This is the time of year when not much is happening in my yard. Last year, I got restless about this time, and I started trimming back my perennials, trimming bushes, clearing leaves from the flower beds, and generally uncovering everything for spring. The plants responded to the message that it was time for them to wake up and get ready for spring and summer. Fresh, bright, green buds of leaves and branches started to appear in the ensuing weeks. And then, we got a late freeze, and all of those new buds which I had so optimistically encouraged withered in a droopy, slimy, sad little mess. It took most of the plants several weeks to recover, and I spent those weeks worrying over them, fearing the worst, and watching to see if they would live or die.
So this year, I have vowed that I will not engage in any pruning, any cleaning, or any other form of encouragement with my perennials and shrubs until the middle of March at the earliest. I will gingerly start my spring cleaning then only after checking the long-term forecast to make sure there is no freeze anticipated. I will not be disappointed again.
The problem with that commitment is that it has left me a little restless, with not much else to do in the yard on the warming days of February and early March. So, I have been trying to content myself with pulling weeds.
God knows there are plenty of weeds to pull. And this time of year is the perfect time to get them. For the most part, they are tiny things, flimsy, with barely any roots to hold them in the ground. Some of these are the early spring weeds, whose whole purpose in life is to produce seeds so that more of the same kinds of weeds can come up next spring. They do not live for very long; the period when it is not too cold and not too hot and dry for them is very brief. They never grow very tall. Some, like the chick weed, spread a quite a bit in their brief lives, but they don’t have much depth to hold them in the ground. Some, like the sticky burrs with their nasty little spikes which poke our early spring feet as we go walking across the early spring lawn, become more annoying as they age, but even they are not with us for more than a few weeks. The early spring weeds seem to have evolved to be efficient: they shoot up quickly, they get their work of reproduction done quickly, and then they die quickly. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, as my Aunt Suzy would say.
Others of these weeds, though, are the ones that will be around for a long time. They may or may not produce seeds; some of them mostly seem intent on spreading their roots. These are the dichondra, the clover, and even the dandelions in the grass. Once these get a hold in the lawn, they cannot be eradicated without horrible petrochemicals. They can only be managed so they don’t push out the good grass altogether, which is a fine enough arrangement for me considering the alternatives. But when they get into the flower beds, everything starts to look ragged, and the good flowers can’t ever seem to get ahead.
The theory of both the early spring weeds and the long-term spreaders is the same: get rid of them now while it’s easy. If you get the early spring weeds before they go to seed, the theory goes, you won’t have nearly as many next year. If you get the long-term spreaders now before they spread to far or dig their roots too deep, the theory continues, you won’t be fighting with them as hard in the summer. So there I was last Friday, alleviating my early season restlessness by pulling up the tiniest little sprouts.
As I went along, I realized that my efforts were an act of great optimism. The fact is that no amount of early-season pulling is going to prevent weeds from growing in my flower beds. Whether or not I go out there now on my hands and knees pulling the flimsy little sprouts, I will be out there again in a few months pulling more. My work may or may not be in vain. But as I was trying to make sense of what I was doing, a song kept coming into my head. It is a song sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, on one of their more obscure albums which, depending on the company I am in, I either proudly or timidly admit that I regularly popped into my cassette tape player in my car when I was in college.
The song is called “Greenwood,” and it was written by Peter Yarrow in the early 1970s. It takes its title and theme from a saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke. The words are what one expects from Peter Yarrow in the early 197os: an earnest lament about violence and war. They are predictably preachy, but their purpose is noble: to stir people to act to overcome the systemic forces of repression. The song’s melody is haunting yet beautiful and simple; it focuses attention on the carefully chosen interrogative of the lyrics: “If we do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?” If you want to listen to the song, someone has been kind enough to load it onto YouTube:
If you just want to read the words, you can click here.
Besides its clear insistence that violence must end, and despite its clear tone of lamentation, I see this song as a call to hope. It makes the point that how we choose to view the world will change how the world actually is. “The killer and the cynic waltz together,” the lyric goes; those who choose to see only the worst in others are dancing awfully close to those who are willing to take another person’s life. It talks about “the impotence of people raised on fear,” pointing out that if we do not teach each other how to have hope and trust, which are the antidotes to fear, then there’s no reason to even attempt to make things different. What Peter Yarrow wants us to do in the “green wood,” now, while we still have a choice in the matter, is to not only end violence, but also to keep the realities of violence from persuading us to embrace a cynical and fearful view of the world.
I agree, and that is why I was pulling weeds. While I don’t believe my work now will make the weeds go away forever, I think pulling weeds in the early spring helps me practice hope. And I need the practice after a winter filled with dark headlines of violence, distrust, fear, cynicism, greed, and on and on. I need to believe that the more weeds I pull now, the fewer sticky burrs will find their way into the tender skin of my little boy’s feet and hands and knees and elbows and whatever else might come into contact with the lawn later this spring. I need to believe that the more clover and dichondra I remove now, the more profuse and brilliant the azalea and clematis and lantana and heather and daylilies will bloom throughout the seasons to come, each in their own time. And I need to believe that my restlessness can be channeled into productive work, so that I can also believe that my impatience with the way things are can be channeled into some positive work in the communities I am a part of to make things more like the way they ought to be. If I don’t channel that restlessness and impatience, all I will know is that the frost will invariably kill the new buds, that weeds will inevitably smother the flowers, and that violence and distrust and fear and cynicism and all the rest are just the way the world works. Considering the alternatives, I will pull the early spring weeds.
“As they led him away, … [Jesus] said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?'” (Luke 23:26-31)