Minding My Peas

Minding My Peas

An Ode to Planting, Praying, Pruning, and Perishing.

According to the riddle of the Sphinx, there are three ages of man: four-legged, two-legged, and three-legged. Similarly, there are three ages of the garden: plant, pray, and prune. My garden is in the prune phase, or lack thereof. If I were in my three-legged phase, I’d have an excuse for letting my garden turn into a green cave. When I rouse and get my loppers, a glance at all the work required is enough to send me back into the embrace of my recliner. I have no energy for it and I know the cause. Since Rita moved to Santa Barbara I’m living alongside an excavation site, the hole being her absence next door.

My new neighbors are Irene and her father, introduced as “Pops.” I think they are people I will get along with when they cease to labor under my resentment that they aren’t Rita. Last week Irene came over, wanting to know if I could recommend a tree guy for the redwood in her backyard. She said “yard,” not “garden.” She’s from where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, Oklahoma. A casual look at my Goth garden might have persuaded her that I could not recommend a good tree guy, but I told her about Hector, that he had done some work on the redwood for Rita last year.

“I hope he didn’t charge her,” Irene said. “Didn’t do much of a job.”

What was an Oklahoman’s image of a well-pruned redwood tree? Oh, god, I debated, should I say something to ward off an atrocity that I would have to contemplate every time I stood at the kitchen window? That was ironic, given how many times over the years I had encouraged Rita to prune it. When Rita finally had allowed Hector to touch it, she made sure he did the minimum, just enough to let some sunlight reach the patio.

“He did what Rita told him to. Rita was against pruning,” I said to Irene. “In principle. She thought plants should not be dominated; they should grow they way they wanted to grow.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Irene said.

“That’s what I said.”

Rita has always maintained a lot of principles that are ridiculous, yet of all my friends I would describe her as the sanest, though not if she were in the room. Since she’s in Santa Barbara, she’s suddenly a pillar, a lodestar, a beacon in the tempests. Santa Barbara. I could go visit. It’s not like it’s Nova Scotia or the Dakota Territory. I could even move to Santa Barbara; sell my house. Which is what she did, all quite freely. Start anew. It has an allure, like an unspooling of fate in a fable that transforms destiny into adventure, but I’m not going to do that, and she’s not coming back, so it might as well be Halifax. Neither of us are phone people.

“Let me give you Hector’s number,” I said. I feared I had not advertised his services well. I hoped she wouldn’t hire an idiot crew in love with their chainsaws. Hector is a little in love with his chainsaw, but I can talk him down.

Since Irene’s visit, anxiety accumulates like leaf duff. I call Hector myself and he comes over to give me a bid on pruning my acreage: the pittosporum, the cotoneaster, the jasmine, the acacia, the ivy coming from Bertie’s garden. His eyes get vaguely distant, as if he is surveying the Amazon from 1,000 feet above. He says it will take two weeks. Two weeks! I thought it would take two days. He’s a good worker, so I reconsider. I have somehow chosen to overlook the ceanothus and the apple trees and the maple and all that crappy vinca sneaking up from the sidewalk, all of which are equally in need of pruning or eradicating. Ditto my redwood tree, not as big as Rita’s but a redwood. And the privet hedge. And Francine’s fir lolling over the upper fence.

“When can you start?”

“How about right now?”

“Perfect. First come with me. I want to introduce you to my neighbor.”

Pops answers the door, a little befuddled by two strangers. He’s a handsome older man with a monumental nose, his face like something from Easter Island. From the other side of the house comes a sound it takes a while to identify: singing, or more accurately, vocal exercises. The do-sol-do ceases, and soon Irene appears. “I didn’t hear the bell,” she says.

I introduce Hector. “Would you boys like to come in for some punkin pie? Came out of the oven about an hour ago.”

I had a big breakfast but accept the invitation. The holidays approach and I need to get my stomach in shape for the marathon. Hector says no, he’ll get right to work.

“Handsome man,” Irene says after he leaves. It’s what everyone says.

What are all those
fuzzy looking things out there?
Trees? Well I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.
from “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”
William Carlos Williams

Sitting in the kitchen, newly painted yellow, I can hear the growl of Hector’s chainsaw.

“You like to bake?” I ask Irene as she hands me a piece of pie that is so wide it covers the plate. I’m not complaining; I am a devotee of punkin.

“I make pies. I don’t cook.”

“I heard you singing. Sounds like you have a good voice.”

“Some people think so. I do it just for fun. Carry-okie is my thing. Know any good spots around here?”

“No. I’ve never done it. Well, once, in Fresno.”

“I bet you enjoyed it. You bashful types. Once you get over that, it’s a kick in the pants.”

“What do you like to sing?”

“Patsy Cline is my gal. ‘Worry, why do I let myself worry’?” she belts.

“I like Patsy Cline.”

“Now who wouldn’t? My mama cried and cried when she got killed.”

I do an inconclusive computation. “What year was that?”

