Spring: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Just for the record–2012 has not been my favorite Virginia spring. In fact for months now the weather has been balanced on a knife-edge of climatic chaos. We had a warm winter that blew up, repeatedly, into frequent, violent storms: snow to the north, tornadoes from coast to the Midwest, troublingly high temps in central VA. Then there came a blistering hot spell that was also dry enough to kill the seedlings Marc and I planted in our experimental garden on Oak Street–so dry for so long that I began to fear

Too hot…

it portended that one of those hellish drought years was in the offing. Considering there’s no water source on Oak Street, I was settling in for a good panic when, like the flipping of a switch, it turned cold again–cold enough to kill the basil I had set out for planting at the house. (Grrrrr.)

Then, about a week ago, it finally warmed up–and for the past few days, the weather has been perfect. Not Virginia-perfect, mind you–more like … “azalea days in Charles-ton”-perfect: high humidity, but perfectly balanced temps — neither too hot nor too cold…

See, this is not a rant about global warming. It’s an appreciation of it.

Many are the fruit of our mild winter. In the nursery, Marc has Monarda “Jacob Cline,” that brilliant scarlet bee balm. They’re in one gallon pots–and five or six inches of growth would be respectable for a plant of that size at this stage in the season, yet they’re taller than my waist.

It’s the same with the mints–the catmints, those spreading low plants with the brilliant blue flower spikes, have exploded out of their pots and gotten a haircut. Twice. A week and a half after the last one, they’re big and round as basketballs once again and starting to send out spikes. Meanwhile, the peppermints, chocolate mints, apple and pineapple mints, are like a runaway train.

As for the larger plants–the weigelas and rhododendrons and the seven different flavors of viburnum Marc has–they look exactly like the flower porn that the big nursery companies peddle in the catalogs that used to land in my mailbox to tempt me every spring … except these plants are real and in my backyard.

And that’s not even the best part. The best part is … the smell.

There’s no photo to convey a smell, so let me describe how I encounter it. To get home from the university, I take the U-Loop bus from my office door, well, virtually to my front door. The bus winds past the library and the president’s house, belching diesel all the way, past the frat and sorority houses lining Rugby Road. It takes a dogleg north past a wilderness of student apartment buildings to a stop at the urban edge of downtown. Here’s where I get off and I cross a screamingly busy intersection and walk past coffee shops, bars, hardware stores, a falafel joint, an organic grocer, the best bakery in town to get to my street. I live in a concrete jungle crisscrossed with median strips, and the mostly foul odors  and jarring sounds are appropriate to that jungle.

But when I take a sharp left down the steep staircase that leads to my street, suddenly I’m below the level of traffic. The dull roar from the street mutes to a murmur, and now I can hear robinsong. I walk among cherry and plum trees and towering oaks into a deepening shade. The smell of exhaust and oil on hot engines fades, and the breeze carries a teasing hint of sweetness that grows stronger with every step I take closer to the cloud of scent hovering over my house.

A riot of roses…

In my yard, May is always the season of the rose, and, yes, the Alistair Stella Grey and Champney’s Pink tea noisettes are rioting on their long canes in celebration of the weather.

But this season, I’m smelling much more than the soft, barely there aroma they emit to greet their human and insect visitors. This season–because we’re growing out the privet hedge, the better to see what Marc needs to dig out, rip out, or prune out–there are all sorts of new scents mingling with the roses.

Like ripe mulberry fruit, with its dessert wine bouquet. Like honeysuckle, rambling across my neighbor’s chain link fence and into the hedge itself. And most tantalizing of all, like the privet hedge, which for the first time in 10 years has been allowed to bloom and is now covered with sprays of tiny white florets. These bear a fragrance of such surpassing sweetness that to walk outside is … to imagine oneself ready to drink dew from thimbles, fashion crowns from blossoms, dance in the light from a gauzy moon at midnight and sing love songs from Mexican poets. Like this one, “Ordenes de Amor,” by Efrain Huerta.

Adorn yourself, my love.
Perfect, beneath the sky, lamp
of a thousand dreams, shine on me.
Orchid of a thousand clouds,
undress yourself, return to your beginnings
… my rain, my love.
You’re beautiful forever
in the everlasting dream
of our sky…

Oh, happy perfumery percolating out in my garden. I know it’s not global warming I have to thank for you. You came to be because I abandoned, more or less by accident, yet another article the middle class dogma I imbibed in childhood about proper gardening practice.

To explain what I mean, let me just ask a question: What is a privet hedge “supposed” to look like?

Is it supposed to look like this?

The perfect rectangle?

Or like this?

What privet wants to be when it grows up.

I’ll tell you what. I had no idea the latter was even a possiblity until Saturday, when Marc and I attended a Kentucky Derby party on the east side of town, not far from the river. Now Marc has done some work on that friend’s yard and it looks really good, but the most spectacular thing in it is a tree that was there when he started–thirty feet if it’s an inch and, on this day at least, covered with spectacular white blossoms.

“What on earth is that?” I asked Marc (who is never at a loss, having at some point in his past apparently assimilated the full contents of Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants).

“That? That’s a privet, some flavor of Asian.”

“Privet?” I repeated rather stupidly. Because my whole mind and body were   reacting, “That’s what my hedge wants to be when it grows up!? Good Lord a’ Zion–no wonder I’ve been catching hell just trying to keep it down to eight feet!”

Traveling home from that party, we must’vepassed fifty privet hedges if we passed one. If each of those plants had been allowed to grow to 30 feet as the creator intended, I mused, the city would be a forest. The scent would be unreal. There’d be bees, birds, and flowers everywhere

And that’s when it occurred to me: It’s not my imagination or some left-wing paranoid fantasy–our culture, if it’s not at war with nature, is just plain crazy. We spend $61 billion annually, as a nation, on landscaping services.

That’s… like …. grass.

Now I’m sure the $900,000 people employed in aspects of the industry, including my baby, are happy to have those jobs. But… really? $61 billion spent to produce an endless succession of cookie-cutter forms imposed, not exactly at random but certainly without logic, on nature? Thirty-foot trees, spreading and magnificent, chopped down to six-foot cubes. Softly drifting shrubs machined-turned into spheres. Savage symmetry achieved with armfuls of money, endless vigilance and ceaseless applications of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, bug and weed killers, and (increasingly expensive) fossil fuels …

This, apparently, is what we’ve come to as a culture: If it flowers, cut it down. If you didn’t stick it there, nuke it. If if feeds a pollinator, mow it down. If you can eat it, but it didn’t come with a seal of approval from the Acme Gardens catalog, till it under.

This, apparently, is what it means to exercise dominion over the earth. Whether or not it makes a lick of sense.