…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Sunday, August 27, 2006

springtime in van nuys

I have a lyric loop bouncing around in my head, the refrain from an air freshener commercial that proclaims, “Spring is in the air!” sung to the tune of “Love Is in the Air,” and I wonder whether my mad itch to revive the backyard is motivated by the song, or maybe the song loop has been triggered by my efforts at renewal—I can’t remember which came first. I prefer to think the latter, because I don’t want to be the kind of person who’s spurred to action by a commercial jingle—that gives Madison Avenue conjurers way too much power, even if I didn’t buy, and can’t even specify, the brand of air freshener in question.

I don’t want to be that neighbor: the one who lets her yard go native and never cleans her house’s exterior and whose property eventually comes to resemble an extremely unintriguing around-the-clock rummage sale. I want to be part of the “improving” neighborhood we moved into, not the albatross that makes fellow homeowners shake their heads as they pass, lamenting, “If it weren’t for those lesbians, our Zip code would be unstoppable.”

Happily, ours isn’t the least-kempt house in the neighborhood; it’s not even in the top 10. Hell, the corner house at the opposite end of our block looks like the set of Sanford and Son, so we have a long way to slide before we’re property value–enemy number 1 in this quarter. Still, don’t encourage us.

To be fair, and I think I can extend that courtesy to myself in my blog, our backyard was dead when we bought the house, so no harm, no foul there. And while the front yard at first appeared ripe with brilliant green promise, it was merely a lawn gesture, a costume the yard had donned for “curb appeal”—the sellers had installed full-sun sod, a groundcover that didn’t stand a chance of thriving in a yard 80% shaded by four mature trees. (The sellers’ bad decisions didn’t stop there: They also installed white wall-to-wall carpet, which would be practical only if we enforced a strict no-shoes policy and carried our pets at all times.)

I was initially determined to make the backyard hospitable for outdoor grilling and dining; maybe we would even have a house-warming party (though we've never hosted a get-together of more than six people, ourselves included). And as it happened my mom and dad were simultaneously preparing for a move themselves, so Mother’s extensive inventory of plants came up for grabs. (The county farm bureau once called her to pitch membership in their organization; based upon the amounts of fertilizer and gardening supplies she bought, she had been flagged as a commercial farmer.)

I couldn’t take on any of her hundreds of varieties of fuschias—her “farming” specialty—since they couldn’t withstand the heat of the valley, but we loaded up on begonias, brugmansia, clivia, sego palms, and the like. She even entrusted to me her mother’s amaryllis, which had been confined to pots since the day my mother dug them up in 1980, when Grandma was moving to a seniors’ village and was determined to take them with her. The flowers did poorly at Grandma’s new place and Mom took them home to her own yard to coax them back to health, an endeavor that took on added significance after Grandma died. I’m still not sure why my mother decided to hand them over to me, as by that point they had taken on the significance of heirloom, but they seemed happy to at last shake off their confining pots and spread their bulbous roots in limitless soil.

The next chapter in the life of our yard wasn’t so bright. After tending the plants assiduously for about a year I slid into an emotional fissure that enveloped all in a pall of meaninglessness, my efforts most of all. To say that I stood idly by and watched our yard die would indicate a presence of mind I didn’t possess. I sleepwalked through the next couple of years while our property, despite my partner’s desperate efforts to the contrary, went native.

Flashing forward to the present, I feel that I have my depression more under control than ever before, and I’m emerging from an 18-month-long energy slump concurrent with an until-recently undiagnosed condition that’s also feeling more under control these days. In short, spring is in the fucking air!

If I’ve learned anything in therapy, it’s that we can’t coax much new growth without clearing out all the dead branches and detritus begat by neglect, the kind of stuff that, if we squint, can fool us into thinking that it is life. It gives a woman pause, cutting all that crap out, because the process really is an acknowledgement of death—the end of that life cycle—and an expression of readiness to exit the static fallow phase and move on to the next cycle, with all the thoughtful and anxious attention that fragile new growth requires.

Nevertheless, I’ve been darting about the yard from one project to the next, grooming and pruning and clearing whatever and wherever necessary. I understand that my efforts are off-season, but what the hell, Southern California doesn’t much observe seasons anyhow, and something tells me that anything managing to live thus far in this backyard—birds of paradise, I think, could survive the nuclear option—is hardy enough to recalibrate to the demands of my psyche.

