As a landscape steward, I suffer from a pruning disorder, which might charitably be characterized as tenderness and less kindly as cowardice. I so appreciate the lush and wild beauty of plants that pruning feels like violence and removal like murder. But my deep attachment to individual trees and shrubs impedes my ability to make good decisions for the collective, even as the growth of some threatens the well-being of others.
When my back yard effectively died seven years ago, I was not only deeply saddened but scalded by responsibility. I had been away teaching in Michigan’s verdant Upper Peninsula during the academic year, and the two towering blue spruce that anchored the yard had succumbed in my absence to sustained Colorado drought. Witnessing their removal — the snarl of those chainsaws — felt like organic trauma. I vowed on the day they came down to create a landscape that would not only recapture their majesty but provide wildlife habitat and food that the old yard had not.
That vision is now abundant reality: A tall, slender white fir and a gregarious blue spruce command the yard near the stumps of their predecessors. The rest of the two-level landscape is lush with chokecherry and plum, serviceberry and crabapple, limber pine, smoke tree, burning bush, peach, cherry — the list goes on.
I love each too much, but not blindly. I’m aware of their redemptive force, how they came to be here partly from my need for correction of some mysterious but fatal error I made in ancient time, before memory — not just the discrete failure to care for those two grand old trees, but some bigger and unforgivable mistake. For years, I have dreamed sporadically that I have killed some unknown person and been found out, that I have irreparably taken another’s life and ruined my own.
The poet Wendell Berry writes:
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one….
On that plane, my yard exists as amends, as reparation that hints I may not, after all, be beyond redemption. Because here it is: grace. Here my intention and desire and sweat have raised beauty from the barren residue of deadly error. Here, there is abundant life.
I cannot say whether this feeling is self-indulgent, meaningful, or meaningfully self-indulgent (my favorite, ambiguity being associated with wisdom in Buddhist philosophy). I want to believe that other people feel as I do, as Berry did: this specter of fatal mistake, this yearning for redemption. If such desire escapes the tired and cloistered confines of our craniums to blossom in the outer world as loveliness, can we hope for more?
Yet the association obstructs with sentiment; my overgrown yard now needs a firm hand, not a soft heart. Difficult decisions await, followed by selective but necessary violence: pruning, transplanting, perhaps even removing.
In the meantime, this soft rectification, this tender appreciation for the holly leaf’s serrated edges, for the plump silvery tips of the blue spruce, for the tiny crabapples emerged in loose profusion from clusters of delicate, burgundy-stemmed leaves.
They are common as grief or music and smaller than peas, but I feel helpless before their perfect beauty; already, I can rub a thumb against their powdery red skin and raise a depthless sheen.