Saturday, October 6, 2012


Last spring, I became obsessed with bindweed. That’s the correct name for what we Pacific Northwesterners call “morning glories.” I’m not sure why, after eleven years of homeownership, I suddenly decided I care about bindweed. But when I spotted those first tiny sprouts poking through the soil in March, I immediately wanted to take it on.

As weeds go, bindweed is reasonably attractive. It almost looks like something you’d plant on purpose. But, like the weeds they are, they are voracious and relentless. Let them go and they take over everything. Flowers, trees, railings, fences, gaps between the siding, anything that stands still. The root system is terrifyingly prolific; just ropes and ropes of rubbery white noodle-like vines twisting and webbing everywhere. Drop even the tiniest piece of one in the ground and it will regenerate, Sorcerer’s Apprentice style.

It’s not enough to just pluck the thing out. You have to dig the whole twisted, serpentine root system up – gently, or it will break and regenerate. This, I found extremely agreeable. A little too agreeable. Almost to the point of fetish, really.

Garden bloggers use words like “nemesis” and “evil” to describe bindweed, setting up a sort of Bugs-and-Elmer paradigm. But that’s not my relationship with this weed at all. I’d patrol the garden like a hopeful predator, feeling a little buzz when I saw bindweed sprouts peeking through the soil.

The temptation to pounce is tremendous, but you can’t. Instead, you loosen the soil very gently with a trowel until there’s enough space for a garden-gloved finger or two. And then, ever so gradually, you work your fingers under the soil and follow the fledgling stem to its thick, white root. Burrow your fingers underneath the root until you’ve got a sense of where it’s going. Trace its path. Follow each twist and turn and tangle, carefully unearthing those thick, rubbery networks of roots one piece at a time until there’s a tremendous pile of them and the dirt is simply dirt again. Empty. Free.

Bindweed roots growing right through a broken bottle. Insidious!

I spent hours of free time engaged in this earthy little weed-thrill. “Is it up to your standards yet?” my next door neighbor asked me once.

Standards? That’s hilarious. My garden may have been increasingly free of bindweed, but there’s nothing about it to suggest that I have any sort of aesthetic standards. When Mr. Black and I first moved in, we killed the front lawn and planted it up with an assortment of shrubs and small trees that thrive with very little attention. We love being surrounded by all the leaves, birds, and branches, but we’re no Martha Stewart. It never occurred to me that my near-constant presence in the garden might suggest otherwise.

“Oh, I’m never going to be done,” I said happily. “I just find it soothing. It’s all about the process.”

“Process, huh?” he remarked with skepticism, no doubt finding me even loonier than he did before.

But it’s true. It was about the process. What’s more satisfying than tracing the literal root of something that’s been plaguing your happy little garden year after year, climbing up your firethorn and strangling your dahlias, worming its way into the siding and around the railings? You find its root and suddenly you understand it. It doesn’t have to become such a baffling, tangled mess. You can simply burrow your way along its root and unearth the thing. Set it free. Mmm, process.

I spent the whole spring and the first few weeks of summer on my knees in that garden. And then, the process came to a stop.

One night, right after the Fourth of July fireworks, I noticed what seemed like a small mosquito bite on the back of my middle finger. By morning, there was a matching one on my other middle finger. Then two more on each ring finger. Then every finger on both hands.

The original hive turned into a blister. All the hives turned into blisters. And the blisters grew into huge, watery lumps, itching and oozing and creating an overall disgusting and uncomfortable display. I had to take off my wedding ring. I even had to take off my nail polish because my fingertips throbbed and ached under its shell, trying unsuccessfully to sweat out the toxins.

The doctor guessed it was an allergy to my gardening gloves. Latex, perhaps. Or something in the dirt that was trapped inside them. Either way, my bindweed unearthing days were over. It was all about the benadryl and cortisone and pretending not to notice when people politely averted their eyes from the raw disturbing mess of my fingers.

I started to heal. Occasionally I’d take a stab at weeding, simply grabbing the bindweed by the stems with my bare hands and ripping it off at the surface, knowing the roots still lurked below, beyond my control once more.

It’s hard not to read too much into that. The sensible part of my brain understands that there’s nothing poetic and meaningful about contact dermatitis. And yet, I had to wonder.

Had I flown too close to the sun, a sort of Icarus of the Root System, digging up more than was meant to be unearthed by human hands? Had I gone too far, understood too much, a sort of Eve in the Garden of Northwest shrubs? Perhaps the mysterious under-workings of bindweed are best left unexplored by human hands. Perhaps any attempt at understanding the complex underbelly of anything – even something as mundane as a common weed – is too arrogant, too ambitious.

Or…I don’t know….perhaps I just need to find some hypoallergenic gardening gloves for next spring. Perhaps there’s no mystery here after all.


Teacher Tom said...

I always called it "choke weed," but bindweed works. Before we moved into the apartment where yard work is a thing of the past, we had a part of our yard in which we allowed the choke weed, St. John's wort, blackberry, and English ivy to battle it out: a survival of the fittest battleground of the invasive species. I did nothing other than to keep everything off the two large ferns in the middle of that mess. It would bloom yellow in the spring, white in mid-summer, then produce berries as fall approached. In winter the English ivy gave us a nice green cover that went well with the grey skies. I can't say it was in perfect stasis, but pretty darned close since it barely changed in the 13 years we lived there.

I suspect, in the long haul the ivy would win, but as Jim White sings, "the vine strangles as it creeps," so you never know.

Floor Pie said...

I finally decided to just let the blackberries grow, because hey -- free blackberries. Why that took me eleven years to figure out, I don't know.

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