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Out with the Old | By R.E. Faro
| As his partner revamps the front yard, Faro faces the specter of change—and competition—at home.

Every fall there comes a moment in the garden when the seasonal changes—the intensity and depth of smells, the incisive light, the chilly nights—combine to trigger a psychic tremor, an urge to chuck the old and induct the new. It’s a heady moment, and my head is usually as far as it goes. Soon enough the reasons why the status is the status quo reassert themselves, and I return to my easy chair, mollified by a scattered planting of new perennials, a new specimen or two and a couple dozen narcissus bulbs on order.

This year is another story. Last March Flora began in earnest to redo the front garden according to our agreement: she has control over the front yard; I the back. On the surface, it was a simple arrangement, but it had sinkholes. Throughout the days of spring and summer the front garden became less and less recognizable. Longtime residents bit the dust: bergenias, azaleas, agapanthus, Siberian irises, bearded iris, boxwood hedges, privet hedges, cherry tree, and most improbably, the 40-foot Douglas fir. I held my tongue through most of it, but we wrangled over the cherry tree. How could she even think of axing it?

“How many cherries did we get this year? Zilch. Plus it had aphids.”

True, but the bark was lustrous, and for two weeks in spring there was a floral display that, while undeniably underwhelming, was pleasing enough.

“Wasn’t it you who said to be a great gardener you have to be ruthless?” she continued. “This garden looks like it hasn’t changed since 1953.”

When I consider buildings, I instinctively date them by decade, but I never thought of dating gardens in that way—certainly not my garden. But it made sense. The garden down the street with all the palms and decomposed granite pathways says 2000 very clearly; and the one next to it, pergolas smothered with potato vine and jasmine, surrounded by an armada of standard roses, says late ’70s. As I took a critical look at the front garden, an appropriately indistinct vision of Mamie Eisenhower hovered above the bearded irises. Just like that, these green beings, heretofore companions, sorts of taciturn cousins, turned into furniture to be discarded.

“I didn’t say ruthless.”

“You did, and you were right. It’s the most useful thing I learned in years.”

“You’re not getting rid of the lemon tree.”

“I told you twice before. I love the lemon tree. And it fits in with the look, Mediterranean slash South African slash Californian with a Mexican twist. A clear central concept; that’s another thing you talk about. Have you noticed how loaded it is? I’m going to make marmalade this winter, like your Aunt Dot used to.”

Did I notice it was loaded? Twice a day. If it, too, had been condemned, I would have put up a real stink.

So the upheaval happened. I made sure I was off the premises when the cherry got the ax. I couldn’t watch. So much for ruthless. The effect of its removal turned out to be more shocking than imagined. Thinking about its absence, I had focused on its architecture, its sober presence and classic uprightness, and hadn’t considered the expansiveness of its canopy; how in effect, it was the front garden. Great ball of fire, the sun came crashing down onto the hillside once it was taken away.

Barely four months later, the cherry is a gray ghost, and shock has mellowed into astonishment, sometimes wonder, as Flora’s vision takes root. In the cherry’s place, half-embedded in the clay, is a monumental trinity of boulders. Their lustrous gray sheen is reminiscent of the cherry’s trunk, but to see this as a correspondence, a step in natural progression, doesn’t jibe. It’s just an interesting coincidence. The dramatic posture and placement of the stones belie a function: together with a layer of soil mix, they enabled Flora to sidestep the problem of stump removal, guaranteed to overtax budget and patience. Sprouts from the buried stump get ceaselessly nipped. Give up already, I silently advise the stump, and the chump in me who is still resisting.

The garden is about 100 times more eye-catching than it was, even in its immature state. If there is a Mamie here now, it is Van Doren, blonde and buxom, though the new garden’s voluptuousness is more naturally arrived at than hers was. Golden grasses abound and reeds whose names I have inquired about at least five times (restios of some kind). There is something aqueous, swirling and adrift about the garden. In late afternoon when the light limns the seeded heads I am transfixed, pulled into something as ancient as time and as recent as my childhood. All flesh is grass. My drifting eyes beach on islands of yuccas and cordylines, agaves and aloes. Blue- and red-flowering salvias add the “Mexican twist.” Even the lemon tree, that dowdy dowager, has found its inner island gal, thanks to a pruning done by one of Flora’s friends, an “aesthetic pruner.” (What did that make the rest of us, hackmeisters?) I couldn’t argue with the result, except to say that the number of potential jars of marmalade decreased substantially in the process. But I hadn’t really believed in the marmalade, to be truthful.