Some plants are so stricken they have to be cut back flush with the ground to be, with any luck, wholly reincarnated. Others are leggy and overgrown and are cut back to resemble mere sticks emerging at jaunty angles from the earth. Spent branches are laid to rest in our big green recycling container to be hauled away by the city and rendered as mulch, achieving relevance at last in another life cycle.

I visit with the most vulnerable plants daily, testing for hydration as my mother taught me, by inserting one knuckle into the soil, so as to avoid over-watering my charges. With the largest plants and trees I’ve left the hose to drip overnight, moving it to a new host each morning, reassuring each in turn that it’s safe to grow, that any tendrils ventured will be met with all due nourishment. I’m not talking to them exactly—at least not by speaking aloud—but there has been communion. I feel like I’m performing a kind of penance for my past neglect, and I like to think the plants understand that I need them to come back as badly as they need me to feed them.

I remembered noticing some time ago that Starbucks promotes the use of spent coffee grounds as compost and fertilizer for acid-loving plants, an idea confirmed by enough organic gardening sites that I’ve begun sprinkling my daily grind around the camellias. I brew for one, so the grounds barely season the soil. Still, it’s cool to find new ways to repurpose, and any acid-loving, coffee-drinking plant is surely a friend of mine.

My partner has been, understandably, a little anxious about my ministry. She acknowledges that the yard desperately needs help but fears that I’ve been a pinch overzealous in what she calls my “scorched-earth policy.” And I admit that I’m prone to extremes: I tackle projects full-bore or not at all. I also admit that the “yard” I’m paying such precious attention to really does resemble nothing more than dirt and sticks in the big picture.

But when I squint I see the little shoots poking out of the ground, the tiny sprouts along the sticks, and I know that we’ve begun a new chapter together.


Blogger sporksforall said...

Hey, I didn't even see the new growth. Well done, Honey and datura!

As for the coffee grounds, I noticed them this morning, had a small fire-ant panic, and then let it go.

Just for the record. I'm rather desperately in favor of renewal.

8:07 PM  
Blogger weese said...

you simply must post pics of your progress.

9:43 AM  
Blogger treecup said...

Looking forward to some of that backyard grilling and dining. I'll bring the tempeh kabobs!

12:31 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Looking good there, scoutster!

Whoever owned your house before you evidently used the same gardening techniques employed by the people who owned our home before us. I keep threatening to whack the overgrown crepe myrtles, but haven't yet been motivated sufficiently.

I am bit alarmed by the second photo. That fence with the poison arrows ... feng shui cringes!

2:53 PM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

Excellent post, Scout. Congrats on motivating, and for your progress. To paraphrase Wimpy, I'll gladly trade you some yard maintenance now for some home improvement in the future! ('Cause you know, eventually, Sporks IS going to rip up that carpet).

3:08 PM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

I read the paragraph, "If I've learned anything in therapy..." almost with tears for I am at a terrible crossroads and must contemplate change. Thanks for those wise words.

I'm so happy you're doing well. I'm stopping reading the DBSA boards. Too stressful. But I look forward to your blogs. I always smile; am always inspired in some way.

Good luck with your gardening. It's a great metaphore, isn't it? Here in PA we are nearing the end of the growing season; our first frost is usually in early October. How wild and free you are there in CA to be able to start growing any time.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Renewal, all 'round! I too look forward to backyard grilling, if bryduck and I are among the lucky invitees...

5:56 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

My suggestion for saving your carpet? Have your unshod guests carry your pets. Not only does it give them something to do with their hands--a horrible quandary for most of us, needless to say--but it gives you and sporksforall a break from doing all that cat-and-dog juggling that has been necessary. What? You mean my advice is 4-5 years too late? Never mind . . .

10:44 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Scoutster? Did she call you Scouster?

Anyway...what weese said.

9:10 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Why yes, eb, yes she did call her scoutster! You got a problem with that? ;)

3:22 PM  
Blogger NursePam said...

I am impressed with your devotion to gardening and with your new found freedom. It's true, life is all about change and renewal.

7:51 AM  
Blogger KMae said...

Scout, I really like your blog & the way you write. I'm adding you to my list.

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wish I had your energy Scout! I find it knackering enough to compost a handful of teabags and water a few herbs in pots :)

7:35 AM  

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