Tag Archive | Weeds

Dollar Weed

IMG_5934 (800x533)My back lawn is filled with dollar weed (also known as Pennywort), and it is a problem.  The broad leaves fill whole patches of the yard.  The subterranean tendrils intertwine with roots of established plants I want to keep, stealing nutrients and water and making themselves difficult to remove.  I have tried to eradicate the dollar weed, and the unsightly disorder it represents, by pulling on the long, string-like roots.  In those moments of pulling, I am a superhero, but the satisfaction rarely lasts long, and the weed continues to grow.

I think the previous owner of my yard kept the dollar weed in check by spreading all manner of petrochemicals.  The neighbors have told us stories of his adventures with chemical weed killers.  It seems that, one time, he paid one of those awful “lawn services,” most likely True Green, which come and kill your weeds for you by spreading pellets and sprays of poison all over the watershed.  You know the ones:  they have to leave those little signs behind telling all of your neighbors that children and pets are no longer safe in your ecosystem.  Anyway, it seems he did not see dramatic results quickly enough, so a day or so after they left, he applied some other chemical he had purchased.  That night, it rained so much that the water collected in the low spots in the yard, and the petrochemicals pooled with it, killing large sections of the grass.  Ever since the bank and I purchased this yard a year or two later, I have been trying to atone for the sins of my predecessor.

When we first moved in, there were a couple of leaves of dollar weed here and there in the old flower beds of the back yard, but nothing much.  Within a couple of years, though, the weed started to spread.  At first, I asked some of the more seasoned gardeners in my community what to do.  They gave me a list of chemicals. I even purchased one, but after looking at my then-toddler, and considering the joy he felt when he got to run and play in the back yard, I could never bring myself to apply it.  Who wants to tell their little kid that he can’t go outside to play for a week because Daddy spread poison all over the place?

This season, though, the history of our back yard is catching up with us.  The centipede grass closer to the fence disappeared several years ago, but there were enough narrow-leafed weeds growing there that I could fake it with a good mow job.  By the end of this winter, though, nothing was growing for several feet around our small concrete patio.  My theory is that we are finally seeing the full effect of my predecessor’s chemical dependence.  If you spread fertilizer and weed killer, you will end up with a nice, even, weed-free lawn.  But if, at the same time, you meticulously rake your grass clippings and leaves into those brown bags you purchase at the big box stores, then put them on the curb to have the city haul them away, the nutrients which the grass uses from the soil will not be replenished.  Sure, you can replace those nutrients by spreading more petrochemical fertilizer; the bag of Scotts Weed-N-Feed says you are supposed to fertilize your lawn five times a year.  But your soil will die, and your lawn will never truly be healthy, and eventually, the grass will die, too.  The process will be hastened if you decide you value clean drinking water more than your weed-free, green lawn, and you stop the whole fertilizing program, as I did.

Without grass, the dollar weed spread.  I asked the internet what I could do to control it without petrochemicals, and I received some advice.  First, it told me, like all weeds, dollar weed will not grow much in a healthy lawn, that is, one with a type of grass well-adapted to the climate, supported by healthy soil, watered at the right depth and frequency, and never cut too short.  Dollar weed, in particular, grows in places where there is too much water, so less frequent, deeper watering is recommended.  Short of these ideal conditions, though, dollar weed can be killed with organic methods.  Some folks have found success by spraying white vinegar on the leaves, although I worry what that would do to the grass I want to encourage.  Other folks swear by the method of lightly spraying the broad leaves with water, then dusting them with baking soda.  One commenter described his parents, one with a spray bottle and the other with a fine strainer from the kitchen, sprinkling the deadly sodium bicarbonate a square foot at a time.  It sounded a bit fussy to me.  A third method is more systemic:  some have found success spreading white sugar at a rate of 1 five-pound bag for each 17′ x 17′ square.  The proponents of this method talk about how the sugar fixes the nitrates in the soil, robbing the weeds of that important nutrient.  They also caution that you have to water it in well immediately after application or you will be overrun with ants and other critters.  I must admit that I am dubious.