“Do you love it or just like it?” Flora asked several times during the reconstruction. She wasn’t seeking approval. She paid little attention to my response, which was often no response at all. My complicated feelings had a default setting: I don’t feel the connection. But was I really all that connected to boxwood and privet and an aphid-prone cherry tree? No, it wasn’t that. Was it that I felt disloyal to the memory of Aunt Dot, she who couldn’t bear to kill anything? Except for the cherry tree, I bet most of the other plants preceded her arrival here. She bought the house in 1967. The clinging was purely sentimental. But aren’t gardens places you can be sentimental safely? Did I really say ruthless?

And there were other feelings, the deeper ones that tell you what a shallow person you are. I felt left out, a bystander. Ian helped with the tree removal, Janeann the pruning, John the boulder placement, Michele the plant selection. Worse, now whenever friends come to the house all they want to see and talk about is the front garden. I hate that.

Wherever you go, there you are.
---- Variously attributed to Buddha, Confucius, Zippy the Pinhead, and Buckaroo Banzai

What a day, with a dry and warm offshore wind, the kind to make the nose twitch with anticipation of smoke, but for all that, deliriously beautiful. The yellowing leaves that were lounging on the boughs skitter through the air, practically obliterating the lawn with their number. Best of all, Rita’s home at last from New Mexico, a summer stay that unexpectedly extended into the fall. I’m sitting on her deck. She’s gone inside for the pitcher of lemonade. I missed these opportunities to parse the daily curricula, missed the “whining hour,” but I can’t come right out and say how much.

“Whatever happened to the evils of empire?” I pick up the thread of conversation after she has refilled our glasses, and settled back into the lounge chair. “Now the earthshaking question is whether Laura is doing too many empire waists.”

“What is the point of that show?” she asks.

“It’s Survivor for the fashionistas. Each week the contestants are given a task, like making a dress out of burlap or Kleenex or something, and at the end of each show somebody gets the boot. The grand prize is you get to make your own collection for Fashion Week in New York.”

“Enchanting. How many people come to your house to watch it?”

“Last Wednesday there must have been thirty, mainly in their thirties and forties. I didn’t know half of them. One of the newcomers asked me, ‘Are you a groupie, too?’ I said it was my first time, and he looked at me like I was an Etruscan.”

“Was it your first time?”

“No. Flora has these parties every Wednesday. Every week they get bigger.”

“So I’ll get invited?”

“You hate TV.”

“Why do you always assume I’m a fanatic?”

“Because you are.”

“Nonsense. I have passions. There’s a difference. This show—what’s it called?—sounds creative, at least. I’d consider it a field trip. I can’t figure out what these kids are passionate about. Everything that comes out of Rick’s mouth has a sort of disdainful indifference, unless he’s talking about his iPod. When I invited him to go with me to the march last week, he looked at me like, Geez, we don’t do things like that anymore. He’s right, they don’t. There were kids at the march in their teens and twenties—that’s a good sign, at least, and of course the gray hairs, but very few in the thirties and forties. But if they’re somewhere making dresses out of Kleenex, that explains it. No time.” She stands and stretches, then walks to the Golden Delicious apple tree whose trunk is on my side of the fence but whose branches extend over into her garden, and plucks an apple, one of many thronging the tree. She takes a deliberate bite, testing ripeness.

“Not quite there,” she says, taking another bite. “It’s come to this. We’ve become the very folks we mercilessly mocked, complaining about the younger generation, blah blah blah.”

We both laugh; the whining hour is over.

“Do you want to give me a tour of the new improved garden? It looks pretty, what I’ve seen.”

“Not really. I want to tell you my new scheme. I’m going to plant a wall of bamboo between me and Bertie. I’m sick of looking at his shaggy ivy and his carport. Why didn’t I think of this 20 years ago? The kind I’m planting grows to 20 feet high, fast. They’re going to transform the backyard.”

“Feeling a little competitive, perhaps? Aren’t you worried about them spreading?”

“They’re clumpers, not runners. Eventually I suppose they might get too wide, but I’ll deal with that as I go along.”

The bamboo I’ve ordered is Himalayacalamus falconeri ‘Damarapa’, also called candy-striped bamboo because of culms that are striped with yellow or lavender-pink. They should put some dazzle back into the upper garden.

Rita, as usual, nails it. I am feeling competitive, though taking a different tack. As the front garden gets more exposed and open to the street, I am closing off the back, making it more private and secluded and secret. The impulses and feelings involved are old and familiar, eminently but not easily discardable. Vintage 1953, I’d say. l

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For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly. We are pleased to announce that Ithuriel’s Spear Press has just published them as a collection, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours. The book is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R. E. Faro can be reached at farospace@sbcglobal.net.

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