Thursday, July 14, 2011

Woolly on One Side, Clipped on the Other

I read an article in the New York Times several years ago which pops back into in my mind every time that I am doing one of my regular yard landscaping chores. Unlike French author Marcel Proust the object that serves as my involuntary memory trigger is not a madeleine cookie but rather a privet hedge.

The newspaper piece is titled “Nature; As Privet Rises, Neighbors Take Sides” and it appeared in the “gray lady” in July 2003.

“SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.‚ THE privet is blooming all over the Hamptons. And as it marches across the old potato fields, growing higher with every new McMansion, even its honey like fragrance is the subject of debate.

''’I love it!’ said Robert Dash, whose privet is blooming at Madoo, his garden in Sagaponack. ‘It's our summer lilac.’

''’I can't stand the smell,' Margaret Logan, a writer in Southampton, said. 'It's so cloying.'

“Some people let their hedges grow high and broad, billowing over the property line like a woolly mammoth. Others keep them as clipped as a stone wall. When they cannot agree, the hedge is of two minds, woolly on one side, clipped on the other.

“Discuss hedges in the Hamptons and you will hear history lessons, debates about nature versus nurture, metaphors about neighborliness, class consciousness and aesthetics and the need to create walls between McMansions. And while different philosophies of hedges have not reached the fever pitch recently reported in Britain, where in June a man shot and killed his neighbor in an incident attributed to 'hedge rage’, passions do run high here, almost as high as Bettina Milliken's Sagaponack hedge.”

The late 60’s – pre homeowner/gardener version of me would have strongly favored the laissez-faire landscaping MO – like hair “Flow it, show it. Long as God can grow it.” Although truth be told the feeling of my own locks barely brushing the top of my collar (yes I was wearing shirts with a band of material around the neck) would send me immediately to my local barber for a rapid redo. Still I liked to pretend that my inner sensibilities were pure alternative culture – cutting edge so to speak. Particularly when it came to other people’s hair – or hedges.

As I look back on the Hampton’s hedge hoopla now however I notice that the untrimmed bushes as described in the article seemed to retain their purity of species – by which I mean nowhere do I read about youthful Maple trees insinuating their way through the privet stalks and raising their distinctive leaves into the firmament. Nor do I see any mention of Solanum dulcamara, (also known as bittersweet, bittersweet nightshade, bitter nightshade, blue bindweed, Amara Dulcis, climbing nightshade, fellenwort, felonwood, poisonberry, poisonflower, scarlet berry, snakeberry, trailing bittersweet, trailing nightshade, violet bloom, or woody nightshade) twisting its tenacious vines around the defenseless hedge limbs and hiding its purple star-shaped flowers in amongst the privet’s lacey white florets. In the Hamptons there seems to be nothing but pure unadulterated Ligustrum Ovalifolium within and above itself.

Not so in the real world. And that just drives my arboriculture aesthetic apoplectic. Which is why I have sold out to the neat and trim sculptured privet point of view. That, and of course Ernest.

Ernest wasn’t his real name – I never knew until many years later what his actual appellation was – however it should have been. He looked too much like the Nobel Prize winning, macho American novelist not to have been named that. So Ernest was what I called him.

The first time I saw Ernest he was across the street doing yard-work for one of my neighbors. It was 1977.

He looked to be well past retirement age, about six feet tall, and thin. He was wearing clean, un-pressed tan chinos, brown work boots, a yellowing Irish knit sweater 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.

It was a sunny day, but Ernest didn't wear sunglasses. He squinted (even in the shade provided by the long peak of his cap). As he worked 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. 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 slowly floating up to his mouth and back.

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

It was the hedge work that impressed me the most. This house and property was the first I had ever owned, and the landscaping burden that came with it was my first ever adventure in plant care. I needed someone to guide me along – and there he was, across the street and into the trees.

The conversion wasn’t immediate. For several years my hedging tools of choice were an electric hedge clipper and a relatively sturdy aluminum stepladder. The privet that I inherited was about eight feet tall. I am just short of six and one-half. The extra height provided by the ladder, along with the not particularly well-balanced trimmer and the always-out-of-place cord made the entire pruning process an adventure – but not much fun.

So one day I cut them down to my height and began using my hand shears with my feet firmly planted on the ground. A few years later the hedge became kind of scrawny – the result I believe of its unfortunate position under the all-day shade of our multi-story elm tree. I hacked it down to the ground in the autumn. And the next spring it came back stronger, thicker – and shorter.

Then this past year we had to put the elm tree down because of disease. Our shade yard is gone. The privet is flourishing. The lower part is thick with leaves and the top is sprouting up in a relatively symmetric pattern.

Still, it is my belief, that beyond a certain height all of that symmetry would totally fall apart.
And I would be back on my ladder trying to regain control. So, about once a week, I take my hand shears into the fray and level off the upper edge. Then with my glove-clad hands I rip out the bittersweet, maple trees, and other interlopers.

When I am done I do something that I never saw Ernest do – I step back and admire my work. The privet is my bellwether bush. When it is neat and trim then all is well in landscape land.

Then I look across the street at the yard that Ernest no longer takes care of. Privet stalks shoot up randomly while maple leaves spill out of every nook and cranny. Purple bittersweet stars sit buried within the hodgepodge of hedges.

It may be beyond even Ernest’s ability to reclaim – if he were still here – which he is not and never will be again. It bothers me so much more to see this privet in disrepair than other even more disorderly ones.

I fight to control my rapidly growing hedge rage. As Ernest said, “Courage is grace under pressure.”

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