With the prospect of serious productivity dwindling, and nestled, knees down, amongst the bedding plants, I let myself finish the day, by weeding. The April sun, finally warm, after a day of drying out, met the whole menagerie, myself included, with its encouragement. In the sky, a hint of tomorrow, and another gardening season. I realize that, to love weeding, is a sign of a gardener who has gone the second mile. I love to weed.
The first mile started on the Park’s farm, me being little more than six. I was compelled to weed, firstly by the energetic example of my parents, but more practically, by the sheer volume of weeds in the pea patch. My family had rented the Middlebury home of a gentleman farmer, away on sabbatical, for the summer. His only request was, that we tend his pea patch and fill his freezer with the packaged harvest. I don’t know whether my parents knew what they had gotten themselves into. By the end of July, all of us knew peas pretty well. Weeding was only the first lap.
Having a known skill, can be dangerous. I clearly had potential here. For the next ten summers, it became my job to weed my own family’s burgeoning vegetable garden. At some point, I became familiar with every seedling weed; but not by name. I just knew them. I was always missing a few each week, and letting them grow past the first blush of newness, only to have to dig deeper to extract them the next week. Some escaped until they flowered and went to seed. The object was to get the whole plant out of the garden before this point arrived. I actually found a great interest in seeing the whole plant, which was never possible with the vegetables themselves before harvest. Weeds were interesting plants, but out of place. Thus, the second mile started almost before the first had ended.
Today, in the April sun, I saw that, perhaps, I have entered the third mile. I realized that I actually love these weeds as much as the plants we see as useful. I was glad to see them, ever-hopeful, ever-willing to try again. Not that I had any mushy sentiment like that of the ‘Walrus and the Carpenter’. Every weed went briskly into my orange Home Depot bucket on its way to the compost heap. But I did think, for a brief second, that I might want to re-plant the ‘volunteer’ viburnums, or the japanese maples somewhere serious.
Weeds are often the first, and most intimate contact we have with the living spring, and today was just that, for me. In the weeding frame of mind, alert to all the subtle intuitive hints that distinguish a ‘plant in the wrong place’, I started settling in on a new customer’s property.
As I got into an unfamiliar planting, I became aware of a certain apprehension. It hovered just beyond my inner field of view. As I paid careful attention, half to the plants around me and half to this nagging feeling of caution that arose within me, ‘Poison Ivy’ came to mind. But there really was no Poison Ivy anywhere around me. I checked again. I had long since learned to identify each weed before I pulled, and it was simply not there. The only unknown to me was the sprawling ground cover that had clearly been planted on purpose some ten years prior.
Unknowns are what drive the evolution of the human spirit. As I looked in more detail, the similarities revealed themselves: the three-lobed bud; the thin, wrinkly bark; a hint of red in the first unfurling leaves. A cousin for sure, but not the real thing. Still unsettling, though. And still somewhat unsettled, at that point.
One lingering plastic tag on one of the shrubs read “Rhus aromatica”, putting an end to any lingering uncertainty, and beginning a whole new season of discovery. Poison Ivy is Rhus toxidendron; same genus, different species. One, a weed in anyone’s garden, and clearly in the inner recesses of my knowing, and one, an ornamental shrub, hitherto unbeknownst to me. I did not know the plant by its outward presentation. But I absolutely and instantaneously knew it, by my sun-warmed inner voice. I will be more than a bit curious to get to know this fellow, as the seasons do their magic!
Two gifts I brought home, as the sun sank behind the fickle April clouds near the horizon, and I took my bucket of friends to be resurrected as compost: The first is that I have struck up an acquaintance with another of the many plants that have eluded me up ’til now. The second, is that I was reminded to trust the promptings of that inner voice that is so often, at first, unclear, but evermore consistently, reliable. I honestly don’t know which gift I will learn to appreciate more.