Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Parents' Garden

One thing I did on May 8, the first Mothers' Day since my mother passed at the age of 94 earlier this year, is to pull garlic mustard at Mountain Lakes Preserve. The logic of this is rooted in my parents' backyard, in the '70s in Ann Arbor. They had just bought an old Tudor house, previously owned by a mathematician. That first spring, yellow primrose popped up along the garden paths, with swaths of pulmonaria, mayapples, solomons seal, bloodroot and trillium grading into a small woods. There was little difference between the cultivated and wild areas, the gardens being little more than a steering of nature's already fortuitous and ornamental energies, with a few gentle introductions like primrose and pulmonaria thrown in.

That order, which seemed timeless at first, began to slowly unravel year to year. A patriarch elm, its graceful arms spreading in a protective arc over the center of the garden, succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. Myrtle, wisteria and bishop's weed (snow on the mountain) began their relentless expansions. Hours were spent in hand-to-root combat, as rock walls and less aggressive species came under ongoing threat of being engulfed by a monotonous, weedy tide. Garlic mustard slipped into the mix somehow, at first seeming ornamental enough to leave, then turning into brown skeletons later in the summer, flinging its seeds about before I thought to react.

The fight to save a valued balance was not against exotics, but instead against the aggressive plants, the preponderance of which happened to be exotic species introduced into the garden by chance or with the best of intentions. The wildflowers continued to bloom along the path edges, and one year a pawpaw sprouted mysteriously in one of the beds, eventually bearing tropical-tasting fruit. But the beauty and serendipity that make a garden a joy were under constant threat from a subset of plants with imperialistic tendencies.

That garden taught me more than could have been guessed about the forces that tilt the world towards imbalance, and the work required to counter them.

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