Welcome to The Jungle…Hard Lessons From a Small Garden

Seth Brundle: You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh…

Ronnie: I don’t know what you’re trying to say.

Seth Brundle: I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.

Ronnie: No. no, Seth…

Seth Brundle: I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.

– The Fly (1986, Dir. David Cronenberg)

When we bought our house , our yard was a sloppy rectangle of dead pomegranate trees, dried earth and a riddle of busted pipes.  Sian was 6 months pregnant, so the priority was that which lay under the new roof, but my heart was focused on the yard. I was, my wife might say, obsessed. Well, I had a dream. I dreamed of creating a magical, urban jungle that my daughter could get lost in, critters would flock (or crawl) to, and friends would wander, drinks in hand,  fully inspired. I dreamed of creating a habitat that would be boldly in-sync with the great Mediterranean Chaparral ecosystem that surrounds Los Angeles, and be a model for bridging man and nature in the 21st Century. Ten months later, I’m not even close. Nature, it turns out, has no regard for my wants.

After two months getting the interior squared away, my bloodshot, sleepless eyes turned to the dirt moat that flanked our new digs.  We leveled, cleared, hard-scaped, drip-lined and mulched every inch, until there was nothing left to do but begin planting. As fate would have it,  I began planting  in our freshly wrought yard the night before my daughter was born.  In retrospect, the timing is profoundly romantic, on the day, it was anything but. My specific memory is of me, digging holes in the dark at nearly mid-night, as Sian tried to guage the signals little Niko was sending. I was in denial.

Genesis- The Back Yard Begins (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)
Genesis- The Back Yard Begins (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)

I’d was up to my ass in potting soil and the kid was already two weeks late.  Why, I reasoned, would she come when I was planting lavender? Contractions getting closer? Sian feeling nauseous? Just nerves, dammit, I’ve got two, 5-gallon daisies to get in the ground.  Finally Sian called me in, I put the pots down, and 13 hours later we had a new family member. I’ve already told that story, so let me just say here that the course of events in my yard have been no more neat and acquiescent than my daughter has been compliant and shy.

Aniko and Sian. Hammock time. (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)

Niko is a fun, fiery and opinionated kid with an agenda only she knows, and the garden is an ever-evolving jungle filled with surprise visitors, terrifying massacres, disheartening die-offs and astonishing resurrections. Any plans I had for simple installations of a DIY habitat were summed up by this comment from the great Wendell Berry,

“…a man with a machine and inadequate culture…is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.”

Just as I knew the story I wanted to present with my new child, I knew the story I wanted to tell with my garden. And just as my daughter came into this world with her own narrative that I am forced, every day, to accept, protect and help her fulfill with compassion and support (whether I like it or not), my garden is laying to waste my vision in order to expand my understanding. Growing things, anything, is an ordeal and a blessing.  Rerouting water is a study in best intentions, and amending soil is like building Thunderdome. As the fresh earth supports a new roster of plant life, the very newness also invites pests in epic, shrub decimating proportions.

Mexican Aphids storm the Milkweed (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)
Mexican Aphids storm the Milkweed (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)

Aphids in 5 different varieties overwhelm salvias, artichokes, jasmines and milkweed with equal authority and invasive mantises eat every butterfly my “butterfly garden” attracts. Like the Sirens of Titan, the plants in my garden lure as much to their deaths as they offer life. Meanwhile, the sun is too direct for the maple, and the leaves retreat, and the north side of the yard is too wet, so the lavender roots rot. Never to be outdone, skunks continue to uproot and upend in pursuit of grubs that grow up to be beetles that hollow the fruit. This is the leveling effect that nature has on newness, as a thing takes the terrible and exhilarating journey from idea to reality, tempered by predation, disease, failure and ignorance to become something altogether different, stronger, and unto itself.

The Garden Grows- Lavender, Salvias, Thyme.  (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)
The Garden Grows- Lavender, Salvias, Thyme.
(David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved)

This thing that I write about, I write about because I want to forge a path of understanding about how things live, what they need to simply be, and how to help it all do so in accord with the greater space around us.  And this, too, is folly. We are at best, weed species, wrangling weed cultures. But, a home is not “property”, it’s habitat. In order for it to succeed in any meaningful way, it must be a place that promotes rich and diverse life, and exist in some large degree of balance with the ecosystems that host us, however altered they may be at the onset of the 21st Century.  Anything less is dragging the planet down.

Aniko and Sian. (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved.)
Aniko and Sian. (David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved.)

So I write about this process of crafting a tiny, dangerous jungle, and I try to hone tools to pass on to my daughter. Whether she will want them or not (and I pray that she does, for entirely selfish reasons), I can’t guess, but the thought gives me momentum and clarity. After all, the earth is changing. If I can’t find some good degree of balance between the things in my yard and the world that surrounds us, then what good am I really doing for the ones who live under my roof?

Aniko and I at Descanso Gardens, in search of wisdom. (Photo by Sian Heder, all rights reserved)

So, in the name of the sought-after mastery of my garden, I declare one year in, that I have only my failures to boast about. They have taught me plenty. The garden has grown, wildly so, but in a way I could have never imagined, and often in spite of my designs. It’s a gang war on a micro level, fought in my man-made “nature”. As for my daughter, she, too, continues to reveal herself as a thing beyond my knowing, bigger than plans I make, adapting to a world much different than the one I entered, the place I think I know.

It’s humbling, taking care of things, difficult loving things that so can be so brutally indifferent to my designs, but it all makes the love so much bigger than I’d imagined. Nature doesn’t comply, but it does teach, and this, and it turns out, is the great surprise: for all the fumbling and failing,  digging and despairing, the garden grows, if you just let it.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to The Jungle…Hard Lessons From a Small Garden”

  1. As someone who has had many successes and failures in gardening and landscaping, I’ve found my chickens are one of the easiest and most rewarding adventures. I know not everyone agrees about the easy part, but I’ve set it up well and I don’t mind the small amount of work involved. And the eggs are incredible. You’re welcome to come check out the hens and their housing situation anytime.

      1. You are welcome anytime as long as you bring the family! I miss you guys. I’m also dying to come and see your yard. Lot’s of changes since Niko’s birth! The chickens are so easy with my current setup. All I have do daily is collect the eggs and enjoy them 🙂 Aside from that it’s feeding and watering every 10 days or so and and a monthly cleaning.

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