Monday, 13 August 2012

The tentative horticulturalist

There's a many-trunked willow that dominates the wilds at the edge of our backyard. It's composed of nearly a dozen trunks extending from a flattened hub, lost under a carpet of self-laid mulch. For the sake of the crab-apple it impedes - and the neighbouring yard it invades - my husband and I cut down a few of its more slender limbs in a fit of impulsive pruning, littering our patch of lawn with canes, leaves, and branches in the process. It's been weeks, and we're still puttering at the clean-up, now very much aware of the work that remains to be done if we ever hope to tame that tree and reclaim the "lawn" beneath its reach. The next round of Friesens vs. tree will probably involve at least a chainsaw, if not also a crew of professionals.

The horticultural exercise had me wondering if the only difference between a towering tree and sprawling bush is time and opportunity; with no competing mega-flora to stunt its growth, our willow had grown outward as much as upward. Saw and pruning sheers take up the task of artificial forest, creating relentless firm reminders: "this is not the way for you to grow." Our super-shrub has proven a slow learner: every rainfall leaves a new crop of shoots peaking out of weathered bark, and I am ever pinching them off, lest our labours undo themselves by summer's end. Even the lopped off branches lying in front of our garage, still waiting to be bucked up into firewood, have sprouted. The futility of such energy is lost on the severed limbs; the concrete pad beneath, the concrete foundation behind, the yards between them and the nearest living roots do not deter. The will to live is strong in these ones. Or is it a stubborn refusal to die?

I've been looking at our wilds a lot of late. The cooling rains have brought relief from the heat, but not without the requisite swarm of mosquitoes. While the kids continue meander our small outdoors at will, I've fled grassy shade in favour of sterile concrete on the other end of our little backyard. I no long sit under the willow and mentally rip out the patio along the back of the house; instead, I set my camp chair against said house and take in the view from the opposite end, re-landscaping with my mind's eye. Some days, I chop down trunks ruthlessly, clearing prairie grasses, clovers, and seedlings alike to make room for raspberries, rhubarb, and maybe something purely floral.

Other days, I abandon our neighbourhood to nature. How long would it take that willow and its volunteer cohorts to take over all traces of civilization? Would that army of Manitoba Maple shoots - friendly fire from our neighbour's tree in return for the fuzz from our willow - prove viable competition if no determined homeowner was around to routinely pull them up? Where would the line of woods to prairie meadow lie? The grass and weeds spreading from the lawn, potatoes and peppers mistaking the compost heap for a garden, the overgrown climbing vine, which is already invading our driveway from our other neighbours' fence, could all be the perfect ingredients for a northern suburban Angkor Wat. Or at least a fabulous permaculture experiment.

In the end, I know we'll have to take back at least some of the hinterland. As much as I muse about the romance of living out a variation of Tepper's The Family Tree, the reality of roots ripping through water pipes and crumbling foundations is just a little too feral for this unapologetic urbanite. But I do wince from time to time, as I snap off yet another round of foliage - it's almost a shame to see such rejuvenation cut short.