“1963. Same as JFK. I was 6, if you’re wondering.”

“How’d she die?”

“Plane crash. One of those little puddle jumpers. ‘I fall to pieces, each time I see you again.’ ”

I can’t tell if Irene is making a bad joke; her delivery is all heart. If you’re wondering. Is she flirting? Why do I let myself worry?

“The pie’s delicious.”

“Not too much cinnamon for you?”


“My husband Harvey always griped I used too much. I don’t know what it was with him, trying to be contrary, I guess. He passed last year. Once he passed on I figured there was no reason to stay in Oklahoma, so I come here to take care of Pops. He asked me to. He’s the one who bought the house. I never could. Boy, are houses crazy, the cost I mean, around here. Pops is all the family I got left ’cept my daughter, but she’s off in Alaska and not much good to anybody so far away.”

“I’m sorry about your husband.”

“Yeah, well. Tractor fell on him. I told him the ground was too wet to move the silage. Stubborn as a mule.”

“That’s awful.”

“You’d be surprised how often those kind of things happen on a farm. One of our neighbors got baled by his baler.”

I picture the chainsaw doing a jig, blood gushing from Hector’s amputated forearm.

“That’s him up there,” Irene says.

“Who where?”

“Harvey. In that urn. His ashes. What was I thinking? I should have spilled him out in a wheatfield somewhere in Oklahoma. It never seemed the right time or right place. I couldn’t dig a hole and stick him in the yard. It’s where we had all our big fights, me wanting to plant trees and him saying they just blocked the view—60 miles of flat nothing. OK, the sunsets were pretty, I gave him that, but I let him know the yard was my territory. Harvey could be sensible. He knew when to quit. I wonder what he’d think finding himself in California, which he always said was wacko-bird-land.”

“I had a friend who had his friend’s ashes in an urn on his mantle. In the big 1989 earthquake, it fell off and broke on a heating stove, and he had to vacuum out the ashes.”

“We’ve been getting a bunch of them earthquakes in Oklahoma, too, all that fracking, people say. I figured if we get earthquakes and tornadoes, might as well move to California. I guess I better do something about them. The ashes, I mean. Harvey would not like being sucked into the vacuum cleaner.”

It registers belatedly: She just said that she fought her husband in order to plant trees. Maybe the redwood tree is in no danger. Reading my thoughts she says, “When your guy gets finished, send him over. I’ll have him do my trees.”

Did Rita ever call them “my trees?” She would have said they’re not ownable. I call the trees in my garden “my trees,” the redwood included, and feel a powerful urge to hurry home and monitor the march of the chainsaw.

“I’m thinking about taking one of those whale-watching trips and dumping Harvey over the side,” Irene says. “I don’t think he would object too much being in the ocean, but he might object to my sneaking around. I suppose I should have a ceremony. What do you think?”

“It’s a dilemma.”

Something comes back to me, a memory just below the surface, as it were, how I shook out some of Aunt Dot’s ashes beneath the redwood tree in my garden. I haven’t thought about that for years. There is a fourth “p” of the garden cycle, perish. Cemeteries are just another kind of garden.

“Have another piece of pie,” Irene says. “Go ahead. It may not be here tomorrow, and as you can see, I don’t need it.” She patted her butt for evidence.

Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.
from “Love Song”
William Carlos Williams

I think Hector and I have managed to keep our near-friendship from completely going asunder, despite daily haggling over how far to take the pruning. Now and then I can see myself from his point of view, the neurotic micromanager, and I can empathize—almost—with his compulsion to ensure that each plant has its own space, nothing touching anything else. His idea of a garden is strict order; mine is that a garden, like a good poem, staggers on the border between coherence and incoherence.

His perspective has the undeniable advantage of eliminating the necessity of having the pruning done again in a few years. Mostly for that reason, it has won the day. He overestimated the time it would take, but only by a day and a half. It will take me longer to get used to the new look, how the fuzzy things downsized from Mama Cass to Kate Moss over the course of Hector’s ascension. Though I am an oxymoron, the decidedly ambivalent, there is another constituency, a fan club for Hector’s approach. The vegetable bed is foremost. This area had been one of the most desultory in my garden. In residence were some riddled kale and some pathetic peas, surrounded by patches of grubby dirt. You can’t grow vegetables with two hours of sunlight per day. With the sunlight comes a general revival; I went out and bought spinach and arugula seeds, and starts of four different kinds of lettuce, plus more kale and chard. The peas have already responded to the new regime with a burst of green.

And of course the oxalis everywhere in the garden is triumphant with the radiant largesse. I brandish my hori-hori to remind it that the war is still on; I’m not dead yet. It reminds me, spring is around the corner. Will spring raise the spirits or will it fail this year? Ridiculous, I know, to think my little griefs are beyond its powers and persuasions. Blame it on Rita.


R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at berrypicking.wordpress.com.

Faro’s Garden Archive

Faces of the East Bay