But I am also unable to do much to remove the dollar weed because I am under the watchful eyes of my eight-year-old son.  When I look at the dollar weed, all I see is a wild, chaotic, messy problem, exacerbated by years of environmental harm and mismanagement.  But when he looks at the dollar weed, he can only think of one day last summer.  On that day, his friend came over to play at our house.  This particular play date had been anticipated for weeks; her family and ours both had complicated schedules involving travel, work, camps, and even sickness, so we had a hard time finding a time for the kids to play together.  Finally, though, the day had come.  And the moment his friend came through our living room, looked out the back door, and saw our back yard, she was entranced.  “Why can’t I have a yard like this?” she exclaimed.  “You have little lily pads all over the place!”

To me, the dollar weed was a problem; to her, it was magical.  It was there so that tiny frogs could hop from one safe place to another, never falling in to drown in the frightening swamp she imagined covering our yard.  It was there to serve as protection as fairies scrambled to keep their fragile wings dry in a rain storm.  It was there to offer safety and comfort for tiny mice, or baby insects, or other creatures whose eyes were drawn by their Disney animators to be big and innocent and vulnerable.  I suppose this was not the first time something like dollar weed had found its redemption in the imagination of a child.

So last month, I bought a few plugs of Bermuda grass, which is well-adapted to grow vigorously in my yard, and planted them about a foot from the patio with a scoop of composted cow manure to bless them on their journeys.  I have eagerly watched them as they have established themselves, then begun to send out their stolons to explore and colonize the great big world out there.  I wonder daily how much longer it will be before they reach the patio and I get to cut their ends with my power edger, encouraging them to spread wide as well as long.  But I know that they will have to wind their way under and around the dollar weed which permeates large sections of their new territory.  Because I have been told that the dollar weed will stay.

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My Sin and Pine Straw

IMG_0206 (800x533)Southerners do not dwell on their sins; they simply bury them in pine straw.

As I explained here, I was new to the culture and practice of pine straw when I moved to the South. When I was growing up in California, at least in my family, we didn’t spread any kind of mulch on the garden beds.  There were plants stuck in the ground, they got watered, and some grew while others didn’t.  Sometimes the leaves from the oak trees scattered on the beds.  And otherwise, there was just dirt.  If there was a patch where the gardener did not want to show dirt, that patch was planted in some kind of ground cover:  creeping myrtle, ivy, some sort of evergreen shrub, or lawn grass.

Since I have been an adult, though, I have followed the trends of my neighbors and carefully spread mulch on my flower beds.  Since I have lived here in the South, I have learned that, if pine straw is your material of choice, it has to be applied two or three times each year to really do its job.  Last Friday, I finally had a day clear in my calendar when I could provide the spring treatment for the beds in my back yard.

As I looked over my back yard, I saw plenty of my sins.  There were tree leaves everywhere; more fastidious gardeners would have carefully pulled them out or, God help us, used one of those leaf blowers favored by the lawn maintenance services and power-tool-hungry homeowners in my neighborhood.  The sound of those things rising above the fence line from dawn to dusk is more than just an annoying interruption to an otherwise peaceful suburban day; it rattles my brain to mush, so I walk around in a daze until the thing turns off and I can reconcile myself to my surroundings again.  I will not own a leaf blower, and I do not have the patience to collect the leaves by hand.  They stay where the trees left them, right on the flower beds.  But still, although I had good reasons to leave them undisturbed, their presence made the beds look a bit unkempt and me look a bit lazy.

And there were more sins.  Earlier that week, I knew I needed to add compost to the perennials in the back yard.  Since the bin which held the older compost was empty and the bin which holds the newer compost is still working its magic on our family’s apple cores and squash skins, I purchased bags of composted cow manure from the big box store (please don’t judge me).  I generously spread the richness around the base of my plants.  However, other than to make sure I was not burying the stems of my plants too deep in that rich humus, I saw no point in moving the leaves and the old pine straw around.  The microbes in the compost, which are what really bring the miracle of life to otherwise dead soil, would be just as happy if they had some organic matter to chew on as they made their way into the dirt.  So, I just layered the good stuff on top of whatever was there.

And I saw still more sins.  The shriveled and dried remains of last season’s leaves still clung to the bases of some plants.  The walking iris were particularly bad.  I tried just pulling on the dead leaves, hoping they had rotted at the bottom so they would come off easily, but no luck.  The alternative was to go down the whole row with a pair of scissors and remove the leaves one at a time, wrestling around the thick new growth to avoid accidental snips of the good leaves among which the flower stems should emerge any time now.  That sounded like too much fussiness for me, so I left them in place.

