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War of the Roses

by Fleda Brown

                                 While the roji* is meant to be a passageway
                                 Altogether outside this earthly life
                                 How is it that people only contrive
                                 To sprinkle it with the dust of the mind.
                                                     — Sen no Rikyu, 16th century

Briars arch to the ground and walk themselves, root by root, deep into the forest, where they bloom white stars across Sleeping Beauty’s coffin. So it goes, for a hundred years. Then one day the prince breaks through the thorns and touches his lips to hers. Everything begins. Adam and Eve walk out of Eden, awake at last, prickly with their own power. And the bulldozers come, and Christiana Mall. And inside the mall, little oases of green, with fountains, standing for lost wilderness.


The mall and its sad, glittery lessons are only five miles from here. Still, whoever willingly turns back for long? We crave civilization. We become fascinated with the workings of our brains, concocting what we hope is the ideal. Nature’s too crazy or too slow for us. Last year in the wake of Hurricane Floyd, two big trees fell across the creek behind our house. In ten years or so, grapevines and wild rose would have woven themselves through the branches, the trunks would have folded into the whole. We, of course, hired a tree service instead. This is what got me started.

I get an idea, I’m hell bent on it. Jerry’s good-hearted and usually pitches in. We’ve been married for ten years, now. After turbulent past lives, we’ve come to value quiet. He makes coffee and sets out the breakfast things; I sew buttons back on his shirts, the order of our lives forever cast against the receding clank and chaos of our separate, private wars.

I begin to get an idea of how the stream area could look. Jerry begins to see it, too. Actually, ever since we bought the house four years ago, we’ve talked about opening up the space below us so that we can walk along the stream. We have two acres of woods. The house is built on the front of the land so that the wildness is all behind, down to the west branch of the Christina River—just a small stream here—and halfway up the hill on the other side. Since we moved in, we haven’t once crossed the stream and walked across all of our land on the other side. The stream’s just wide enough to make the leap across a little awkward, and there are the briars. In the winter when our grandsons are here, they want to explore. I’ve tried to show them the deer beds near the creek, but we come up against the stickers, and they want to turn back. You might say we’re clearing for them.

Most of it’s wild rose, anyway. Rosa multiflora was brought here from Japan, and Korea and eastern China. During the 30s it was promoted as an inexpensive and dense “living fence” to contain livestock—ikigaki, the Japanese would have called it when they used it around their tea gardens. It was supposed to be good for sheltering pheasant, quail, and song birds.

The trouble is, in this country it spreads like crazy, forming impenetrable thickets that drive out native plants. A lot of it got planted along roadsides for crash barriers, and now you can see it creeping inland, a great roiling white-flowered mass. Anywhere the land is disturbed, it moves in and takes over, sucking out soil nutrients, lowering crop yields in adjacent fields. The thorny stems stretch and arch downward, touching the ground and rooting, making bridges for themselves. For years, I admired the tapering clusters of flowers. I took pleasure in the sweet exaggerations of late spring, believing what I saw was a sign of health, of nature left alone, for a change. “Look!” I’d exclaim. “Isn’t that beautiful, all that wildness along the road.”

Then I learned. It seems like a small piece of innocence to lose, but the stuff’s growing everywhere, you begin to see that. You start seeing it as a sign of ruin. A few strands come up in the small mowed portion of our yard, then there’s a bush. It’s on the move. Down at the creek bank, it leans over, softening the line between earth and water, yearning for the other side, already dark and heavy with it. It blocks our way, its thorns hooking backwards, holding our clothes, our skin, until we back up to release ourselves.

I call the agricultural extension. The man says “You need to kill it. It’ll choke out everything. Use Roundup.” I worry about the stream. “Just don’t spray it directly in the stream,” he says. But I’m sure I do, sometimes. I pump up the container with air and get cocky with the wand, editing the landscape, eyeing everything with stickers and giving it a good dose. I fight my way to the backside of large clumps to spray from all angles. Where I can reach the water, I lean as far over as I can, to get the webbed mass on the banks. I am on a death march across our property, with consequences I don’t want to think about. But after a week or so, I watch the vines begin to sicken and die, and I love what I’ve done, how I’ve forced the world to behave itself. Still, I only make a dent. Most places, you still can’t reach the creek.

What I have in mind is something like Yarimizu, an extremely old Japanese garden form, usually appearing as a winding, narrow stream. A Japanese garden depends on the mindful placement of elements that, because of the confined boundaries, become a metaphor for the interplay of the interior world with the larger one.

I’ve noticed that a space looks smaller when it’s wild, when there are no breaks for the eye, all brush and branches. Then you clear some of it out, establish an order, and it seems larger. Suddenly there’s a something, with a nothing surrounding it.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

Wallace Stevens knew that the eye enjoys its obstacles, that it believes in the demarcations as a sign of space. Also he knew that in no time, the obstacles take dominion.

