Pointy-headed tree lovers

Our front yard is full of them.

click to enlarge HEART LEAVES: Philodendrons will take over if you're not careful. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
HEART LEAVES: Philodendrons will take over if you're not careful.

In Georgia, the legend says

That you must close your windows

At night to keep it out of the house...

—from "Kudzu," by James Dickey (1923-1977)

I'd read Dickey's poem about kudzu long before I surrendered our lawn to the philodendrons, but I figured philodendron was slower-growing than kudzu. That may be, but they're both faster than I am.

I did it because I hated mowing lawns: the noise, the gas smell, the difficulty of starting the mower — putting your foot on the machine and yanking the cord a gift to hernia specialists — the problems getting it sharpened, the things that got chopped up: toys, baseballs, live frogs, chunky grasshoppers, and once, stupidly, my fingertips. Talk about blood oranges! But that's another story...

We lived briefly in Bahama Shores, where all the lawns were large and very neat. The constant roar of mowers and blowers affected our conversation. HELLO, we shouted, HOW'S IT GOING? YES, they shouted back, THANKS A LOT!

Driftwood, where we live now, is quieter — lawns don't grow well under all the oak trees. As soon as someone invents a silent leaf-blower, we'll be in paradise. (Its inventor should experience paradise, too — maybe 72 free flights on Virgin Air Lines.) Right now, our noisiest inhabitant is a peahen who likes to cakewalk along Driftwood Road, screaming for food, or a boy friend, I'm not sure which.

Trimming the philodendrons, though unending, is quiet and easy. Gradually, I've worked out a satisfactory schedule. Around 4 p.m. I stand up from this computer, stretch, put on old clothes and head outside. It's Florida, and hot, but I'm under the shadow of our oaks; we have nine of them, including two twisty live oaks draped with Spanish moss, crowded on less than half an acre. That's why, 40 years ago, we bought the house. One coils around our upstairs porch, which was our children's favorite way to come home — they felt they were living in the Swiss Family Robinson house. The old tree must have been already huge when the house was built (c. 1932). What builder today would take the trouble to build around these graybeards, who took so long to grow? Down they'd all go — and fast.

When I go out, I pick a section to work on. Fortunately, the philodendrons aren't boring to look at. Lighter green than the azalea bushes and oak leaves, they form a living carpet, in constant motion, from wind, lizard, grasshopper, snake (there's always a snake in Paradise). Up close, as I trim it, each leaf's an Impressionist watercolor, with bright splashes of yellow, like sun on water.

Our philodendron is the common one, philodendron scandens oxycardium, called "heart-leaf" because of its shape. I like the Latin: philo = love, dendron = trees, scandens = climbing, oxy = sharp, cardium = heart — a pointy-hearted tree lover. We have neighbors like that!

Philodendrons want to climb trees, but I don't let them do it, or they'd take them over, like Dickey's kudzu. On the ground, the leaves, like human hearts, are around three inches at the widest point as well as in length; but when they head upward on a tree or fence, they quickly grow larger. Like politicians, the higher they rise the bigger their heads get. By the time they reach about 10 feet they're wide as elephant ears, and can topple small trees.

I can get grimy while crawling under the bushes, and occasionally my outfit's pretty embarrassing. When I'm going to kneel in the street to trim around the gutters, I strap knee pads over my torn jeans; and if I'm going to work near the little wild fruit trees whose thorns poke my arms like so many flu shots — vitamin C! — I wear arm guards: Jeanne cut the toes off a pair of thick socks. When I'm dressed like this, she thinks I look like one of those patchwork characters who stagger around Williams Park. This was reinforced when a neighbor, seeing legs sticking out from an azalea clump, peered over and asked, "Are you all right, mister?" Maybe I'd fallen asleep.

Sometimes, naturally, thinking of our hundred unfinished projects, I ask myself why I'm spending so much time getting down and dirty in the garden, trimming, weeding, planting, mulching. But then I take a deep breath of the fresh air, smell the flowers and the soil, and think of poems I like, including this one by farmer poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934):

The hill pasture, an open place among the trees,

tilts into the valley. The clovers and tall grasses

are in bloom . . . In this world

men are making plans, wearing themselves out,

spending their lives, in order to kill each other.

—Wendell Berry, "In this World"

—Peter Meinke's next reading in the area will be on Tuesday, January 19, 7:30, at Eckerd's Writers in Paradise Conference. His website is www.petermeinke.com

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