In other words, the place looked a mess.  Tree litter here and there, piles of decomposed cow poop showing around the base of my perennials, shriveled up old leaves competing for visual attention with new greenery.  And I just knew that, lurking under all of that, there were thousands of seeds of weeds just waiting until I turned my back to poke their devilish little green leaves where I didn’t want them.  Bless their hearts.

And then, I spread the pine straw.  I shook the needles and pulled them apart to let them weave themselves into a single layer, tucking them up close to the stems of the plants, so all the dirt and mess was hidden.  And then, when I stood back to look, immediately, everything looked even, without any undue variation in level, color, or texture.  I realized that I was looking at God’s grace.  The scattered signs of the inadequacy of my tools and my patience; the crap I spread all over the place, the evidence of my laziness, everything about me that was especially ugly; none of it was visible any more.  I know that the ugliness did not vanish; that’s not the way human inadequacy works.  But under the protective blanket of fresh straw, with time and thought and moisture, the ugliness will be changed.

Under God’s grace, our sin has a place, not to disappear, but to be transformed:  to decompose, to be consumed by the microbes, to be spread out by the force of the water, and finally, to work itself into the soil of our minds and souls.  And then, still under the cover of God’s grace, that sin transformed becomes useful in making beauty:  new roots penetrate to be fed by it, and new stems emerge from it.  Leaves unfurl and flowers bloom because all that ugly sin has been left in place to change and rot and make fertile ground.  Well, ground that is fertile for everything but the devilish little weeds; they are smothered by that same blanket of grace.

I finished the job, pulling the stray needles of pine off of the leaves of my plants, sweeping the wayward bits off of the lawn and patio with my shoe, and giving a little shower from my garden hose to the beds.  I filled the bird baths, put away my tools, sat down in my chair, and I sang a little doxology to myself:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

Wild Strawberries

IMG_5382When I was a kid, adults would ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  I never really knew how to answer.  At the time, that question made sense in American culture.  It was  the 1970s and 80s, when it was assumed that a person could decide on a single career for his or her life’s work.  The person could spend several years training for that career.  Then a person could plan to work in that single career, perhaps in a single company or institution, for decades, until his or her colleagues booked the banquet room at the local country club for his or her retirement party.

But I have never really been comfortable with those assumptions.  And I was not comfortable with the demands of the question of what I was going to be as a grownup.  I remember when I was 24 and filling out the forms which are the beginning point of a Presbyterian’s relationship with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry.  That committee ultimately makes a recommendation about the individual’s suitability to be ordained a minister.  There were questions on the forms, appropriately, about why I believed I was called to be a Presbyterian minister.  I answered the question; however, I was careful to be clear:  I believed that professional work as a pastor of a congregation was what I was called to next, but I was open to a variety of work to which I could be called later in life.  I don’t think that sat well with the members of the committee, and I believe that was part of the reason I had to spend the next eight months arguing with them that my sense of call was not, in fact, weak.  They were operating out of the assumptions which made sense in the culture but which didn’t fit well with me.

I have been thinking of these experiences as I have watched the wild strawberries in my side yard this summer.  The side yard on our lot is not very big; perhaps only about eight feet separate the wall of our garage and whatever remains of the split-rail fence along the property line which the previous owner put in.  Most of the posts in that fence have rotted in the seven years we have been here, and carpenter bees took up residence in the rails.  When we moved in, part of the fence supported a unique variety of climbing rose which blooms with miniature, deep red blossoms when it gets enough water.  The fence is only about four feet tall, so the immense rose bush had overwhelmed it and flopped itself all over the side yard, blocking the way with some wicked brambles worthy of a fairy tale.  That section of the fence around which the rose canes wound practically collapsed when I cut them back, dug up the roots, and moved the rose a few feet to grow up a more proper trellis.  The rest of the fence has followed suit in the ensuing years, so now there is only one section left, and it is about to fall over.