Japanese gardens depend upon layering of experience. The five elemental phases of Chinese natural philosophy are earth, wood, fire, metal, and water: there’s our post-and-beam cedar house, fire of sun on the windows, on their metal frames, and below the deck, the tease of water in the earth’s crevice. The water, as in the pond at the entrance of some Zen temples, represents the threshold between the outside world and the inside realm of the sacred. I envison a stroll garden, a style developed in the Edo period. Walking through the garden results in a sequence of shifting scenes, which shouldn’t be hard to replicate here. First, there are the chunky railroad-tie steps we had put in last summer that lead down to the path, then you walk almost horizontally, way off to the right through the trees down to the bridge. Having a bridge built was a necessary first step to getting beyond the low spot. It’s like an expanse of dock, of good sturdy treated lumber, a lot nicer than absolutely necessary, but solid. The bridge angles back left, crossing the skunk cabbage that shows up in the spring in the marshy area, the numa, in Japanese. Then come the thorns.

The previous owners had tried building a bridge across the actual creek, but the water rises and rushes too fast in a storm and it was washed away. I’m trying to think of a more secure way to do it. A bridge across would give the sense of a Pure Land garden, also called a paradise garden, which is usually an island in a pond connected to shore by a bridge, signifying the possibility of salvation.

Indeed, I feel saved. Almost thirteen years ago, I moved out of the house I’d painted and patched and planted around—each room, each object, each small tree standing for some specific hope abandoned. I moved into a small apartment with my youngest child, my son, who was just starting college. After years of marriage, I was down to two twin beds, two dressers, one skillet, two saucepans, and half the books I was used to. I sat on the floor the day I moved in, sobbing. What was in my heart? A mixture of grief, terror, relief, and a faint bud of energy that felt like joy. It was the starting over, the chance to build civilization again out of chaos.


The world’s raging with war: it’s good to cut the perception down to the size of a tea garden. The details may possibly save us. Not the details themselves, but the quality of our attention to them. It may seem as if it’s the details we’re focusing on already, but the TVs are blaring, the cell phone’s at our ear, we’re hardly aware of anything in the blur. Who has time, or security of mind, to cut the attention down to one detail at a time, to let go of others, turn decisively to the object at hand, not filling it with our ideas, but letting it fill us with itself? What child wouldn’t agree that the definition of love is attention? War, on the other hand, attends to nothing: it shuts down the immediate or we wouldn’t be able to bear the suffering we inflict, or have inflicted upon us. We’d rebel and turn away, if we felt it fully. But no, we hover in the ideals—democracy, religion, our own sense of right—let them take up the space, ideas floating, lazing along—sincere, certainly, possibly even right—but headed for smoke and vapor, more distance. The instruments of war, the tiny figures on their tiny tanks, become barely a blip on the horizon.

Meanwhile, in our peaceful life, when Jerry and I are both able to work at home, we go to our studies in separate corners of the house. At noon we meet for toast, oranges, and apples in the sunroom. As we face each other across the small maple table, I sometimes think of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “The Bean Eaters”—the “old yellow pair” who “eat beans, mostly,” and “keep putting on their clothes/ And putting things away”—the quiet order people can come to, if they’re lucky. In late winter, we look down at the dusting of snow, the “first flowers” as the Japanese would call them. What seemed once like distance appears to be only a few feet away, as if we could step off our high deck, float down like butterflies and come to rest by the stream.


I call Stump-Be-Gone, up the road in Pennsylvania. Father and son show up. I take them on a tour, as far as we can get. “No way we can get a tractor, not even a small one, down here to clear this,” they claim. “Hill’s too steep.” They give me the number of someone with a backhoe. So he comes out and looks. Prognosis the same, only subtler. “I’ll call you with an estimate,” he says, and never does. Even as we walk the land, I feel him drawing back, his “Well, I suppose we could…” and “I don’t know. That’s pretty steep for a backhoe…,” so I don’t bother to call him back. The truth is, I don’t call partly because a backhoe wasn’t what I had in mind. I can imagine the wreckage.

I call the Stump-Be-Gone son back, who has a local number. Would you be willing to just bring your chain saw and cut up the fallen trees? I ask. He agrees to this, and I sweet-talk him after he gets here about going on down the way with the chain-saw, just trimming back the vines. “It’s so easy for you,” I say, “and it would take us days and days with hedge trimmers.” “Sure, well, I guess I could come back early, before I go to another job, as long as your neighbors don’t mind hearing the saw at that hour,” he agrees.

