what I’ve learned from weeds


what i've learned from weeds 06.11.13

My father loves weeds.

Or maybe he needs them.

Either way, his relationship with them more closely resembles symbiosis than some kind of man v. flora end game. To the untrained eye, the appearance of an almost-70 year-old man standing and staring into his grass as if the mysteries of the universe lie in a lawn portend dementia. But I’ve watched him do it on and off for over 30 years now, so unless he’s suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s that’s only triggered when standing on graminoids, I think there’s something else going on here.

He stalks his property, head inclined downward. A 30-yard walk across the lawn to his home becomes a series of short trips. Ten steps. Stop. Put hands on knees. Confirm presence of grass invader with closer visual inspection. Reach down, tear the trespasser out of the ground. Straighten back. Take three more steps. Repeat process. Over and over and over again.

Those who’ve known my dad a long time understand his relative disconnection from the concept of time. He wears a watch, but we don’t know why. Thirty yards can take 5 minutes. The weeds get in the way.

As kids do with their dads – especially snotty, oh-so-clever kids like me and my sister – we mock them for these idiosyncracies. My father’s obsession with yards, stone walls, splitting wood, using a chainsaw and John Deere tractors has served as our personal comedic Rosetta Stone, unlocking the secrets of countless jokes at my father’s weed-culling expense.

One part of my dad’s property in Connecticut is a field that, if left untended, quickly becomes thigh-high grass. He maintains it by hiring a local guy with a tractor (exciting for my father) and a hay baling attachment (excitement bordering on full-blown ecstasy). When the man and his tractor arrive to tend to the field, my father rushes outside, excitement in his eyes. As the baling commences, he pulls out his camera, snapping photos of someone else taking care of his property.

I know this because I’ve seen it firsthand. Not to be outdone, I sit on his porch, taking video of him taking pictures of a tractor driving back and forth across his party. I provide commentary on this little play within a play. He stands on the edge of the field, back to me, enraptured with what in my eyes is nothing more than a huge lawnmower. I make clever quips as my iPhone records his back.

When he returns, I show him my on-the-spot masterpiece, grinning and giggling as he watches the images and listens to my narrative with a bemused smile. When the clip ends, he raises his hands in exasperation and says, “Sure, just make fun of your old man. I should expect no less of you.”

But turnabout is fair play. And last Saturday, for the first time in my life, I found myself channeling my dad. I weeded.

*   *   *

In the 20 years I’ve been married, I’ve listened to Cara regale me with weeding tales of her own. She associates the activity with frenzied mornings just before large family parties. Her father would ask her to pull weeds out of the large brick patio in and around their pool before the guests arrived.

She swears on our kids that she’ll never pull another weed as long as she lives. While I admire her commitment to a core principle, I’ve more recently wondered how she’ll balance it against her ever-more frequent comments about the weeds poking through the bricked patio of our home. Then I realized something: she wasn’t going to renege on this promise to herself; I was going to become her weed-removal tool.

Having had this small epiphany, I sat on our front walk, considering the green interlopers below me. And, like my father before me, I started to pull them out of the narrow crevasses housing them.

I couldn’t do much at all with the moss lying between bricks like mortar. Dandelions, on the other hand, looked like easy targets, but pulling them from their base never yielded the satisfying, smooth separation of root from ground. No matter what my approach, I ended up snapping the stems millimeters above the bricks’ tops, rendering me unable to successfully excise them in their entirety. Little tufts of grass, on the other hand – I’m classifying them as weeds for the purposes of this exercise, since you don’t want or need grass on your patio – stubbornly remained entrenched when I pulled hard, but succumbed nicely to gentle and consistent pressure.

After 20 minutes, I had my system. Looking at each type of invader, I would ratchet through the options and implement the appropriate response. As I crab-walked my way across my front walk to ever-new swathes of green, the world narrowed, brick by brick. Some weeds came out smooth as silk. Others fought back tenaciously.

Max walked out to ask me if he could go to a movie with his friends. Without looking up I told him yes. He left. I continued.

Halfway through the job, a particularly large grass clump revealed thousands of tiny ants.  Caroline, who had difficulty processing the image of her father sitting on the front walk pulling weeds out of the ground, watched the insects swarm and inquired whether a dad-created mass extinction event should befall this little antropolis. “No,” I replied, “they’ll just find new cracks between the bricks to go into.” The ants soon disappeared. So did she. I continued.

Ninety minutes later I had traversed the entire expanse. My back hurt. Dirt covered my hands. I stood up and waited for my spine to straighten. I surveyed my brick domain.

With the exception of the moss mortar, no green remained. A sense of accomplishment washed over me.

I have little doubt this will lead to my kids making jokes about the McGill male genetic predisposition to picking weeds. I’m sure a future Facebook post or tweet from Max will include an image of me sprawled on the ground, peering at weeds no one else can see.

And I’m ok with that. I’m thinking that my dad was onto something. Maybe I need more weeds in my life.

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