The rest of the side yard is still similarly wild.  Grass and weeds long ago overtook the path which was out there, so to maintain it, I run the mower every month or six weeks during the growing season.  I have to cut back my side of my neighbor’s immense hedge of unidentified bushes so they won’t block the path to my back-yard gate.  Her azaleas, cannas, Mexican petunias, and other spreading perennials would love to colonize my side yard, but the mower keeps them in check.  I have to pull some sort of rapidly-growing vine off of the brick exterior of the garage now and then, too, or my house would be covered in it.

Ever since last spring, though, right next to the three-foot-square concrete pad which welcomes visitors to the side door of the garage, little plants with broad, round leaves with serrated edges, have sprung up among the weeds and grass.  Right away, I was pretty sure I could identify the plants, and my suspicion was confirmed when tiny, white flowers began to appear.  Those flowers were followed by small berries which have ripened to an intensely red color.  They are wild strawberries, and they have done marvelously.  The berries are nothing to taste, but they have appeared consistently throughout the season in their attempts to supplement the runners sent out by the plants as they try to reproduce themselves.

Before I really noticed these wild interlopers, I never would have thought to plant strawberries in my side yard.  Who plants strawberries in such a place?  A side yard, particularly one so narrow, serves no function other than as a pass-through.  I only go there when I have to get something from the front yard to the back, or from the back yard to the front, that is not appropriately carried through the house.  Although my six-year-old son would probably find it amusing to watch Daddy drag the lawn mower, the bags of manure, or limbs trimmed off of the backyard magnolia through the living room and out the front door, I would rather not do so.  But the times when I have to haul such machinery, supplies, and trimmings back and forth are about the only times I go through the side yard.

Now, I have looked again at that side yard.  There is plenty of space out there for a strawberry bed.  It can come out three feet or more from the wall.  At one end, it can butt against the concrete pad by the side door, and it can run a good 10 feet and still leave enough room to store the hose I use to get water to the front beds and flower pots.  The neighborhood cats can patrol there, out of range of our dog who stays in the back yard, to discourage birds and squirrels.  Naturally, I won’t count on those tiny plants which produce small, tasteless fruit.  But their better-bred cousins which the nursery will stock next spring should thrive there because the conditions they grow in are similar to the conditions required by the wild plants.

As I make my plans, I have been thinking of that understanding of my vocation I was trying to communicate to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry sixteen years ago.  I have also been thinking about how God works.  I think God is like those wild strawberries.  God pokes up among the weeds and the grass in lots which we have long ago abandoned.  God emerges to tell us to look again and see possibilities we have not considered before.  God ripens to an intense red alongside paths that we thought could only function to get us from one place to another, practically directing us to stop, to put down the tools and the trimmings for a few minutes, and to pay attention.  Plant yourself here, God commands; the soil is rich and the sunlight is right and the water is plentiful enough and there is more than enough space.  You can bear good fruit here, God proclaims, if you will only allow yourself to do something you never thought you would do.

For now, I am convinced that I am called to the work I am currently doing.  But those wild strawberries remind me why I stick by my commitment to be open to new possibilities for my work and life in the future.  And I hope that I can help my son to be faithful if he feels a similar discomfort with that probing question:  “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  Mostly, I look forward to this fall and winter, when I will clear a space in my side yard, define it with some edging, add some manure to enrich the soil, cover it with newspaper and pine straw to smother the weeds, and prepare to bring home that flat of strawberry plants next spring.  Because I have heard the message of the wild strawberries:  you can bear good fruit in unexpected places if only you open yourself to the possibilities.

Disdain and Tenacity

IMG_5355 (534x800)I like my lawn.  I like my lawn because it is not all grass.  There is an incredible variety of plants which live in my lawn alongside the centipede and Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses which have become all mixed up out there.  Some of those plants have broad leaves along trailing vines, like the dichondra and the dollar weed.  Some of the plants form florets of leaves around a center stem, like the dandelions.  Some of the plants even have fuzzy leaves; I am not even sure what those are called.  The occasional oak tree pokes it’s lobed leaves up in the middle of my lawn.  I even have one or two crepe myrtle bushes which have been trying for years to push themselves up into their towering shrub form from the midst of my lawn.  Each time I mow, I think I will finally discourage the poor things enough that they will just shrivel up and disappear.  But they don’t; they just spread broader and poke up more branches in their futile attempts at reaching their full potential.  Bless their hearts.

