The Leucothoe (Black Laurel) next to the house had become monumental. It had sent up way more than just a wayward sprig to block the view from the kitchen window. That wasn’t its intention. Plants don’t have a social conscience. Rather, the sun had been its motivation. The window and the view were someone else’s issue. In its sprawl, it had also unwittingly blocked the lawn’s view of the sun, as well as that of its neighbor, the Mountain Laurel, on who’s robust limbs it had propped its long and leafy cascades. Leucothoe’s form is typically fountainous not mountainous, and it was my hope to restore its flowing character.
The stalwart Mountain Laurel had thrust sparse twigs through and beyond the reach of the Leucothoe, and stood unbowed. But neither plant was going to win the contest for beauty in this struggle for the sun. What one lacked in form, the other lacked in foliage. Inside the mixed mass, the Mountain Laurel was in sad shape and probably would not ever be restorable as a foundation planting. In the woods where we are willing to lose the trees for the forest, the two would have been fine. There, nothing is expected to stand out as a model specimen of its species. In a healthy woods, all things stand in community. It is the forest community itself, that holds a semblance of social conscience. In the garden, it is the gardener who has that job.
Someone had to be extracted from the scuffle. These two sun-strivers were not going to hash out their differences gracefully, each with only its own interest to go on. It was late in the fall and the Oak leaves from the encroaching woods had fallen thickly over all the huddled landscape shrubs. The fall winds had penetrated the leafless forest canopy and had already shaken the naturally thin woodland Laurels and Rhododendrons free of their oaken burden. By contrast, the thicker mat of foundation plantings had lost only their topmost layers of foreign leaves. It would take all the winds of winter and then some spring hand work to shake out the rest. This was especially true of the conglomeration of Leucothoe and Mountain Laurel. It wasn’t hard to decide which Laurel had to go.
As I carefully clipped and extracted the leggy Laurel branches and unnaturally stiff stems of the Leucothoe, the remaining shrub gradually settled into its characteristic fountain form. Its grace restored, the oak leaves settled out and down on their own. But it took climbing into the very heart of the shrub to remove the last stubs of the supportive Laurel and the many years of wadded leaves that had accumulated around the basal branches of the conjoined cousins.
In there, surrounded by the shrubbery overhead, I immediately became aware of the closeness and comfort of the place. No sooner had these thoughts come into my mind, (and as I reached down to remove a particularly dense layer of last year’s leaves,) a frightened field mouse ran up my arm and leaped off my shoulder into the branches. I let go of the leaves, but it was too late. My fingers had dug through the roof of a spacious and frequently-inhabited cavern hidden in the shelter of this unsociable tangle of bushes. Obviously, some seasons ago, someone besides me, someone considerably larger than the mouse, had seen fit to civilize this mess in her own way. And for her own purposes, I might point out.
I have seen this upward transformation take many forms. And each one has a particular social flavor. Just as an unkempt thicket becomes an animal home between the earth and sky, a compost heap becomes terrestrial home for the humble and mildly conscious earthworm, much to our delight. Abandoned for another winter, the protective heap attracts subterranean grubs on their way to winged adulthood. Its summer coolness is sought out by toads. Moles make it their permanent home in time. Snakes make it their hunting ground. The still self-serving, but more conscious social forces of the animal world elevate the bits and discarded pieces of the vegetable world to a new level that plants could never achieve on their own.
Despite its incredible surplus, there is really no waste in nature. It is out of the resurrection of the dregs and the leftovers that higher forms of consciousness evolve.
But there is a limit to what can be accomplished by the household of Nature without Human involvement. I go back and examine my first impulse with the Leucothoe. I saw that, like two impetuous schoolboys in a fight, it was a matter of establishing social boundaries between two shrubs that were not about to communicate on that level. I saw that this shrub didn’t express the ‘Spirit of Leucothoe’ that I had learned to know as it grew elsewhere, untamed by gardeners and uninfringed by competing plants. My impulse was to restore its own form, as I saw it in my mind’s eye. I had no material designs for it, nor was I using it to suit my visceral needs, as the mouse had innocently done. I simply wanted to help it express its natural, unimpeded form, knowing that, by doing so, it would once more fit beneath the kitchen window of Mopsey Kennedy’s house; into a world that included Human strivings.
Having accomplished the vast majority of my mission, I left the homemaking mouse to continue elevating the bush to being a dwelling. But my human impulse was to elevate this bush to be itself. This was a conscious spiritual impulse. Though nothing monumental in itself, my work still bore the unique stamp of the sacred Human role in Nature.