Now that the bulbs are up again and people are flocking to garden centres and wildly buying bedding plants to make up for a long winter, my suggestion – and I understand you did not seek my counsel on this matter – would be as follows: Be wary of what you undertake in your own backyard.
Every living thing in a flower bed eventually becomes a metaphor – and not just a metaphor, but a poll on the state of your worthiness and being. This is not the sort of staidly reassuring bucolic observation one is supposed to make in a story about gardening, but it's true. Gardening demands husbandry and patience and continuous regimen and humility – all the strong traits of a carefully-lived life, ones you obviously lack if your roses resemble intestinal polyps.
And this non-stop state of inherent judgment is not helped by gardeners, most of whom harbour a secret and bossy desire to give Creation a redo under their own more capable hand.
It is this god-like yearning that makes gardeners so fond of pronouncement. Margaret Atwood – she lives in my neighbourhood, where I am occasionally thrilled to see her bent over a flower bed – once declared that "gardening is not a rational act." On the other hand, German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (Being and Time) – who does not live in our neighbourhood, and whom I would not like to see bent over anything – insisted that "to dwell is to garden." Then there's George Bernard Shaw, much in vogue these days: "The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there." (As usual with Shaw, no one is quite sure what he meant, but everyone is impressed with his phrasing.)
Helen Mirren, the actress – lots of famous actors, such as Viggo Mortensen, are avid gardeners – claims gardening is "learning, learning, learning." Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Even Gertrude Jekyll, the brilliant Victorian landscape synthesizer who virtually invented border planting (her brother William Jekyll was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who stole his pal's last name for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was not immune to lofty statements of dirt-stained righteousness. "A garden is a grand teacher," Ms. Jekyll once intoned. "It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust."
Ah, trust. There's the thing. Twice a day without fail, a spasm of regret seizes my body. It is the same regret, every time. The sensation begins as an exclamatory outburst in my head – You should never have cut down that mulberry tree! – and quickly becomes the sagging pain of defeat in my chest. The pangs can come on anywhere. The other day, I was on my bicycle downtown when the late-afternoon bolt struck. I have no idea why. Was it the sudden swell in the differential churn of the rush-hour traffic noise, as the light changed? Was it the long, green-free uphill corridor of city ahead of me, stuffed with cars and wires and signs and people? Was it because I was headed home, to the scene of my crime, 12 – 12! – years ago? The pangs are worst in early spring, when the garden is still preformed and full of potential, when anything can still happen.
The mulberry tree was a problem. It was a red or black mulberry (as opposed to white), two-and-a-half storeys high. It spread across the backyard like a no-good drunken uncle. It blocked the light to the flowerbeds on its side of our narrow city plot, and every spring it crapped its capacious crop of mulberries onto the flagstones of the patio, and thus onto the soles of our shoes, into the house, deeply into the carpets, onto your white shirt at dinner outside, or at least into your cup of coffee or glass of wine, which then plooped onto your white shirt.
Then, in the fall, just to let you know that it wasn't quite done with you, the mulberry tree shed its huge thick leaves like so many thousands of facecloths, dropping them knee-deep to the grass and the patio. They actually made a noise when they landed. Our mulberry tree owned the yard. It was at least 50 years old. I respected its age, its presence, its shade. It gave the house a little class.
But it was a messy tree, the kind of vegetation that tests your patience. Did I say messy? It treated the garden the way a 13-year-old treats her bedroom. The mulberry stains were incessant and permanent, and the tree's wandering roots had synclined the limestone patio stones into a miniature western cordillera.
In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the gods turn the fruit of the mulberry tree permanent red to commemorate the forbidden love of Pyramus and Thisbe (the star-crossed lovers Shakespeare renamed Romeo and Juliet), who secretly met under a mulberry tree and then killed themselves next to it, thinking each other dead. Had I remembered that story, I might not have taken the tree down: felling a city tree is always a grave decision, but mulberry trees are iconic to boot. The Tudors were fond of them. In 1756, Rev. Francis Gastrell cut down a mulberry tree outside his house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was said to have been planted by Shakespeare. Rev. Gastrell was fed up with people asking to see the tree, but cutting it down proved so unpopular he had to leave town. Last November, a tea caddy carved from the wood of the offending mulberry sold for £13,000.
It took me three years to work up the nerve to level ours. First I tried to control the mulberry avalanche. I devised a scheme, on paper, for wrapping the tree in muslin each summer to create a funnel for the ripening mulberries, which I planned to collect in pails and boil into pectin-free mulberry jam, titrate into jars with a handmade label, and give away at Christmas and Easter or whenever someone had a dinner party. And why stop at jam? You could make pies and tarts and cordials and teas and sherbets and even medicines.
But it was not easy to find a hundred yards of muslin to turn your tree into a turban, and it is not a breeze to quartermaster the production of hundreds of pounds of mulberry jam. And of course until I bought the muslin and started harvesting I was stuck sweeping and scraping and hosing down the patio every other day for two months each summer. With each day the odds of my scheme coming to shall we say fruition were slimmer. This is the problem with a messy thing: you have to be willing to make a sacrifice for it. You have to say yes to the mess.
The tree was by no means all bad. I remember looking up, late one summer afternoon, while I was once again grudgingly sweeping the staining mulberries off the flagstones, to see my daughter and a friend of hers leaning out of the upstairs sunroom, picking mulberries off the tree and eating them. They were 8 or 9 at the time. I remember thinking: This is why you have to keep the tree. You have to keep the tree because it has given you this scene: your daughter, laughing, her simple pleasure in eating a hand-picked, never-fresher mulberry. The scene seemed to be a distillation of the decision one makes to stop adventuring and put down roots – to stay, to stay put, to have a family, to see what lies on the other side of routine. It was a gift from the messy tree. I told you everything in a garden becomes a metaphor.
Then something happened. A dislocation occurred. One of our children had some health problems, which in turn strained our finances and our tempers, and a fine grit of resentment dusted through the house for a while. In any event, life got a little messier. I am not averse to messiness, but I have my limits, and the mess of the mulberry tree seemed like the easiest one to clean up.
I began to raise the prospect of cutting the mulberry tree down, to see what the reaction would be.
"No, don't cut it down!" my family implored. I told myself it was mock concern, simply a distaste for change. I must have been closer to the edge than I knew. One day, surprising myself, I called the tree chopper.
"Sure, " he said. "I can do it in a couple of hours."
And he did. Trimmed it, cut it down, chopped the trunk and branches into firewood, chipped out the stump, and carted it all away. Where the mulberry tree had grown and borne fruit for five decades there was now a sunny empty spot. There was no more stain on the patio. My wife and kids were away the weekend it happened. Gardening is not a rational act.
Two weeks later, I planted a pear tree. It was an act of remorse: If a tree dies, the great Linnaeus advised, "plant another." Twelve years later, the pear tree has grown beyond the second storey itself, and blossoms like a good idea every spring. It's beginning to take up the gap the mulberry left.
I can grow flowers now, and they add variety to the garden. I did not destroy the backyard, I did not ruin the garden or the house, and my wife and daughter forgave me for cutting the mulberry down. "I think we were all of two minds," my wife said the other day. "And you made a persuasive case."
But my regret over dropping the mulberry blows through me twice a day, regardless. It is the symbol of what might have been. You can't avoid regret in a garden, where time is natural and slow and inelastic. "There is no gardening without humility," British poet laureate Alfred Austin once declared. (He took over from Tennyson, and was not well-respected: critics called him "the banjo Byron.") A garden eventually forgives pride and error, not to mention an aversion to life's messiness, which is one reason so many of us spend time digging there. Whether you can forgive yourself is another matter.