But even with all of their variety, taken together, the plants in my lawn serve the same function as the grass in any lawn in an average suburban neighborhood.  That is to say, those plants are supposed to serve no individual function at all.  They are not supposed to stand out in any way.  Instead, they are supposed to look like a uniform meadow of green.  Their role in the world is not so much to paint a picture but to create a mood.  Landscape designers will tell you that swaths of green are necessary to allow the eye to rest.  They provide peace and calm, order and structure, shape and form, so that the other elements of the landscape can shine.  They are like herbaceous background singers, offering their rhythmic hums and do-wops so that the diva-like soloists can strut their stuff on the front of the stage.  That, I believe, is why dandelions are so offensive.  They plant themselves in the middle of the lawn, and although they have a different texture than what surrounds them, they are not, on the whole, ugly.  But then they shove their uppity, yellow blossoms toward the sky, and it becomes obvious that they have forgotten their place in the world.  The nerve!

Contrast the role of those varied plants in the lawn with what is in my flower beds.  That is where you will find the real stars of the kingdom plantae.  I have plenty of springtime divas out there right now:  the brilliant pink calla lilies glow, the gerbera daisies strut their primary yellow- and red-colored stuff, the oriental lily hybrids attract attention to their blushing petals, and the caladiums I bought earlier this spring show off the dazzling variegation of their leaves.  Or even contrast the workhorses of the vegetable and herb gardens.  The tomatoes and peppers and strawberries and oregano are not as gorgeous as the callas, the lilies, the daisies, and the caladiums.  But the flavors they bring rival the glory of the ornamental superstars.

Each of those plants serves a positive function, and they are special because of that function.  The plants in my lawn serve a negative function:  they are not supposed to compete with the plants in the flower and vegetable beds for attention.  And that is all.

And so, imagine my surprise and shock a few weeks ago at what I saw in the middle of my lawn.  At the top of a lobed-leaf plant poking up from the middle of the lawn, about equidistant from the river birch which dominates the front yard and the flower bed which lines the front of the house, there was a tiny, white flower.  And I recognized that flower and the leaves that accompanied it at once:  it was a blackberry.  A wild blackberry was trying with all its little might to grow and bloom and produce fruit in the middle of the front lawn.

I took some time to admire the little thing.  Its disdain for the overall function of the lawn that surrounded it, along with its sheer tenacity, earned my respect.  It didn’t care where it was planted.  It didn’t care about the horror its presence would cause the landscape designers; it didn’t care whether my eye had an opportunity to rest between gazes at the prettier things coming up in my yard.  It didn’t care that the rules say the fruit-bearing flora belongs in the back yard.  It had no interest in suburban propriety.  Its one mission in life was to fight for the right to bear its fruit, and by God, it was going to fight hard.  It had even armed itself with a score or more of spikes up and down its three-inch stem, daring someone, anyone, to tell it that it couldn’t do what it was destined to do, right in the spot where it found itself.

There are any number of metaphors that could be drawn from this little berry bramble asserting its right to do its thing wherever it grew.  I think of my son, whose intelligence and uniquely beautiful personality I can see, but who sometimes gets lost as necessary order is imposed on the jumble of dozens of kindergarten students who are made to sit still at their tables and stand straight in line and listen to the teacher and avoid distracting their neighbors.  I think of activists and artists and other saints in many times and places who have stood up not only for their own right to show their unique beauty and skill in the world, but who have organized and taught others to stand up and stand out, too.  I think of the narratives of my Christian faith, which give example after example of times when God has unexpectedly lifted ordinary people out of their ordinary circumstances to mediate extraordinary blessing to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Any of those thoughts could lead me to lessons potentially learned from this little, wild blackberry which dared to bloom in the middle of my lawn  But I am not sure a lesson is what is needed here.  For now, I think I am ready to simply appreciate that a disdain for order and tenacity of purpose are not exceptional in this world; in fact, they are very natural.

I like my lawn because it is not all grass.

Green Wood

IMG_2001 (800x600)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)

The Freaks and the Nones

My neighbors think I am a freak.  They are too polite to say it; this is the South, after all, bless your heart.  But I know what they are thinking when they see me working in my yard using some techniques and tools which most people around here don’t use.  And I wonder if I need to get used to being considered a freak, not just because of my gardening methods, but also because of my faith.

