When we bought our new place in Oct 2010, one of the most compelling projects in my mind was reclaiming the woods…an area my friend Sheila cleverly christened “The Bogsy Wood”. I planned to leave some salmonberry because it is one of the best early attractants for hummingbirds (which is a great excuse because it is hard to remove!), but I wanted paths through it, and for it to be in small groves rather than a solid thicket.
I did some clearing in the winter of 2010-2011, removing piles of old fishing ropes, a broken crab pot, some barrels, and other debris left behind by the fisherman son of the former owner. But then the work season intervened and the rough edges remained, thick with Himalayan blackberry, bindweed, and garbage that had drifted over from the gear shed next door.
While I would have gotten around to it eventually, something happened September of 2011 that inspired me to do a massive two day cleanup. In spring of 2012, a local writing group had a garden themed meeting and this is what I wrote about that experience. The fire referred to was made of dry seasoned alder branches within an approved fire pit and with the appropriate burn permit.
I Took to the Woods
I took to the woods because of what she said, and attacked the salmonberry and the brambles. For two days I hacked away at the back of my property. Sometimes the Yeats poem about going down to the hazel wood sang through my mind but mostly I heard the words of my acquaintance, the one who apparently considers it unfortunate to have to pass by my brightly painted double wide.
“You have no colour aesthetic; your house colours are terrible, and why did you paint your kitchen red and yellow?” she asked me almost at once, on the evening she invited me over to her historic house “to visit”. Yes, my manufactured home is green and purple, and yes, my kitchen is the red and yellow that reminds me of my grandma’s kitchen. Telling her that I choose colours that make me happy did not end the inquisition. I tried to divert her with a compliment by saying that I liked the colour of her living room. “See!” she crowed. “See, I’m right, that proves it. You’re admitting my taste is better! Why purple? Why purple?” And “Why is your kitchen painted like a circus?” had been her inquiry the year before, when she and her spouse had walked into our house uninvited on Halloween and given themselves a highly critical tour.
“I went down to the hazelwood because a fire was in my head…” The green and brown thorned stems in the woods fell to my clippers and I tried to think of pleasant things, but her critique still cut into my mind. “Your hair is terrible”, she said; “I’ll pay for your haircut myself. It looks like you cut it yourself with the garden shears!”
“As a matter of fact, I do”, I replied…which is true if it annoys me while I’m working. Her expression of utter shock amused me briefly. I advised her to not let it trouble her as I would be getting my hair all chopped off by bulb planting season, “Oh no, you can’t get it cut short because your face is too wide!” she exclaimed. I suggested it was high time to change the subject and briefly she diverted her topic to a local group by whom she felt ostracized, but then she circled back to me.
“You must stop wearing t shirts with saying on them,” she ordered, yanking down her silky blouse that kept twisting and riding up over her belly. “You could go to the second hand store and buy a blouse like THIS! And those sweatpants…my gawd. Don’t you owe it to Allan to spruce yourself up?”
“I just don’t care about that stuff. Why don’t you stop scrutinizing me,” I asked, “and look at the results of my work? The planters and gardens are beautiful.” She admitted that they were and even said that she thought my colour aesthetic while gardening was better than that of painting my house. But despite my reiteration that she needed to change the subject, she had continued, and her words burned in my mind the next day as I dragged dry, seasoned branches to my outdoor fire pit, chopped them short and piled them high. I worked alone as Allan had gone to Seattle for a high school reunion, which inspired more thoughts of socially awkward high school years. That was not helping!
I lit a match and the smoke billowed into my eyes. I certainly had made a dent in the bramble patch.
While I tried to focus on the emerging shape of the woodsy ground as it revealed itself, memory still dwelled on the revelation of exactly what my acquaintance thought of me.
I had tried again to change the subject, to no avail, as she delved further into my personal life. Why had I not simply left her house early in the conversation? I suppose in a way I was fascinated with how far she would go. I had one martini which perhaps had slowed me down. She had had at least two…and while it did not hamper her ability to speak clearly, she did comment once that she knew she was not going to be able to remember the conversation the next day. I kept thinking I could get the topic off of the “What Not To Wear” style attack. But she then deemed it appropriate to delve even more personally into my appearance and household arrangements, including a pointed inquiry about my sexual identity. It seemed that since the previous year, when she had walked in on Halloween evening to check out our home, she had pondered the fact that Allan and I have separate rooms (which has to do with us being the quintessential messy/tidy odd couple. I’m the messy one.) “Do you really think that we have separate rooms so I can bring women home?” I asked her in astonishment. She had no reply for this and circled back to my regrettable appearance. I finally gathered myself, in my Kite Festival t shirt, sweatpants and garden-shears chopped hair, and stood to leave. “I really must go,” I said.
“But I have to tell you!” She was almost jumping up and down on the couch in excitement and an urgent need to share. “My husband is on the same page with me on this! The whole town thinks you look like a homeless hobo and you shouldn’t be working out in public. Everyone talks about it! You need to spruce yourself up!”
I paused at the door and could only say , “You have made me very, very sad.” (A more assertive person might have said a good deal more, and sooner.) “Oh no,” she wailed, “Now I’ve ruined everything!”
“You probably haven’t ruined EVERYTHING!” I replied; “We’ll see, but I really must go now.”
I walked home in the dark with a kicked in the stomach feeling of shock. The next day, as I spruced up the tiny woodland at the end of my garden, I put my anger and depression to good use and cleaned out every scrap of unwanted tangle. I wanted to never leave my property again. Could it be true that I was the laughingstock and object of contempt of the whole town? I thought of the fishermen in their boots and jeans and the fish plant workers and RV park dwellers and reminded myself that I was in good working class company. I thought of the things I could have said about the lack of books and personality in my neighbour’s austere and tasteful living room, about her fear of being different, about having watched her teeter and totter in uncomfortable shoes and fidget and fuss with her seemingly uncomfortable dresses and blouses. I had been well trained to not criticize the appearance of others by two extremes: my kindly grandmother and her many friends and my highly critical and lonely mother. Kindliness trumped criticism because I knew how the latter felt.
The blackberry roots felt my wrath and pain as I swung at them with a heavy pick and pried them with a shovel. I had wanted to bury deep all the hurt feelings and anxiety and self consciousness but all I could think of was building a tall solid fence around my garden and finding some way to retire so I could hide out there forever.
Six months have passed and my woods remain clear of brambles. We did build a fence but it is transparent and is only there to keep out the deer.
Within a week of my acquaintance’s sharing her thoughts, Allan and I won Business of the Year and I realized the town itself did not despise me. My little woods got planted up with narcissi and bluebells and decorated with a plant table dripping with ferns and with three fairy doors. The passage of time and the reassurance of friends has soothed the way that those words planted themselves into me. “All my hurts my garden spade can heal,” said Thomas Jefferson…but when would I stop feeling awkward every time I had to walk by my former acquaintance’s house on the way to my favourite café? Sometimes I still go a block out of my way to avoid it.
I could have swung and picked back with words of equal cruelty about shallowness, values, alcoholism, prejudice, classism but chose not to. Sometimes I regret that I took my reaction out on the woods instead of a more direct approach, but I certainly accomplished much more than if I had approached those brambles in a calm and peaceful state of mind.
I leave you with these words by the author of The Little Prince:
I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him, it is what he thinks of himself. To undermine a man’s self-respect is a sin. -Antoine de St Exupery