Dave’s a tall, gentle-seeming man in his forties, with nice arm-muscles and a pot belly. He wears a t-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, and sweats easily. His skin has that red, tense look of high blood pressure. You have the sense that in spite of his gentleness, the world has presented him with complexities he can’t decipher, and that he’s exploded, that he often explodes, and is sorry afterward. You get the sense there are lives left behind, for him. He drinks milk when he takes a break. I figure he has an ulcer. His words burst out as if he has to work at making them come. He has this job to do, and he’ll do it, but I sense, as is often true when workmen are at the house, that I’m the one who most wants their friendship—well, at least their acknowledgement that we’re both earning our keep. The laborers who are guests at our house are also our judges, silently sizing up the abstract things we appear to do with our hours. I attach myself to the computer with a special dedication while they are here, not to be thought useless. I try to think of things to say that unite us—the annoyance of the wild rose, for example. And the joy of seeing the creek.

He gets the trees cut up and partially stacked, leaving us a big pile of firewood. We carry what we can across the bridge and up to the back yard. But limbs and leaves still clog the creek. Jerry and I decide before Dave comes back, we’d better finish that part of it, get that stuff out.

We put on duck boots, although they’re immediately useless as we step into deep pools. We set up a system, throwing branches onto the far shore, where I stand, picking them up and throwing them further into the woods. The idea is to distribute them so that they don’t seem to clump up anywhere. Another season and they’ll be virtually gone. Jerry pulls branches out of the sludge on the bottom, tosses them to me. Pull and toss. I toss. I stomp down the pile. We have the water churned up, muddy. We fish around for imbedded branches under the muck. We pretend that it makes a difference to the stream, that the stream will appreciate being able to flow more directly, instead of meandering through the brush. The tiny fish swim somehow around us, invisible. It is a perfect day, warm and sunny, but not hot. We are bordered by wild rose. Jerry clips along the bank as we go, knowing that we’ll have to let some of it grow back to prevent erosion.

Now he’s pulling on a big branch, stuck in the water, held partly by the suction of mud. All at once, it gives way and slams back against his ribs. He doubles up with pain, trying to breathe. He climbs up the bank and sits in the sun, breathing, holding his side. Later, the bruise will begin, wide and purple.

Jerry’s only four years older than me, but things like this, I worry. Like every woman alive, I carry the statistics deep and silently in my heart—men’s life expectancy compared to women’s. And his parents died young, both of cancer. Add heredity to age: it’s finally a matter of how long you’re able to withstand the assaults of the world. I think about all those years Jerry smoked. It’s what we carry with us that we can’t get rid of. A late effect of tobacco. For the fish, it’s the herbicides, the runoff from fertilizers, my Roundup. The more I learn the attention of love, the more I lurch out of control, helpless to prevent the pain of loss. Together, Jerry and I clear the path, the creek: we make it look as nearly as possible the way we want, briefly, on our way toward our own extinction.


On Thursday, Dave comes back. We hear him before we see him, revving up his saw. He thinks he can finish today. He starts off along the bank, whacking down wild rose. After a while, I get some coffee and walk down to see how he’s progressing. He’s brought his girl friend this time, a plump blonde, about 25, who sits on a stump, reading a fat novel with a colorful gilt cover. I offer her a Coke or coffee, but she pats the cooler. “We’ve brought everything we need,” she says. I ask if she’s bored, just sitting while he works. “No, he likes me to come along,” she says, smiling. “I just read.”

I’m at my computer, then, when he thuds up the stairs to the deck, red-faced and shirtless. “I ain’t going back there,” he blurts out. “Bees. Yellow-jackets, or something. They’re all over. You’ll have to get someone else to do it, because I ain’t. Look,” he says, pointing to the welts coming up on his arms and back. A dozen, maybe more. “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry,” I say, “What can I do? What can I get you?”

Now he’s calming down. “Oh, I have some stuff,” he says. “I been stung before. But that’s a mess of ‘em you got there. In the ground. It’s the buzz of the saw, it riles them up.” I look around for his girlfriend. We walk back down, past the shirt he threw off, past the sunglasses he tossed in the path. She’s still sitting with her book, Danielle Steele, I see. “If you just sit still, they’ll ignore you,” she says. And it seems to be true, although far down the path I see the stirring, and a few of them swarm in larger circles, almost reaching us.

“Okay, here’s what you do,” Dave tells me. “Pour a gallon or two of gas into a bucket. Come down here in the evening when they’re quiet and pour the whole thing down the hole. That’ll do it.” He agrees to come back if I promise they’re all gone. So after he leaves, as the sun goes down, I put on an old yellow rain-slicker snapped up to my chin, pull the hood over my head with a stocking cap underneath, and long pants and gloves. I do this myself, even though Jerry volunteers. I got us into this, is my thinking. I pour gas in a bucket and walk carefully down to the path, to the end where the cutting abruptly stopped. All is quiet. One or two small wasps— they’re wasps, not bees. I looked them up—meander in the air. I step gently to the hole, clearly visible in the leaves. I am helmeted, anonymous: a death machine for the second time, pouring gas down the hole, stepping back, then hurrying away. I’m at war, killing a whole colony of wasps. Part of my mind is numb with that knowledge, while the rest functions in simple, self-protective moves. I try not to exaggerate the significance, but my mind is full of dying wasps.

