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The Mad Scramble

This is the time of year when you can make your yard look pretty great for a few illusory weeks. You clear the weeds out of the beds, put down mulch, mow, edge, trim, and begin to imagine that perhaps your yard will one day look "manicured," like a rich person's yard. This is a case of monstrous self-deception. By the beginning of June the weeds and vines will be limbering up for the riot of summer. By the first of July your yard will look like a hippie's idea of Nature. Your yard will look like an advertisement for a society that doesn't discriminate against plants that are alleged to be "weeds." You yard will have a slogan: Down With Weedism. By the first of August it will be clear that all plants are not created equal, because the plants unfairly alleged to be "weeds" grow much, much better than the one that are not alleged to be "weeds." By the first of September these pernicious plants will have invaded the house. You'll wake in the night as a wild grape tries to drag you out of the bed. We've lost several cats to crab grass -- poor things were just torn limb from limb.

But gosh in May the yard looks good!

My neighbor Angus, a filmmaker who just won an Emmy, told me the other day that my flower beds need sharper boundaries. My lawn sort of nuzzles up against the flower beds and in many places actually invades them. I like flow, gradualism, soft edges, but probably Angus is right. And this brings up, if I may be permitted an amazingly deft transition, Tom's latest dumb question (see previous item), about 1492 and whatnot. Although we tell history from the standpoint of human events (wars, discoveries, etc.), from a global perspective the biggest news of the past 500 years may be that we've scrambled the biology of the planet. Think about a stunning fact: Life has been on Earth for something like 3.5 billion years, maybe a bit longer. Geological barriers created niche environments where life has evolved into untold millions of species. Life could always count on sharp boundaries, geologically. That's why 1492 led to a human catastrophe: the ocean had served as an insulating barrier between organisms, and when that barrier was breached, indigenous people in the Americas had no immunity to the microbes carried by Europeans (Jared Diamond explains all this in Guns, Germs and Steel). Today we have shrunk the planet and eliminated the geological barriers. It's an elaborate biological experiment. This mad scramble of biology has mundane consequences (invasive weeds in my yard) and tragic ones (AIDS, SARS, new strains of influenza), but ultimately we don't know how it will turn out. If we ever got a message beamed to us from some advanced alien civilization, it might say, "Maintain sharp boundaries."

Recently a NASA scientist told me that a problem with exploring Mars is that it may have life, right now, in subsurface aquifers. We don't want to carry Earthlife to Mars and contaminate that environment, nor do we want to bring Martian life back to Earth. That's a lesson from 1492.

Life is beautiful, but dangerous.

Tonight I'll work on those flower beds, sharpening up the edges. The least I can do to save the world.

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 3, 2005; 9:13 AM ET
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Hey, you've been spying on my yard! Try 'yard work' when you live in the country and some serious health issues have kept you from pulling back (you can never pull 'out') the honeysuckle and wild blackberries. I've tried inviting the local deer but they won't come. Renting a few goats might be an idea. I figure the easiest course will be for me to trim it into interesting shapes, feed it ample Miracle Gro to boost the flower size, and claim that's what I intended all along. Work with what ya got. Out here we 'garden' with machete and a flame thrower. It almost brought me to tears when we were once at my mother in law's in Richmond, and she was 'weeding'; she bent over and pulled up, roots and all, several little 2' thready green things. Oh, for the good life!

Posted by: Nancy in Va. | May 3, 2005 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Truly you make me laugh. I read your blog as a work pick-me-up, but always with a grain of salt. I have often had the sense that you have less than 2 feet in reality, but this morning you were vindicated. On my morning commute, I heard a radio interview with David Duchovny, who, at the conclusion of the interview, gave you a shout-out. I will no longer be a skeptic!

Posted by: Rika | May 3, 2005 10:02 AM | Report abuse

"Maintain sharp boudaries" puts me in mind of J. Edgar Hoover. He liked to scribble notes in the margins of reports. When someone submitted a report that had margins that were too small, he's said to have scrawled "Watch the borders!" For weeks after that, his terrified subordinates had agents patrolling the Canadian and Mexican borders looking for they knew not what.

Posted by: jdugan | May 3, 2005 11:32 AM | Report abuse

A few weeks after I was first married my wife's parents visited. From the back of the station wagon my father-in-law unloaded a gasoline-powered edger -- I had not asked him for this "favor." In revolt, for four years after he trimmed things up I never touched the grass growing over the path to the front door. Now I can't find the walk. This has resulted in a micro-altering of the biodiversity of the yard, producing earthworms that I believe are right now eating through the concrete. Joel's right; this "nature" he speaks of is dangerous. And a simple thing like passive-aggressiveness toward inlaws or the desire to colonize the New World always produces unintended consequences.

