Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sir Winnower

A knight-errant (plural knights-errant) is a figure of medieval chivalric romance literature. "Errant" meaning wandering or roving, indicates how the knight-errant would typically wander the land in search of adventures to prove himself as a knight, such as in a pas d'Armes. (Wikipedia)

That is what I will become.

Like Paladin, a cowboy television hero of my youth. "Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man. A knight without armor in a savage land..."

There is a definite need and I have the talent. Not gun or sword fighting talent. Real world talent - for real world problems:
- Issues of uninvited immigrant incursions and takeovers.
- Difficulties with overcrowding and unfair competition for limited water, air and sunlight.
- Aesthetic ailments of ugliness impinging on the grace and elegance of carefully planted beds of beauty.
- Carefully cultivated but minimally managed horticultural havens overrun by unwanted competitors.

I shall become "Sir Winnower - The Maintainer of Public Gardens"!

It's not a role that I would have even remotely foreseen for myself - little if any interest in things of the plant world as a child; raised not to tread in the underbrush for fear of the mere possibility of poison ivy; even today (after thirty years of planting and pruning and twenty-five years of membership in a Men's Garden Club) unable to identify by even their English names the therefore anonymous perennials populating our property.

But it is the office for which I am best suited by inclination and ability. And one that, based upon what I see around me, others are less than willing to undertake for themselves - the job of destructive gardening.

It probably started with the first gardener to whom I ever actually paid attention - Ernest Hemingway. Not the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner author but rather his white-haired and white-bearded doppelganger that tended to the landscaping needs of the elderly couple across the street. Unaware of his name and so totally in awe of the stoicism, economy of style, understated technique, and apparent "grace under pressure" of his weekly groundskeeper ritual as to be unwilling to approach him for it I simply referred to him as "Ernest" - and learned to appreciate the elegance of the most rudimentary acts of horticultural maintenance.

He always arrived on a blue one-speed bicycle, always wearing clean, unpressed tan chinos, brown work boots, a yellowing Irish knit sweater (on cool mornings) and a tan chino baseball hat. The hat was planted firmly on his head, at a slight angle, with the left side up. A thin stream of white hair flowed out of the sides of the hat and continued down his cheeks, merging with a short-trimmed beard and moustache. His neck was unshaven. When he removed his hat, I could see that the hair on his head was military short.

Ernest didn't wear sunglasses. He squinted (even in the shade provided by the long peak of his cap). As he toiled he removed layers. First he took off his sweater to show a clean plain white tee shirt. Then the tee shirt came off to show an upper body, tanned and largely free of fat - but not muscular.

He worked continuously, pausing only for three things: to remove a layer of clothing, to take off his hat and wipe his forehead, or to smoke a cigarette. He sat and smoked between jobs. Between grass cutting and grass raking. Between hedge trimming and hedge raking. And before leaving.

The tools Ernest used were basic: a small, generic brand push power mower, hand operated pruning shears, and a metal rake with several teeth missing - all provided by his employers. His cigarettes, I surmised from the size of the pack, were either unfiltered "regular size" Camels (my father's brand) or Lucky Strikes (my former one). The right hand that held the cigarette was always cupped. He rested that hand on his left wrist and rested the left wrist on a crossed right leg. He was very still when he smoked, except for his cupped hand floating slowly up to his mouth and back.

When he was done the lawn was uniformly short and clean, and the hedges were perfectly squared-off and flat. He put his tools away and rode off away on his bicycle, with his Irish knit sweater stuffed into a rusty handlebar basket.

I practiced the art of destructive gardening on my own property for many years - for several of them imitating the actions that I observed across the road and then, after Ernest stopped coming, emulating the activities that were by then firmly etched in both my longterm and muscle memories. And I expanded the breadth of eradication to include (among other things) the removal of unwanted plants and the forceful resolution of boundary disputes between competing bushes, trees and flowers.

Back when I was employed my own yard-work took all of the time I could give it. But now, retired, I have more available hours in the bank and either an altruistic desire to "give back" or a selfish craving to do more of what I want to do.

Either way I have decided to take my show on the road to the public gardens of the world. Under the auspices of my town's Beautification Trust I have ripped all of the salvageable perennials from an unfortunately located plot and am currently bushwhacking my way into another area at the beginning of our town's main bicycle path in order to expose whatever "keepers" that I find to the eyes of the passing path-travelers and light of day.

My work career experience has taught me, and my volunteer efforts have confirmed, that no one really likes to do the mundane back-office work that keeps things running. Fortunately I do.

Ernest and I would agree that even the most basic acts when done with style and a modicum of grace can become mini works of art. And now that I don't have a job to go to daily, maybe they can also become something that I do knightly.

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