Weeding and Writing; it’s Springtime in Michigan


A sprouting samara, via www.abundantnature.com

In this quarter of Michigan, just to survive our latest winter required heroic effort. Several lengthy periods of below zero temperatures, several periods of near-shirtsleeve weather, eight feet of snow, plus two significant ice storms took a toll on everyone in southeast Michigan.

Except for the maple trees. The spring of 2014 was a banner year for the germination of maple tree samaras. As we all know, ‘samara’ is the botanist’s name for the whirligig helicopters that spin quickly and erratically to the ground from your maples. I share my backyard with two large maples.

One tree is a stellar example of Acer rubrum, the red maple. It is over forty feet tall with a drip line 24 yards in diameter. Its companion tree is an equally impressive cultivar of Acer palmatum, the Japanese red-leafed maple. The two trees root less than twenty feet apart from each other and in the ecologic race for the sun, rubrum is the leader by a length as they head down the backstretch.

The palmatum is my favorite. It grows nearest the house and tries to overgrow our roof every year or two. This necessitates that I climb onto the roof with my chain saw to prune the tree. No man turns down the opportunity to use a chain saw, nor to climb onto a roof. When the two opportunities merge, I can feel my Y chromosome swell like Joey Chestnut’s stomach at Nathan’s Famous annual 4th of July hot dog eating contest.

What I truly enjoy is watching the limbs. The two sets of limbs dance and meld into each other like teenagers at a prom. In late spring, when both trees begin to leaf out, I can sit on my deck, beverage in hand, the dogs on patrol against marauding bunnies and squirrels, and watch the palmatum’s red leaves and the greenish yellow leaves of the rubrum uncoil against the sky. Fully one-third of each tree’s foliage intermingles with the other. Of different surface area and mass, they still manage to wriggle in the wind to a separate beat. The larger rubrum leaves slowly roil themselves just as a self-conscious teenaged boy dances in place whilst the less weighty palmatum leaves twerk to their hearts content.

My wife and I tried, fruitlessly, to grow something useful under the trees. We tried several varieties of grass, all scientifically designed to thrive in shady areas. All were thrive-less. We tried hostas. In Michigan, hostas spread their leaves early, but their die-back occurs far before one wants to admit that fall is just out there at the horizon. As a result, the neighbors complained that our reliance on hostas was triggering early episodes of their seasonal affective disorder. We contemplated putting in shady vegetables such as onions, but I am not quite ready to declare myself a true vegetable gardener.

After much thought, we gave up. I dug a small trench, two inches wide and four inches deep, several feet outside the perimeter of our maple forest’s dripline. In the trench, I installed border edging. For the inside, I chose pine mulch. We had several senescent pine trees which I had felled, chipped <insert Fargo reference here>, and dumped in piles in the interior of the border to be spread out at some time in the near future. In retrospect, the piles may have been too large. One morning, my son and I noticed smoke wafting out from several of the piles.

Yes, spontaneous combustion. These fires arise in accordance with the combined gas law. This law states that the pressure, volume, and temperature of a system are inextricably linked. In the matter of the chip pile, the pressure increased, the volume was decreased, and the temperature did duly and legally increase proportionately. As we added chips, the weight of the wood piles increased and the internal wood chip pile temperature rose to smoldering levels. Not wanting to argue with the laws of physics, several hours of work with rakes and shovels was required to spread out the chips, followed by a good dowsing with water.

I like to think of the border as a moat. It separates lush, green grass on the outside, with the rough-hewn wood chip on the inside. It’s the opposite of the dividers in your silverware drawer, a neat arrangement on the inside and a jumble of mismatched random stainless ware on the outside.

But I digress.

I submit my three hours labor under the maples as proof of nature’s bounty. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of maple samaras which have germinated on the inside of my border. I could spray them with Metsulfuron-methyl.

However, my dogs have retained some grazing instincts and I do not wish to spray with chemicals which might be taken up into Lucy and Otzi’s root systems, rather than those of the roots of the maple seeds. This aversion to chemicals explains why I was knee walking with a large commercial pickle bucket, much as a samurai warrior would practice shikko, as I hand-plucked samaras from the ground.

I started from the outside edge, and created a path perhaps four feet across.  The path’s width was set by my reach, and gradually, I spiraled into the center like the beginning of the 1960s sci-fi show Time Tunnel. As I knee-walked, and listened to Bob Marley’s Exodus three times through, I realized what I was doing was not weeding, but writing. Writing is more about the removal of unwanted words than it is about the inclusion of needed words.

Some of the samaras I plucked were deep-seated. They put down their roots hard and fast. To pull those samaras required a solid grasp on the plant. The samaras grasp onto the soil in a way which reminded me that I too often use words I love without any attention paid as to whether the words actually bring any meaning to my reader’s understanding. Those ten dollar words hang in my paragraphs, impressive for their syllable count and obscurity, but useless in driving the narrative. I dig them out and toss them aside.

Some of the needless words in my pieces are very gently rooted. They get ‘highlight-right click-delete’ without a second thought. Those words get yanked just as the lightly rooted samaras came out upon the first gentle tug.

The dogs became involved. Lucy, our border collie-corgi mix, loves to sleep under my desk while I write. While I yanked out baby trees, Lucy slept the sleep of the well-loved dog in a shady spot near at hand. Otzi is our dachshund. True to doxie form, she is our DEW Line- the Dachshund Early Warning Line – and she rails loudly against any aggressors upon her territory. Attempts at incursion by the local rodent population are futile.

I left one oddity in the ground – a pine tree seedling, only two inches tall, was spared the ax. I don’t know how long I’ll let it grow, but I was inspired by the seedling’s pluck. It survived the chainsaw during felling. It kept its vitality after a traumatic trip through the wood chipper. That’s one tough plant. In the face of such stiff competition from the maples, I want to see how long it can continue to punch above its weight.

I’ll keep you posted.


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at http://dstan58.blogspot.com/

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