Virtue & Mischief: Down to the roots


On Saturday, Krista, Daniel, and I took advantage of the balmy weather to do some spring clean-up around our house. We swept out the garage, pumped up all the bike tires and the assortment of balls, removed cobwebs from every nook-and-cranny. An hour and some elbow grease later, things were looking much improved.

Krista surveyed her little universe and saw that it looked good.

“Okay, fellas,” she announced. “Now to the leaves.”

Daniel and I sighed. The leaves. The billions of brown, crackly fronds (primarily from a couple of neighboring oak trees) that had accumulated in our back and side yards were an unsightly mess. They had to go, and no amount of protesting from my back or my mouth could alter this simple truth.

“Let’s get to it!” she warbled happily.

For the next hour or so we raked and bagged, raked and bagged, raked and bagged. At one point we stooped down to pluck scores of leaves that had become stuck in a low growing juniper bush next to the back of the house. I painstakingly snatched leaves from the bush’s thorny grasp and silently cursed it.

I’ve hated junipers since I was a boy. We had one in our front yard, on the east side of our driveway. When playing baseball was my passion, I practiced alone by throwing a blue rubber ball at the upper wall of the garage from the end of the driveway, fielding the bouncing ball as cleanly as possible, and then throwing it again. I drove my parents and sisters crazy, as they were not as enamored as I of the thumping sound made when ball-met-wall. Occasionally, the ball would hit a rock in the driveway and carom wildly into the juniper bush, necessitating an irritating break from the action and a stinging search for my beloved ball in the bowels of the juniper. As far as I was concerned, the stupid creeping green nuisance had no redeeming qualities whatsoever: all prickles, no pleasure.

Back in the present, as I gathered a few leaves from the thorny fingers of our Greenville juniper, I took a chance and issued a thought out loud.

“Hey, Krista. I’ll be honest here. I hate this thing,” I stated, pointing at the bush. “It looks like it’s dying anyway [this was true, incidentally, not just wishful thinking or manipulation on my part]. What do you think about my digging it out?”

To my surprise, she had been harboring similar sentiments herself and readily agreed to my proposition. She and Daniel took a lunch break while I fetched a lopper and a shovel and commenced surgically removing the green-and-brown briery cancer.

I began by lopping off the top layer of growth so I could better see the network of branches and roots below. This task was itself pretty aggravating because the branches were intertwined in every conceivable way, making removal of each clipped segment a constant “man vs. bush” tug of war contest. I eventually eliminated the top layer of growth, however, and examined the thick, knotty core above the ground. I gathered up the shovel and began digging around the circumference of the core—stabbing the soil with the sharp tip of the blade, pushing it down and forward with my right heel on the blade top, pressing the elevated handle down to stress and rip the root structure below ground. After completing three circuits, engaged in the same process throughout—stab, thrust, push—I was sweating profusely and breathing like a man running a 5K at a 5-minute-per-mile pace.

I took a break and surveyed the situation. Before me, several inches below surface level, was a spidery tangle of roots shooting to and fro, and at bizarre angles (the quest for sustenance will take you all over the place). All roots emanated from a thick, bulbous “nucleus.” This was my quarry.

Over the following half hour, the juniper “nucleus” and I etched our names into the lore of history’s other greatest rivals—Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, Ohio State and the school up north—in an epic battle of wits and wills. I pulled and pounded and gashed and sawed and yanked and punctured until this doddering 56 year old Ahab had finally vanquished his botanical Moby Dick.

I came inside to eat my lunch, exhausted and sopping wet from sweat.

“How’d it go, dad?” Daniel asked. “Did you win?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied. “May I call you Ishmael?”


By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

No posts to display