JOURNEY INTO DIRT
By Katy Simpson Smith
Now that winter is sloughing off its grays and drabs, we find ourselves in need of adventure, a little trip to break the cabin fever and fill our lungs with spring. Pack a suitcase with sharp pruners, a steel trowel, a piece of blue foam, and a yellow weed bucket, its rim crimped to fit. Today we go to the garden.
Ideally, clothes for this New Orleans weather would include a tuxedo made of fine mosquito netting and a citronella bowtie, but until the fashion industry catches up you can wear old-kneed pants and a mustard-colored shirt. Against bright colors, the clinging black seeds of beggar’s ticks (genus Bidens, as in, “Are these Bidens too old for office?”) can be easily spotted and flicked into the neighbor’s yard. The blue foam is for kneeling. Most of the time you’re squatting or lunging or forgetting it’s there, so that often the foam takes you by surprise from wherever you left it, in your periphery resembling a blooming mat of dwarf irises.
Get shots for West Nile before you visit, and tetanus. Carry Scotch tape to pull out caterpillar stings. Begin regular hand exercises at least two weeks before your trip so your mosquito-smacking muscles are primed. (One regimen: squeeze a stress ball for ten minutes, then slap the bottom of your beloved, playfully, though we both know you’re out for blood. Repeat.) Slather SPF 30 on the back of your neck.
Some things must be left behind. Dignity. Clean skin. Thoughts. As we venture into my garden on this April afternoon, we’re pursuing a wilder experience. Let me guide you.
A single vulture wheels above us. If we stay till dusk, the whistling ducks will come in crowds, cutting the sky in boomerangs all the way to the river. These flocks can lift all agitation from a human heart and bear it away, like detergent. But at a quarter past lunchtime, the sun is at its apex, and the apex predators are sunning themselves. The anoles lounge on the fence.
Our destination is a bed six feet by six—large enough for a pair of corpses—where lie the bodies of plants past. The last freeze slew the Duranta, a showy twelve-footer that bore golden berries and blocked the view of my neighbor who sat on his porch, day and night, and sweetly cackled at me. I could’ve hired someone with power tools, but I hacked away at it myself, day and night, to the music of his laughter. First I tried clippers. Then loppers. Finally I reached for a hand saw, which I dragged back and forth uselessly against the trunk. I scrabbled out the dirt around its roots, leaned into its remaining girth, wobbled it back and forth, until I found the buried piece of rebar it had grown around.
In the crater where the Duranta once stood I planted a Vitex. Called chaste-tree, the anaphrodisiac was used to cool the tempers of medieval monks, and served as bedding for over-lusty wives. I planted it because it will grow fast, and twelve feet tall. But my neighbor is no longer there; a car accident broke his body and dug him out of his home. So the cycles of humans and greenery echo one another.
Looking for souvenirs to take back to your lovers, to prove you thought about them once in the midst of heat, toil, and hardly thinking about them at all? I recommend rebar. I recommend marbles. I recommend shards of shingles, nineteenth-century medicine bottles, forks, mountains of old bricks hoisted from the dirt, as if a whole other city had been built beneath this grass and sodded over. Keep your prize finds, a shelf of rust and porcelain and plastic, as if an archaeologist might one day stop by.
Nine months since first planting, and the Vitex has tripled in size. Its leaves are just beginning to soldier out along the winter branches, unfurling in palms and fans, neon lime, as fuzzed as an infant. Now that you’re with me, let’s take our pruners and trim the branches that grow inward, that sprout brazenly from the base. A tiger swallowtail buffets around our heads, wondering if our sweat is a drinking source.
We cut back last year’s growth from its bed companions, the other citizens of this land: Mexican bush sage, echinacea, bulbine, lantana, flame acanthus, euphorbia, a rose called Mrs. R. M. Finch, whose spindly arms beneath the shade of the thryallis resemble a preacher’s wife reaching toward deliverance. Along the chicken wire fence separating my lounging feral cats from the neighbor’s doe-eyed pit bull grows the behemoth Peggy Martin, the rose famous for thriving through the salt and poison of Hurricane Katrina. Three years old, her canes already stretch twenty feet. Clip her sprongs as some might rake a sand garden: meditatively, without a larger design. Her thorns draw thin lines on our skin.
Nurturing is a sliver of what we travelers do; the rest is brute attack. I cannot name all the species of weed we’ll pull from the ground—beyond cat’s claw and bushkiller and beggar’s ticks, there are cut-leafed things and coin-leafed things, and things with sticky stems and needle-sharp burrs. Some have pleasant wandering roots, filamentous and easy to extract. Others sprout from coffin-deep rhizomes. Some we cannot reach before they bloom, and then the garden turns yellow and white and pink with their faces, the bees flocking at their sugar.
Beneath the tufts of root, the dirt opens up: dark and fine as coffee grounds, tasting of warmth and metal. We garden tourists bob on the surface, as on a whale-watching boat, the depths beneath unplumbable. Worms come up for air; grubs twist in shame when unearthed; a thousand invisible beings scuttle and burrow and gnaw, through feet of soil, down to rock, all the way—as we say—to China. After one yank of stray clover, a white moth flings itself up from the earth, frantically batting its new wings like tissue, like feathers. It comes to rest on our wayward blue foam, and its white wings open and close like lungs.
When you come home again, your thighs will ache. You’ll spend the next two showers scrubbing dirt from your fingernails. Calamine lotion does nothing for the bites. Strip off your mesh tuxedo, or maybe just your old-kneed pants, and lie naked beneath the ceiling fan. You can unpack your suitcase tomorrow. For now, just close your eyes, scratch an elbow, and consider the insignificance of your visit: outside the garden keeps growing, growing.
“Tiny Travels” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.