For instance, I have a mulching lawn mower, so I never rake the leaves off of my lawn.  The lawn mower is electric, and everyone else around here has a gas mower.  And a key part of my strategy for weed control in my flower beds involves newspapers.  Yes, newspapers.  When I lived up north, I read one of those helpful columns in the newspaper giving advice on gardening.  One week, the writer suggested spreading newspaper on a new flower bed before spreading mulch and planting.  The newspaper smothers the weeds and prevents new weeds from growing.  Then, over time, it decomposes, adding nutrients to the flower bed after the need for smothering what is under the newspaper is passed.

The process is simple:  after I dig a new bed, I add some manure, compost, or other soil booster.  Then, I spread the papers on the bare ground.  I usually use at least two layers of paper at a time, overlapping them so that there are at least four layers in any given place in the bed with no gaps between the papers for weeds to sneak up.  For a bed with a lot of weeds, I have laid 8 or 10 layers of newspaper.  As I spread the sheets of paper, I periodically sprinkle them with water so they are heavy and will not blow away.  Once I have the paper spread all over the bed, I put 2 – 3 inches of pine straw or other mulch on top to hide the newspaper, hold it in place, and further snuff out the weeds.  I have even done the whole process without digging up the bed first; I simply spread composted manure on the grass in the place where I wanted the bed to be, then put a thick dressing of newspaper and the mulch on top.  By the following spring, the grass was gone, having decomposed and become a part of the soil after it died from lack of air and light under the newspaper.  That bed has prospered well with Black-Eyed Susans, Mexican Heather, Gerbera Daisies, some Calla Lillies, Cannas, Hibiscus, and a few other pretty things.

It was during the construction of that flower bed that I first got the snickering comments from my neighbor across the street.  As I was carefully laying newspaper on the green grass one breezy November day, he was washing his car in his driveway.  I imagined as he kept looking across the street that he was mocking me.  To be fair, he may have simply been curious.  I don’t remember now how he finally broke the silence to find out what I was doing, but I believe it was some comment made in jest about the strangeness of my activity.  I was, after all, spreading newspaper on my lawn, an activity made all the more freakish by the breeze.  The papers kept trying to fly away, so I had to do some gymnastics to hold them in place while I reached for the hose to weigh them down with water.  I explained that I had seen this idea in the paper one time.  I did not mention that the article was in a Northern newspaper, since that detail would make it automatically suspect as some hippie liberal conspiracy to further denigrate the Southern man.  My neighbor seemed satisfied, and he even complemented me the next year on the beauty of the bed I created so oddly.

Earlier this year, I used a layer of newspapers in another flower bed, this time next to the house.  I had re-planted the bed last summer, but I had never been able to control the weeds effectively.  As I was spreading the papers one spring morning, my next-door neighbor made some suggestion that there were better ways to read the newspaper than by spreading it all over the front yard.  He was polite and jovial, but again, there was that snickering tone.  I explained the strategy to him, this time leaving out the details about the source of the idea, and he didn’t push any further.  I could tell, though, that he was not convinced this would ever be considered a conventional method for weed control, and I have since seen the more standard method applied to his yard:  the True-Green Lawn Service truck came and spread God-knows-what kind of petrochemicals on his lawn.

Last Friday, I was once again spreading newspapers as I continued with my project of renewing an old flower bed that had gone to weeds.  Fortunately, I was spared the strange looks of my neighbors because I was working in the back yard.  But I also had a news story on my mind.  Last week, the Pew Research folks published the results of a recent survey saying that 20% of Americans do not currently identify with any religious tradition (for an article on the survey from Religion News Service, click here).  It is not that these people are refusing to choose between the Presbyterians and the Methodists; they do not claim any religious affiliation at all.  They are not Christian any more than they are Jewish or Buddhist or Unitarian or anything else.  Based on how they answered the surveyors’ questions, they are simply considered “nones.”

There have been a lot of comments about the findings.  Many of us are not surprised; this is a trend which has been growing since I was in college, and in other parts of the country where I have lived, the number of “nones” passed 20% a long time ago.  The day after the findings were released, one person at my church lamented to me “it’s such a shame that so many people don’t have any faith at all.”  Two hours later, someone else proclaimed excitedly, “well, the church has to take advantage of the opportunities to reach those people!”  Whether it is a great tragedy for society or a great opportunity for evangelism I will let others say.  I simply want to lift up this new reality and imagine how it will affect us as people of faith.

