Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Privet Moment

We had our first snow and sleet of the season on Sunday. It was a minor event with no accumulation. But while it was happening our neighbor was having her privet hedge chain sawed to the ground by a large man wearing a sweatshirt and sunglasses. It's a shame -- they deserve better than that.

The hedgerow is just your basic common privet, and has fallen into disrepair over the years. The green growth is pretty much clustered near the top of the bush nowadays -- with bare stems below. Various other, more combative, forms of vegetation have insinuated themselves in at the base and their branches and leaves poke out at odd angles forming a frenetic, threatening looking fence. Periodically our neighbor would make a facile effort to restore the barrier to its more pristine condition but she only worked on the very top of the hedge and usually lost interest about half way through the job. Sunday's full-scale onslaught is actually the first wholehearted effort I have seen in regard to the privet since Ernest was the resident landscaper.

"The formal hedge says 'privacy, please' in a manner far more civilized than a stockade fence. A fixture of the suburban landscape 50 years ago, fast-growing privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium and L. amurense) remains a fine choice where conditions are right: To thrive, this deciduous shrub requires a temperate climate and a homeowner willing to wield sharp shears as often as needed." (

(Not my privet)

I grew to adulthood without ever personally experiencing either the benefits or the responsibilities of a privet hedge. I occasionally saw them protecting the borders of properties that, at the time, I didn't feel I could ever aspire to. Even the word itself bespoke an elegant, English attitude of seclusion, solitude, isolation, freedom from disturbance, and freedom from interference. Perhaps that is why I came into home ownership with a somewhat worshipful view of this semi evergreen barrier

Then we bought our first house. And I had my first hedge.

Unfortunately the previous owner did not share this feeling of awe and respect for the barrier shrub on the western border of his property. Nor did he develop, during his two-year ownership, even the slightest desire to maintain this or any of the other horticulture that quickly began to overrun the landscape shortly after we took possession in April of 1979.

By the time I noticed the condition of the hedgerow it had reached a grossly uneven height of over eight feet in places; was dotted with several supple offspring of its neighboring maple tree; and enwrapped throughout with various vines. My father-in-law, who was guiding me through the first growing season in which I actually had to pay attention to growing things, brought over his electric hedge trimmers and stepladder -- and led me through my first privet adventure. It was not fun.

Shortly thereafter I noticed Ernest trimming the hedges across the street. (Ernest was not his real name. I dubbed him that based on his strong facial resemblance to late American novelist with his thick white beard and habitual long billed baseball hat. And his no frills approach to yard work.) He pruned the privet pretty much every week, by hand, with wood handled hedge shears. It was a workmanlike ballet.

Ernest stood behind the floral barrier like a maestro keyboardist -- his mind focused on the final result; his eyes riveted on each out-of-place twig; his body squared up to the target, tensed for action; and his hands hovering within striking distance then swooping down rapidly to put the cutters into action. With only seven days growth the surface of the bush was, at worst, only modestly uneven. And the undergrowth intruders were barely visible. Still, as he moved along the line of battle from right to left the privet became noticeably smoother and more proportionally shaped. When he finished he lit a cigarette and surveyed his work, snipping away any lingering imperfections and inhaling deeply.

Several years later the couple that employed Ernest passed away, and shortly thereafter he stopped coming. Over time I gained control of my own privet and switched to regular hand pruning rather than a semiannual all out electric assault. During that same period the appearance and health of the privet across the street spiraled downward. And now on the last day of November, in swirling snow and sleet, a total stranger took it down to the ground.

I did the same thing to my own hedges a few annums ago -- albeit with a hand pruning saw and some lopping shears on a warm autumn afternoon. And they grew back thicker and stronger than they were before.

The privet across the street should also. Plants don't really care which tools we use, or how well we know them. The artistry, if there is any, exists in the head and hands of the gardener.

And in the imagination of those who watch them work.

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