Dave comes back. I hear the whine of his saw before breakfast one day. When I go down, he’s almost finished, a wide swath along the bank, debris everywhere alongside, severed grapevine trunks bleeding sap, the creek itself suddenly present, open, its melody audible. A frog hops into the water. One tree leans with its multiple trunks over the water, a large vine growing up its trunk and providing most of its foliage. Underneath, water rushes in a narrower funnel, singing, then widens and quiets. You can see it now, wider than I thought, in places, our private piece of the stream meandering from Pennsylvania through western Newark and south into Maryland. Not that this is any distance. You can cross over into Maryland from the other side of our land. And Pennsylvania’s just a half-mile up the road. Still, according to the law, this part is ours. You can’t even walk through the middle of the creek without trespassing on our land, while the water continues on its way, owned and lost, owned and lost, over and over. The new head of the Department of the Interior once suggested that property owners have a “right to pollute.” As if we could stop the results at our boundaries. As if boundaries were real.

We clear up to the very real fence. Our neighbors have strung barbed-wire to the edge of the water and up the hill. They’ve padlocked the gate and nailed a No Trespassing sign on a tree. Their son, who was retarded, drowned in the creek years ago. We respect their right to be afraid, but the prettiest stretch of creek, with waterfalls and rapids, flows through their land. We walked there several times before we knew we shouldn’t. Then they put the fence up. So we work within our small compass. Our mikiri, our trimming of bushes, frames the view.


Start at the beginning, now, down the twelve railroad-tie steps. You have to stoop slightly under the trees as you turn abruptly to the right, to the edge of our land. The path’s covered with leaves. The ground’s a thick cushion of loam. One concrete block balances your step onto the bridge. There is no reason for the indirect angle back to the left except to make it more interesting. On the other side of the bridge, the path now becomes firmer, particularly where we spread chips, and then you round the bend and there’s the creek, coming out from under the willow and making a sharp curve where there’s a little sludge of pollution and then curving sharply left and right again. It used to go mostly straight here and make a wider curve, before we cleared away the fallen trees. Now the water turns and rushes down a tiny waterfall of a buried log and spreads into two channels as it goes under the tree leaning across. Then the character changes again, to a wide glossy ribbon, where a frog jumps when you approach, and sometimes a snake slithers across to get out of your way. Here to the side is a hole big enough for a fox den; probably though, it’s a groundhog hole, but it’s so close to the water. The ground here is softer, more eroding, and we’ve placed logs to brace against further sliding. Up the other side is nomine the peak of a low hill, beyond that, no, hillside fields, and a hawk, sailing. Beyond that is the subdivision of Glen Farms.

“I’ll tell you what,” I say to Jerry as we stand with our hands in our pockets on a cold day in November, watching minnows. “If we had a bridge across, a small deck over there, we could lie in the sun and watch the water. There’s a lot more sun over there. I think we could anchor a bridge if we buried pilings in concrete on either side.”

He pulls his cap back down over his ears. “Well, that’s another year.” He knows how to put me off until I burn out or find another project. But my mind keeps working. I hear the water trickling through the silence, neither kind nor unkind, neither interested nor uninterested, drawing me in, keeping me trying over and over to make something to frame its sublimity, its loneliness, its vast emptiness. I’m sure it’s Pure Land over there.

There’s a Japanese word, aware—the same as our word, but with a slightly different cast. It means an emotional response to the beauty of ephemeral things, the sadness that arises when you realize that nothing lasts. It’s as inevitable as original sin. To be aware of beauty is simultaneously to love it and be nurtured by it, and to be cast out from it—to change it: paint it, take pictures of it, crop it, write it, edit it, make a garden of it—at the least, invest it with thoughts. Even at the subatomic level, as Heisenberg demonstrated, the act of observation changes the speed and/or the location of whatever is observed. He called this the Uncertainty Principle. The first glance at beauty changes it forever. To feel pleasure in beauty, to be really aware of it, is to be simultaneously sad.

Meanwhile, the deer keep coming. They seem to like the clearing. They’re no fools—they can get to the water easier now, without the briars. They continue to bed down in the dried grapevines. We see their indentations, where they were just before we came.


Fleda Brown's fifth collection of poems is The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives (2002, Carnegie Mellon U. Press). She has essays in Prairie Schooner, Arts & Letters, RiverTeeth, Iowa Review, and others. She won The Journal's Creative Nonfiction prize last year, and the essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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  *  Roji: literally, "dewy path." Poetic name for a tea garden.  

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