The fact is that Christians are a bit strange, and if current trends continue, we may even slide into the category of freaks.  We are odd because we spend so much time at the church when we could be doing things which are more gratifying.  We are different because we see more happening in the world than we can observe or prove scientifically.  We are strange because we are committed to an institution which seems, at various times, quaint, untrustworthy, corrupt, rigid, oppressive, too liberal, too conservative, too wishy-washy, archaic, and arcane.  And don’t get me started about just how bizarre the practice and theory of worship is in the modern world, if you really think about it.

For clergy, this oddness is not a new thing.  When people we meet outside the church find out what my wife and I do for a living, they often become fascinated, intimidated, self-righteous, condescending, or all of the above, all at once.  At the very least, they rarely react in the same way as I imagine they would if we said we were a pair of accountants or teachers or baristas.  Two or three years after we moved in, we were talking with the wife of our neighbor across the street who first observed my newspaper trick.  She admitted that, when she first heard two ministers had bought the house across the street, she would carefully hide the cases of beer she occasionally brought home from the grocery store in heavy paper bags and tuck them under her coat.  We were strange to her; she didn’t think she could behave normally in front of us.

In the future, if current trends continue, I wonder if all Christians will have to accept a new identity as social freaks.  I wonder if people will start to smirk and tease the way my neighbors do when I start spreading my layers of newspaper in my front yard.  And I wonder if there might be something freeing about being freaks in a world of nones.  I wonder if we will be able to be Christians because we want to be, and we feel called to be, not because that is the way everyone else is.  I wonder if we will claim our identities with a greater sense of purpose.  I wonder if we will be freed to simply live lives which are worthy of the gospel, loving our neighbors as we have been loved by our God, whether it is the popular thing to do or not.  I wonder if we will recognize that most of what we are called by Jesus to do is very counter-cultural, if not counter-intuitive.  I wonder if we will discover that, if we do it right, our faith will not help us in our business networking or efforts to climb the ladder of power and prestige, and it might even get in the way.  I wonder if we will have to learn to put into words why our faith is important to us in ways we can’t currently articulate.  I wonder if we will invite others into our alternative lifestyle only after they watch us for a while and inquire about why we live so strangely.

I wish my neighbors would just try using newspaper to control weeds rather than using the hazardous chemicals or back-breaking efforts they currently employ.  I think they would find it more effective, more healthy, and more enjoyable.  But based on their snickers and teasing, I don’t think they will try it anytime soon.  I will simply have to wait until they see that, as odd as it seems, it works, and then I can encourage them to try it for themselves.

Creating Ugliness

Last Friday, I finally got a chance to work on the new flower bed I have planned for the area around the bird bath in the back yard.  I had started the project in June, but after clearing just half of the area, the summer heat got to me, and I had to come inside and take a cool shower.  The area was clearly a tended flower bed before.  Soon after we moved into our home, I “borrowed” some yellow lantana from that area and planted it in the front of the house.  It flourished there until it was so big that it would block the windows by this time of year.  I finally dug it up last summer when I rearranged that bed, and it was clear that I could not salvage it to re-plant it elsewhere.  For several years, a caladium would shoot a few leaves out of the dirt near that area around the bird bath, too, trimmed in green, with white backgrounds stippled with red and pink spots.  As I began clearing out that area in June, I dug out some variegated vines which I have seen in the groundcover section of our local nurseries and put them in pots, planning to use them in the final arrangement of the bed.  Unfortunately, most of those fell victim to the heat of the summer and some long stretches when the sprinkler system was turned off, but a couple survived, and there are new, young shoots coming up from the base of the long stems.  A daylily remains where I carefully dug around it, trying not to destroy it with my shovel.  And as I dug the other day, I unearthed a number of those white tags which nurseries use to identify plants, so I know that someone planted petunias, pansies, snapdragons, and other annuals back there in the past.

