far. There’s a lot of bare dirt, especially in the shade. Maybe with the restored openness, the daphne would have survived.  Maybe I was rash. That daphne was an olfactory enhancement  to the neighborhood.

With the asparagus fern gone, Freedom Bell rings openly. Breathing space. Sadly, now all the flaws in my pruning are exposed. There’s no such thing as almost graceful. God knows I have tried. One more snip. One more. Until I have again done exactly what I did last year—taken too much out, exposing gangliness, all elbows.

Self-criticism rarely puts a dent in self-deception. Freedom Bell is not thripless. Because I wouldn’t look, they did not cease to exist. Imagine that. The good news is that they’re on only a few leaves, the lower ones in the deeper levels of shade. I am willing to take some warm, soapy water and clean them one by one. Something I would not do with Doctor What’s . . . oh, yes, now I remember: “Clifford Parks.” I’m sure he was a respectable man and does not look favorably upon standing stitchless in my garden. Last fall, I did a similar denuding of “Taylor’s Perfection,” and new leaves grew in nicely but soon became pale from sucking thrips. So much for perfection. Is my mega-mulch partially responsible for turning my garden into Thrip-u-topia? I hope not and go on hoping. It’s that thing with feathers.

Rita has put in a replacement umbrella tree.

I’m going to go out and get a new daphne.


R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at


This essay appears in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on June 9, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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