Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The ugly seedling

It started, as these things always do, in a place of darkness known only to earthworms and grubs. One day it wasn’t there and the next it was, a tiny sprig looking more furry than vegetal. 

My initial reaction was of delight, quickly dampened. The tiny seedling had sprung up in the flower bed next to the house, which, considering the location, was the last place we’d want. 

“It’s going to be a problem someday,” I said.

As far as my wife was concerned, someday had nothing to do with it: it was a problem now, and she wanted it gone.

“I’ll transplant it,” I’d say, and she’d look around the yard in exasperation. 

“Where?” Her tone, I felt, was out of sorts with the amount of land we owned. Good grief, the thing was the size of a postage stamp, and we had two acres!

In a few years it was the size of a basketball. Then it grew some more. I wasn’t too worried about it because I knew I’d get around to it. Someday. 

It began to fill out, though never in the graceful triangular shape common to eastern junipers. Its main growth centered in its middle section so that it appeared almost globular. Instead of a rich blue-green, its needles looked anemic. Whenever I noticed it I was reminded of the story of the ugly duckling, though I never harbored a fantasy that it would grow into a swan.

When it reached the height of my thigh, Lori told me she was planning to cover the flower bed with a cold frame. “It has to go,” she said.

Fine. I promised to handle it. A few days later I arrived home from work to find the little juniper trimmed. I use the word loosely—whack-job was more like it.

A lively conversation ensued. Suffice to say that within a very short order I found myself in the flower bed with a shovel. 

I started wide and went deep, slicing through narrow tendrils and rootlets until I could maneuver the shovel beneath the tree and sever the taproot. Once that was done I yanked the juniper from the ground and dragged it to a spot near the southern edge of our thicket. Badgerlike, I began a new hole.

Lori, working in the garden, watched my ministrations with an expression of doubt. I remained unfazed.

“Hold on, little buddy,” I told the juniper. 

After a while, Lori walked over. “How’s the hole coming?” she asked.

“This isn’t a hole, it’s an archaeological dig,” I said, pointing to a rectangular metal plate about eight inches long, several L-brackets and numerous crumbly sections of one-inch springs, unsprung and oxidized with a reddish patina at least as thick as the original item. 

“Cool,” she said, grabbing the metal plate and sorting through the rest. My wife is the only person I know who collects useless scraps of rusty metal. She once poured a perfectly serviceable box of nails into an old metal coffee canister and set it outside for several months. When she retrieved them they were corroded and pitted and the can half-filled with a viscous coppery-ginger soup the consistency of clam chowder. Through some arcane metallurgic chemistry she transformed the goo into vivid dyes she then applied to alpaca wool. Though the result was stunning, I hesitated to be too effusive because of a similar experiment she tried with dandelions that had resulted in a decidedly inferior, if not odoriferously abhorrent, miasma that made the house almost uninhabitable.

Once I’d dug down through several layers of sediment and settlement, carefully relocating each scoop of artifact-laden dirt into a yellow wheelbarrow, I dumped in a bucket of wood ash. This, according a knowledgeable friend, would kick-start the juniper into a miniature version of a towering California redwood. 

The juniper went in next. With Lori holding it upright, I packed the crater with dirt and a few unidentifiable metal objects, lightly compacting the soil around the roots. Leftover fill created a small berm on one side. A few gallons of water and we were done.

“Nobody else loves you, but I do,” I said.

Indeed, it needed all the affection it could get. Misshapen, stunted, truncated, uprooted, the juniper was almost painful to look at. It was so ugly, in fact, that it wouldn’t take much for it to transform into a swan.  


shoreacres said...

And? AND...?

You can't leave us here! When did you transplant? Yesterday? Last year? Is the juniper still alive? Happy? Has it recovered from the whack job? Does it have its own Facebook page? (Now, THERE'S an idea!)

This is wonderful writing - absolutely unpretentious but completely engaging. Of course, I'm the one who named a recalcitrant cactus Godot and nearly took it with me on vacation so I wouldn't miss its blooming. I understand calling a juniper "Little Buddy".

The brief mention of the dye "stew" and alpacas suggest weaving may be taking place around there. You might enjoy a peek at Ingrid's Custom Hand Weaving in Paint Rock, Texas. It's a tiny business in a nearly non-existent town in the middle of nowhere, but the work is exquisite. I stumbled on it one day when I was passing through, and have a small wall hanging as evidence that Texas is more than cowboys and corporations.


Tom Parker said...

And -- and -- the little juniper continues to hang in there although barely. I have high hopes that it will survive the terrible trauma that it suffered through. Poor thing.
Weaving and spinning done here at the Parker household, though all under my wife's efforts.
Of course Texas has more than cowboys and corporations. If you get to the good parts, it also has horned toads, collared lizards, rattlesnakes and black-tailed jackrabbits. We'll leave Dubya (groan) out of it.

Carol said...

I had to Google "juniper tree" to understand for sure the species of which you speak. I looked at the images section -- and all the junipers were swans! Wow. Hope yours hangs in there!

Jenni said...

I, too, rescue seedlings. There was a similar argument and failed effort over an eastern red cedar that volunteered itself in the front flower bed at our old house. It was such a sweet little tree until it threatened Danny's precious concrete. I finally gave up transplanting the elm seedlings or "piss elms" as Danny likes to call them. Willows are okay with him though.

I also collect useless scraps of rusty metal along with broken bits of glass harvested from the river. I have boxes and jars and bowls and vases full of such things. Someday I'll do something with it. What I don't know, but I feel compelled to collect it, and I can't get rid of it. I tell my children it's their inheritance.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- I call it a juniper (because it is) but around here folks incorrectly call it a red cedar. Hope that clarifies matters.

Jenni -- I love your story of collecting! And that part about the seedling "threatening Danny's precious concrete" -- there's a story there, I can tell. A juicy one, no doubt. Please share it sometime.

Laurel Johnson said...

Wonderful as always. I second, third, and fourth what shoreacres said about your writing. I sense another journalism award in the offing and, dare I hope, another book.

At our house, all seedlings of all sorts are allowed to grow where they spring up. Ron mows around them and the flower beds we create just have to fend for themselves.

Tom Parker said...

Laurel -- A kindred soul! Across the street on our wild lot (which I reluctantly, and belatedly, mow) I have about a dozen trees of various species growing willy-nilly. More in our main yard. If nature wants that spot, so be it. Who am I to argue?
Thanks as always for your kind thoughts.

Carol said...

Well, red cedar isn't as dramatic as the junipers I saw on Google, but I still wish yours well.

Tom Parker said...

No, red cedar, or eastern juniper as I prefer, doesn't have the panache of alligator juniper or others found in desert regions. But it's our prairie juniper, and deserving of at least a little sympathy.
Odds today are 50-50 on its survival.

Carol said...

Glad to hear that the juniper is hanging in there. I'll be checking with you to learn whether it survives.

Tom Parker said...

Still hanging in there, though barely. Were I a gambling man, I'd give it 60-40 odds, 60 being that it won't make it.