Today was a maintenance day in the garden. If there is one truism about the Deep South, it’s that anything will grow here, including voracious hordes of weed plants that enjoy rooting in soil that’s been disturbed. Don’t get me wrong, “weedy-seed” plants have a vital role in the natural ecology of this region. In fact, the pre-maize food system relied on such plants as Goosefoot and Pigweed, Jerusalem Artichoke and Groundnuts. There’s a place for them all, but as a gardener, I want to keep their role minimal. Let them be a part of the Freedom Lawn–a luxuriant green carpet, even in the worst heatwave, the driest spells that July and August can devise. So, I weed, because I absolutely refuse to use pesticide or herbicide. And after a good rain such as we had last night, the Johnson Grass is guaranteed to be about three feet high in places where nothing green grew the day before.
Wet Blanket Work
I sat back on my heels for a moment in the shade, shucking off my gloves and tracking the progress of a rivulet of sweat down the side of my face simply by feel. For those of you who have never worked in the Deep South during a normal summer, I will tell you, Continental Climate has nothing on us, for all that it’s quite fierce enough in its own right. The very air, quivers around you like a gaseous broth so saturated with moisture that you can smell your own sweat, taste it at the back of your throat where it lingers in a thick, clinging miasma.
It’s like working with a sopping wet wool blanket wrapped firmly around your head. Breathing becomes an effort, simply because, at 94% humidity, you’re effectively breathing a liquid. Your lungs will labor in a way even altitude can’t really compare to. Now make it 93 degrees, without heat index. That being said, I wouldn’t be anywhere else just now. The garden has reached that point in the year when she most resembles a glorious woman in her prime as she flaunts her wealth with such grace and confidence–full-blown roses, day lilies, vitex, crepe myrtle, ferns, gardenias, geraniums, begonias, impatiens, vinca, hydrangeas all bloom in profusion. To be here, in the garden, is an experience of such voluptuousness, that small irritants such as not being able to breathe fade to nothing.
And so, I kneel in the sun-dappled, throbbing stillness of an early September afternoon. I smell and taste my sweat mingled with the fresh scent of turned earth. I watch earth worms and rolypolies squiggle frantically away from my trowel, and I pause to give them time to make good on their near-death escapes. I’ve named the fire ants and the beetles–all the fire ants are called Alfred, because they’re all clones of a single genetic pattern. But the beetles are their own people. The small lives of these creatures are so very full, so important, so invested as a part of the overall picture of this place.
Silence as a Conversation
I worked around the mailbox in the afternoon, because an enormous Chaste Tree–also called Vitex–spreads its beautiful branches over the entire corner. The fronded shade shifts in mosaic patterns of deep gold and blue light, as an imperceptible breeze wafts among them. I paused in my battle with my ancient nemesis, Virginia Creeper. There, by the mailbox, is a roothub as big around as my wrist. It grows right next to the trunk of the Vitex.
That’s right, in Albuquerque, at the Satellite Coffee Shop on Central just across from the UNM campus, the patio has several Vitex shrubs. They’re of appreciable height for desert greenery, kept generously watered by an irrigation system. But they are a modest six or eight feet in height, and their branch span is no more than that much across. The Chaste Tree that shades my parents’ mailbox is likely about the same age as those shrubs, but it’s about 23 feet tall and as is as broad. These things grow a little differently here. The same could be said for the thirty-foot tall crepe myrtles across the yard, which are older and more established than the Vitex.
I tilted my head back to look up through the branches. The afternoon around me was saturated with stillness. Only in that moment, where I too became still, did I recognize the infinitely layered quality of sounds that gave this impression of deep quiet. The distant mechanical droning of lawn equipment, bird-calls like the jay, the thrasher, the cardinal and the towhee mingling with the rasping chitter of wrens and nuthatches. Nearby, a mama hummingbird rests, swaying on a stem of a Swamp Rose, long past its springtime bloom. Her quiet “scree” sounds tired–teaching the children to be hummingbirds was especially taxing today.
To Guard the Sleep of Bumble Bees
The burr-grinder of cicadas is a late summer mainstay, and grass crickets chirp and sing a descant to the toothed saw of their calls. Beneath it all is the drowsy hum of bees, busy at their tasks. I rise and go to look at the ends of the Vitex fronds. They are just entering their second and final blooming for the year and the grass and concrete beneath them is littered with thousands of tiny, blue blossoms. The sounds of bees intensifies as I move close to the lavender blue spires.
I watch the unaccountably graceful movements of bees from blossom to blossom, their tiny feet finding purchase on the main stem as they bury their dark faces into the heart of each flower searching for the sweet nectar they know is there. Their backs and sides are thick with a yellow fur of pollen and their wings glint like stained glass in the afternoon light. Here and there, the flower spires are laden with the unmoving lumps of bees, drowsing in the afternoon heat. They bend the frond under their weight, swaying gently, and I imagine them lulled by the strange lullaby of the deep stillness I have described.
Why Bees Are Precious Things
I see so many people spray their yards with herbicides, treating their stupidly decadent lawns with fungicide and pesticide as well. How foolish they are, and their shortsightedness makes me angry. They poison their world and then wonder why bees and birds are dying. Did Rachel Carson teach us nothing? The role of bees as pollinators cannot be overstated in its importance. Not just with honey bees–imports from Europe–but also the more humble and sometimes vilified indigenous species of bees and wasps. All have an important place in the local ecology. They are known as “niche pollinators” which means that each species is paired with a selected group of plants. Only that species serves as the means for the plant to distribute its genetic material.
Botanists consider self-pollinating plants as evolution’s way to cope with the death of its special helpers. While it is true that ecological systems are in a constant state of shift, any action we undertake that dramatically increases the chance of a pollinator species extinction must be seen as one that threatens our own future well-being. Because it does. Not simply in consideration of the fact that two thirds of our food crops rely on bee-driven pollination, we also have to see that to extinguish even one species of bee is to threaten the diversity and strength of an entire ecology. This requires a depth and breadth of vision that apparently few people take time to develop anymore. I watch the Tru-Green chemical truck roll away up the hill, fresh from seeding my neighbor’s lawn with death, and I am filled with a disgusted anger that robs me of language fit for other human beings. I turn instead to the bee nearest my face, drowsing among the Vitex blossoms.
I will guard your sleep, little bee, because your continued survival is my own. Small things matter so very much.