The Dark Side of Darwin

In Unpublished genius on November 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm

What doesn’t kill us must have been careless

by Clif Garboden

In Sunday school, they taught me that, in addition to the stigma of  irredeemable sin, my God-given birthright granted me dominion over fish, fowl, cattle, and even all creeping things. At the time, I accepted that as good news. Lucky break: mankind — my kind — ruled the natural world! Apparently this no longer applies to the things that grow in my yard — even unto the creeping things, if you count Virginia creeper. In my corner of the natural world, it’s all survival of the fittest. And I’m clearly too out of shape to be a contender.

Anyone who’s traded the city’s concrete plains for suburban paradise knows that imposing dominion on Eden’s relentless flora involves a lot of the kind of stoop labor your grandparents left the Old Country to escape. Back in my urban years, before I bought into this God-forsaken little acre and a half surrounding my house, urbane friends and I made fun of landscape-obsessed outlanders who traded compliments with their neighbors like, “Gee, Harve, your lawn looks just like a carpet.”

Heaven forbid I ever have a carpet that looks like my lawn — shaggy, uneven, worn, brown-stained, grub ridden. Lawns are relentlessly needy — too much water, not enough water, nitrogen starved. Can’t keep up. But tending grass is kids’ stuff compared to challenges posed by the heartier plants out there. The problem with lawns is that they really want to die and require endless pampering. The problem with the rest my yard’s vegetation is that it all wants so terribly much to live.

A previous owner, who evidentially needed a life (or at least a couple of goldfish), installed all manner of ornamental shrubs and plantings around my spread. Every spring, I resolve to keep them at bay; to weed, prune, and cultivate routinely. To maintain instead of putting things off until only a full-out assault of major backbreaking autumn yard work will put things right.

You know the end of that story. Comes back Eastern Standard Time and it’s a jungle out there. Sigh.

The plant world’s secret weapon is its annoying ability to adjust and adapt. Prune one leafy hedge-face and the opposite side of the bush will flourish in retaliation. I heard somewhere that suburban lawns are now beset by stubby varieties of dandelions that evolved because their taller ancestors were routinely mowed down, leaving only the short, squat seedlings to mature, multiply, and thereby overtake the weedy gene pool. Dandelions can do that? Wow. I find that terrifying. Do I even stand a chance?

It gets worse. A dandelion’s survival skills, stubborn roots and all, are nothing compared to the tenacity of vines, which occupy the top of my personal natural-enemies list. Spindly and insidious, vines are capable of strangling full-grown trees if left to run their murderous course. And exterminating vines is pretty much a doomed mission. Plants like the dreaded Virginia creeper have roots more extensive than the New Jersey state-highway system. Yank on one of these suckers hard enough and, as a last defense, it will simply break. You may rip out some major arteries, but you’ve left plenty of tertiary routes in reserve, lurking beneath the soil waiting for you to turn you back.

Virginia creeper can kill even North America’s “most widespread tree” the chokecherry (botanical name: Prunus virginiana, which suggests that the Old Dominion really has a lot to answer for). Chokecherries, which live up to their name by choking out competing herbage, multiply seemingly overnight into impenetrable groves of saplings. But to no avail if the creeper is in town. In this back-yard home-edition of rock-paper-scissors, creeper conquers all — including the chokecherry’s prolific rival, the ubiquitous/grow-anywhere Norway maple, which will take root in everything from flower beds to clogged roof gutters to those little grooves in your windshield-wiper blades.

The landscaping freak who sold me this property’s crowning achievement was planting three species of shrubbery nestled together for effect. Okay, perhaps he started with two and the third horned in on its own to referee. In any case, each fall I hack this merry trio down to the stems; each spring the terrible triplets resurrect with a three-way vengeance — forever embraced in their medley of struggle. They thrive thrice on competition — mutual hatred fueling survival. These combatants flourish to entangle, each desperate to outgrow and to starve or shade the others to death, all while warding off potential outside intervention with thorns and poison berries.

Overgrowth is everywhere. Scraggly wild roses embrace my shutters; Boston ivy obscures my windows; poison ivy crowds the lawn; forsythia growth-spurts as high as an elephant’s eye; big-enough-to-trip-the-dog crabgrass overruns the marigold plots and the flagstone walk; yew shrubs aspire to be yew trees; ground ivy expands to fill any vacant space; and untold varieties of unnamed weeds whack back. Each fall I trim, saw, prune, mow, hack, chop, and pull to little effect. Each year I fight. Each year I lose. Such is the cost of dominion.

My yard. Mankind’s burden. Mine to subdue. The Bible tells me so. Thank you, God.

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