It was another hot but lovely Sunday morning in Atlanta, which means everyone here in Grant Park was doing yard work and DIY projects, mostly in defiance of the 10:00 AM weekend noise ordinance. As we were enjoying tea on the back porch we were serenaded by song birds, traffic going more than 20 mph over the speed limit, and the echoing cadences of a nail gun.
“What are they building?” my husband inquired.
“Roofers,” I replied.
“Are you sure?”
“I hear it all the time, there’s a certain rhythm to it.”
This is what happens when you live in a 100+ year old neighborhood, which qualifies for really old and in need of constant upkeep in a city famous for being so stupidly, defiantly stubborn that it got burned down by General Sherman. Mercifully, most of the people who haven’t let this go now live in the far flung bedroom towns and suburbs, devoid of old growth trees. These are the people determined to throttle us with their gas guzzling cars.
Back in early April I got up at the ass crack of dawn on a Saturday to gain first pick at Trees Atlanta’s annual native plant sale at The Carter Center Library parking lot. “This is the year,” I told myself, as I do every year. “This is the year I finally get the yard in shape.” I try every year, buying a few plants with the rule that I only buy what I can plant that day so I don’t kill as many. Every year though, some massively huge projects and required workshop teaching trips thwart my plans.
Yard work always seems risky, despite my good intentions. I’ve not forgotten that the last endeavor to do major re-landscaping ended up with five-year-old Skyler getting bored with helping mommy and attempting to fly off the 20” deck level. It worked for quite a while until I caught him, threatened him, turned my back, and ended up taking him to the emergency room. Skyler had broken his arm and required surgery and umpteen healthcare professionals to check our stories to make sure I was not an abusive parent. “No, mom, he didn’t have trouble flying. He had trouble landing,” a good looking intern told me. For 24 hours I consoled my hurt child, doing my best Shirley McClain impression for pain meds in the hospital hallway, while I reeked of sweat and citronella. Not what a relaxing putter around in the garden should be. Skyler and I are both scarred for life.
“Give me a budget,” I begged my husband the night before the native plant sale.
“Because I’ll get there and be completely overwhelmed at the number of options of plants I know nothing about. At least if I have a number in mind, I’ll delude myself into thinking I have some sort of plan.
“Ok,” I said, knowing this was merely a jumping off point that I’d asked for, a random number out of his head that bore no indication of either of us checking a spreadsheet or a banking app, and that as long as my husband wasn’t required to understand what to do with the plants, I could go way over budget unnoticed. The next morning, in a stress fest of overload, but with help from kind volunteers and employees, I gingerly packed into my car $250 worth of plants that promised to be happy in my odd microclimate of a yard.
For the last six weeks these plants have been taunting me from the deck right outside my studio window. “Plant us, or we will die because you are a failure,” they say, looking gorgeous though drying out in the hot sun. So today, when I’m supposed to be packing and getting ready to be one of Rio Grande’s vendors at the SNAG conference in Chicago, I’m carving out holes among the tree roots, and getting these babies in the ground.
As I scrambled to plant and spread the mosquito discouraging cedar mulch on the ground, I thought how much I wish every year I could do this before it gets so hot. That’s January in Atlanta, but it doesn’t work in case we get a random Snowpocolypse in winter or another Clusterflake in late March. The National Weather Service is headquartered about 30 minutes south of me. There’s a reason. We have no shortage of random weather types to study up close.
I stood up and caught site of my neighbor’s yard through a tiny gap in our foliage covered fence. I could see perfect grass and borders of bright impatiens. I sneered out of disdain. Ok, partly out of jealously that it’s perfect, but mostly out of disdain. Our neighbor is new and very nice, but she doesn’t know what used to be in her yard: the exquisite moss covered path on the side, the 100 year old 15’ tall camellia, the nearly as large native rhododendron, the two massive water oaks, all having been cut down by the old neighbors to build thei master suite practically in my backyard and a 1/2 car, 1-1/2 junk garage.
I’m not a complete native plant snob. If something grows, looks good, and isn’t an invasive, life sucking, parasite of other plants, I welcome it in my yard. Native, or at least natural is far better for the environment, and if I can stare from the studio at my fern surrounded, century old water oak that our son Skyler named ‘Old Friend Tree’ when he was little, then I’m content. I don’t have to go find nature. I live in it, one of the of only major cities in the world that exists in a botanically defined forest.
The perfect yards with mowed grass and rigid flower and shrub beds, the ones that require loud leaf blowers and lawn mowers every week for nine months of the year here, are not my cup of tea. They remind me of hairstyles from the 1960’s and 70’s, of my grandmother Johnnie Jo’s hair: stiff, washed and set once a week, utterly unnatural, and spray lacquered to hell and back. Bubble hair, I call it. Or Republican hair. Periodically, and for reasons I can’t recall, bubble hair is one of those topics of annoyance that I’ve gone on about late on a Friday afternoon when my studio assistant Uduak is here. She would listen to this one patiently, but it was always obvious she had no idea what I was ranting about. She alternately sports long braids or short natural hair, both of which suit her exquisite cheekbones looks to a T. The idea of hair that must be teased and sprayed is simply not part of her generation.
“Nancy Reagan. Bubble hair!!!”
The day I randomly shouted that, a look of complete cultural and grooming awareness crept swiftly over Uduak’s face as I was finally able to give her a mental picture of what I was talking about without dragging out photos of my grandmother. – Johnnie Jo’s perfect hair illustration could be found in the photo album from my first wedding. Though I will always keep it because there are many people I love and some awesome shots of me looking young, thin, and fabulous in it, I have no desire to dredge it out of its resting place.
I perched awkwardly on the broken footstool to the glider rocker on my back porch, writing this on my iPad, which was somewhat unstably sitting on the rocking chair seat. This was the only place I dared put my dirt covered backside when I realized I needed water, and I knew the bubble hair metaphors would not leave me alone if didn’t take a break and write, anymore than the mosquitoes would leave me alone when I got back out to finish the job. Seven more plants to go.
When asked about hobbies, gardening is always on my list. I can’t think why except maybe it’s just in my DNA to be obsessed with plants. My mother and her parents grew award winning roses until my mother became a single one (a single mother not a single rose), and my grandfather gave it up in favor of organic vegetable gardening…in a space uphill and far from the toxic beds of insecticides he’d sprayed for years. No one knows how he lived to be almost 97.
If I’m honest, I don’t like gardening; I like looking at gardens, including my own. This idea that I can play at being Miss Marple and do a bit of weeding between cups of tea and other mysteries without throwing out my back (again) is pure denial. Perhaps I’m my own kind of stupidly stubborn Southerner. The feminist, social justice oriented, and environmentalist kind of Southerner, to be clear. As my neighborhood was once built as part of Atlanta’s phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes mentality, so must I put my yard back toward the beautiful forest it has always desired to be since the time of the nations who were here first.