But most of what I was looking at around the bird bath was weeds.  I have watched over the past several years as whatever variety of creeping fern we have among the trees along the back fence have gradually moved their way into that space around the bird bath.  English ivy and confederate jasmine intermingled there, creating an interesting mix of cultures probably not seen around here since before the “War of Northern Aggression.”  A couple of palmettos have stuck their leaves high in the air in front and alongside the bird bath in recent years, and last fall, after my wife insisted it was simply a weed in the wrong place, I finally broke out the saw to cut down a pine tree which grew there for three or four years.  Dollar weed spread through that area and into the grass, creeping its way from that source year by year on its quest to stretch from one end of the lawn to the other.  Even the once-neat liriope trimming a semi-circular border to the bed has gone a bit wild, spreading wide in some places and filled with a variety of species in almost every place.  And I won’t mention the prickly things.

I decided the best way to deal with the whole thing was not to try to pull up what was there, but to simply kill the mess of plants by turning it all over.  I dug up the old tangle of roots and vines, rhythmically sticking my shovel in the ground with a complete disregard for what I was chopping apart in the process, then twisting the handle to reveal the brown dirt.  As I went, though, I realized that what I was creating was really ugly.  The dirt was uneven.  Dismembered stems and severed ends of  fern fronds and jasmine branches littered the area.  Webs of fine roots which once fed heaven-knows-what kind of invasive vine were sticking up in the air, suffocating like so many fish out of water.  My sneakers trampled flat the plants which grew where I had not yet stuck my shovel.  In a word, it was just ugly.

Nonetheless, I started to feel a unique connection with God that I think one can only feel when one has taken on the task of being creative with mud and plant matter.  The Bible has great stories about the creation that happened in a beautiful garden, about God’s acts of making creatures out of water and mud and a little gust of wind.  Logic would tell us that God must have made that garden to begin with, too, so God must have shared that experience of revealing brown dirt as a blank canvas.

I wondered:  does God have to create ugliness before God creates beauty, too?  Much of what is beautiful in life and in the world has gone through its times of ugliness.  Naturalists will tell us that most of the beautiful places in the world have at one time or another been leveled by fires, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, or ice flows, and we can imagine that those world-changing “disasters” left some ashen, muddy ugliness behind before the mountains and lakes and forests and fields filled the space again.  The best forms of natural fertilizer smell nothing other than nasty before they let their nutrients dissipate into the soil to be used by beautiful flowers and useful fruits.  And what about the beauty God creates in human lives?  Sex has a bit of a mess to it, pregnancy is not pretty, and as much as some want to romanticize it, much of the process of giving birth is just plain ugly.  But the baby who comes out on the other side of it all is usually pretty darn cute, and every life that is made through that process has an intrinsic beauty to it.  As parents, we were told to endure the discomfort of early sicknesses, and the corresponding unpleasantness of the snot and “thin stool,” because they will build a strong immune system in our little boy.  The most treasured relationships in my life have been through times of conflict, distance, and strain, before my life and the lives of the people involved in them were so beautifully intertwined.  Death is not pretty, whether it is literal or figurative, but without it we can’t experience the promise of resurrection.  And I wouldn’t wish the pain of grief on anyone, but I also can testify that people often come out on the other side with a deeper ability to love, a greater freedom to enjoy, or a more profound appreciation of the beauty of life.

So does God create ugliness in order to bring beauty?  I am not willing to surrender to a platitude that simple; I will leave it to theologians more sophisticated than I am to debate the finer logic of the questions of the source of suffering.  But my reflections on the ugliness I was creating made the routine of sticking the shovel in the ground and turning over each pile of dirt more interesting.  I found hope in my wondering:  as the area I worked was becoming more ugly, I knew I was participating in only a transitional phase in a larger process, and there will not be a permanent scar on my landscape.

When I finished turning over the dirt and the weeds, I had run out of time to work on such things for that day.  I quickly pulled and pushed my rake across the patch of earth, trying my best to level it a bit before taking my tools back to the shed and heading in to shower and change.  Later this month, I will dig in some pine bark and manure, strengthen the base of the bird bath with rocks and sand, better define the back edge of the bed with a thick board salvaged from an old fence, tidy the liriope border, and cover the mess with newspaper and finally pine straw so the weeds will not come back.  Then next spring, I can have some fun at the nursery, choosing flowers and plants whose roots will make their home in that ugly dirt as the mud and water and even the wind work together for the beauty I know I can expect.