Posted by: edger | May 3, 2005 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I just planted kudzu next to the house to help "green" up the area. I'm looking forward to seeing how it grows.

Posted by: Dave | May 3, 2005 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Native plant gardens are in, y'all. Soon only the ignorant and spiritually unenlightened will have exotic flower gardens and manicured lawns. Joel, as usual, is simply ahead of his time.

Posted by: Sirin | May 3, 2005 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Dave, good luck with the kudzu, someone told me it works great as an erosion preventive.

If it works out well for you, I've got a half acre of English ivy I'd like to sell you.

Posted by: another Dave | May 3, 2005 1:13 PM | Report abuse

You segregating weedist!

Posted by: Terry | May 3, 2005 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Dave, run while you can! Take pictures of your house for memory's sake. By the end of the summer it will be gone. Kudzu makes honeysuckle (and English Ivy) seem the picture of well-bred plantdom. It's rumored to overtake slow-moving Southerners. It's probably what happened to Atlantis, grew over all the temples and such, and then under the weight of all that foliage, the entire island sank. I have a friend who grew up in Tidewater VA, where it seldom snows. He had a sled, he and his pals would sled down the Kudzu'd slopes along the highways. Which prompted me to comment "You know you're a redneck if your sled runners have grass stains."

Posted by: Nancy in Va. | May 3, 2005 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Here in Oregon, it's blackberries....the Mother Plant lives under the state, and no matter how you hack 'n' poison, she just keeps sending her little babies up through the soil with a vengeance......

Meanwhile, don't forget that we humans are just part of the life continuum....maybe we can't help ourselves and are just expressing our "humanness" when we invade the next valley/continent/planet....just like the kudzu/blackberries.

I prefer a more naturalized garden myself!

Posted by: anne | May 3, 2005 7:42 PM | Report abuse

strawberry fields for ever !!!Yowzah!!

Btw I thought this entry was boring and hard to get through and incomprehensible..
You used to be funny-you are starting to sound more and more like David Brooks..

But I believe you have a new comments policy whereby only slavish praise (""00000H you a genius" etc.) is permitted so I am not going to whine any more about your writing...

btw why is saying you are a ding-dong pointless but not "you are the bestest, funniest writer in the whole world" ok...
That seems like they are judging you too-only difference is the feedback is positive...

Posted by: Dick_Head | May 3, 2005 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Dick Head, your POSTING is hard to get through and incomprehensible. (What's "slavish" praise, anyway?)

Posted by: Sirin | May 3, 2005 9:29 PM | Report abuse

The things kids are smoking these days...

Posted by: Dick Head's Mom | May 3, 2005 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

Posted by: petrus candide | May 4, 2005 2:11 AM | Report abuse

Assassins on the field of Dick Lionheart
Lawn jockeys South of Mason Dixon
Tobacco-road cash-crop fealty

"Sir Walter Raleigh was no empiricist. A capitalist, yes - bulwarks and prows."

Hashashins on the loose. Horses can testify before Congress. No doping. Bandini at the finish, epouvantable victoire.

Posted by: petrus candide | May 4, 2005 2:24 AM | Report abuse

I grew up around blackberry vines, too. One of the great moments of childhood was to combine just the right handful of grapes to reflect your mood at the moment and chomp on them.

I looked it up on the Internet, and I think that kudzu alarmists are overstating their point. I mean, nothing could grow like what was described.

Posted by: Kudzu Dave | May 4, 2005 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Grass grows.
Clouds gather.
It rains; nitrogen falls.
Grass gows.
Man mows lawn.
Sisyphus pushes rock up hill--again!
Nature moves in cycles.
The moon rises.
Aw, quitcherbellyachin'!
Oh, Little Shop of Horrors!

Posted by: Linda Loomis | May 4, 2005 2:37 PM | Report abuse

When the drought comes (and you know it will), you'll miss all those lush, green weeds. Just keep them mowed and let nature take its course. The grass that's fit to survive will find its place in the ecosphere.

Posted by: allbetsareoff | May 8, 2005 12:15 PM | Report abuse

ten thousand times ten thousand voices!

what's going on?

Posted by: nomes | May 9, 2005 7:17 AM | Report abuse

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