Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Gardening as War

Sorry about the brief pause. I’ve been waging pre-emptive war in the garden. Trying to get a jump on all the weeds and thistles before that two week period in early spring when the garden goes nuts. A couple of years ago I failed to wage my pre-emptive strike and I ended up with six-foot thistles that I had to take down with an axe. And I swear I can actually see the blackberry plants growing, they seem to add inches over night. It’s war I tells ya, war! So at the moment I’m out in the garden a few hours every day weeding, pruning, cutting and generally smiting. My current list of most loathed weeds is as follows; cleavers, wandering weed, dandelions (especially the saucer-shaped holes in the lawn they leave when you dig them up) and goddamned hate-you, hate-you, wouldn’t-want-to-date-you agapanthus, with their horrible Medusa-head worm-like roots and their nasty habit of choking every other plant in the garden to death.
If I speak with the fervour of a convert when it comes to gardening, it’s because I am a recent convert. It’s like some switch was flicked in my brain when I turned forty and I suddenly looked at the garden in a new light. All I could see were weed-choked beds and bushes and trees in desperate need of pruning. How could I have not noticed that the camellia ‘bush’ now had big straight branches reaching up almost four metres in the air? Or that the hedges were completely overshadowing the pool and the front garden? Tackling more than eight years of neglect in the garden has been a huge task, but I’ve quite enjoyed it. On some level, I think my Dutch and Prussian genes have applauded all my attempts to create Order out of Chaos.
 I think they may also like the unacknowledged violence of gardening. Sure, ‘gardening’ sounds like a nice, safe, gentle domestic pursuit and conjures up images of ladies with big hats cutting flowers for the house, but there’s more to it than that. Once I’d started on my gardening adventure I soon realised that a lot of the time I was a like a school teacher trying to keep a roomful of unruly teenage boys (is there any other kind?) from strangling each other. ‘Stop it! Sit down all of you! OI! Agapanthus, I’ve told you twice already, LEAVE THAT TREE ALONE! And Blackberry, get your hands off that poor azalea or it’s back in the naughty corner for you.’ Actually, sometimes it’s more like being the referee in a cage fight than a teacher.
It took me a while to realise the inherently violent nature of gardening. My first attempts at pruning were quite timid and gentle. I didn’t want to cut too much off and hurt the plant. Little did I realise that plants are masochists who have been conditioned to rebound after being attacked by goats and other animals. The more you hurt them, the more they seem to respond. This was graphically illustrated for me a few years back when a neighbour’s car ended up in our living room, (long story, some other time). On its path of destruction the car went over the top of an azalea bush and ripped it to shreds. Once I trimmed all the broken bits off, there wasn’t much left and I thought it was a goner. Instead, next spring it grew more and had twice the flowers of the other plants in the bed. So now when I prune, I try to channel my inner goat and really go for it.
To counter balance some of the violence, I’ve also developed somewhat of a rapport with local birds. We don’t use pesticides or chemicals in our garden and the birds seem to have figured out that our garden is safe to browse. Even our cats don’t scare them because frankly, our cats are pussies. They may look longingly at the blackbirds but the parrots and kookaburras terrify them. The blackbirds used to wait for a while after I’d weeded a patch of garden before moving in to catch worms. Now they hop along beside me as I go. They seemed to have spread the word to the other birds as well, so now I get king parrots landing on the back porch demanding to be fed. No matter how many times I patiently explain to them that I do not feed wild birds, they don’t seem to believe me. Especially when a local kookaburra has evidence to the contrary.
It happened like this: one morning I walked out on to the back porch, ready for a little gardening. A kookaburra was on the back porch looking at me expectantly. As I headed down the garden, he followed me. As I set to cutting all the dead leaves from a tree fern, he sat on a tree branch near and watched me. At one point I thought I saw sudden movement on the trunk of the tree fern, thought it was a bug of some kind and turned away to dump some fronds on my rubbish pile. While my back was turned, the kookaburra swooped in next to me and grabbed something from the tree fern. He came within three feet of me as he did it. When I looked up at him, perched on the tree branch again, I realised that he’d caught a frog. Felt bad for the frog but good that I’d helped a kookaburra hunt.
So that’s gardening for you. More death, hunting, sex and violence than it’s given credit for, in addition to the more familiar themes of peace, tranquillity and inter-species friendship. I tell you, sometimes when I walk out into the garden I don’t know whether I’m going to be channelling a goat, St Francis of Assisi or the Marquis de Sade.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Clean Up on Aisle Five

There was a story about the Pacific gyre in the news recently, that island of floating rubbish that has greenies tearing their hair out in despair. In one of nature’s many quirks the different currents of the Pacific Ocean conspire to gather all the rubbish of the ocean in one spot, the gyre. A bit like how all the leaves in your pool get swept to the middle as the pool pump creates a vortex around the edge. The collected rubbish pile in the gyre, much of it plastic, is getting bigger and bigger and the plastic itself is breaking down into smaller pieces and affecting all marine life in the area. It’s a horrible, terrible mess and no one quite knows what to do with it. Volunteers have gone out and tried to tackle it, but a few small ships with nets can’t hope to make an impact on it. Larger, industrial ships will be needed but then you run into the problem of clearing the fish and dolphins that swim under the rubbish island out of the way. Can’t endanger your greenie credentials by killing fish and dolphins even if you’re clearing up a major problem…that affects fish and dolphins. So everyone is flapping their hands and saying how terrible it is, but nothing is happening.
Well stop your flapping and listen up, as I turn a sow’s ear into a beautiful purse. If we really want to clean this mess up, it will take a bit of money and some research but it’s totally do-able. If every Pacific nation kicks in some money we’ll build a small flotilla of big, rubbish-munching ships and factory ships that can recycle all that plastic back into feed stock for new plastic products. The money from selling the feedstock will help fund the flotilla. Then we get some marine biologists to research what sounds, blasted underwater will scare fish and dolphins away. Not loud enough that it will damage their little fishy brains, but enough to make them crap themselves and move away. I’m thinking the hunting calls of killer whales might do the trick. Any fish too dumb to flee from the sound, or any dolphin insanely feisty enough to want to tackle a killer whale will just have to take their chances with the big ships. Think of it as culling outrageous stupidity from the fish and dolphin gene pool.
Once we’ve cleaned up the current mountain of rubbish, take a minute to think how mind-bogglingly useful that ocean gyre truly is. If it didn’t exist, if it wasn’t there to gather all this crap in one relatively small spot, if all that rubbish had remained evenly spread throughout the whole ocean, it may have taken decades to realise just how much garbage is out there. Years down the track a marine biologist may have noted the increasing amount of tiny plastic pellets found in the bellies of dead fish and then it might have taken even more decades to figure out what was actually happening. As it is, the ocean has virtually picked up a microphone and announced to the world, ‘Clean up on aisle five please, clean up on aisle five, STAT!’ (just to mix up my metaphors even more charmingly). It truly is astonishing.
I should point out here that there is more than one ocean gyre. There are actually two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean (the poor third world ocean always gets less than the big fancy oceans). I don’t know if they all collect rubbish in the same way as the infamous Pacific one and we just don’t hear about it, but I’ll take a punt that the same physics is at work and that they too collect rubbish at their centres. So once our flotilla is up and running and has cleaned up the Pacific gyre, then we can send it on to the other gyres. It means that we have a marvellously effective way of cleaning all the world’s oceans and keeping them clean by patrolling the gyres on an ongoing basis. One flotilla, rotating through five specific spots on the planet will be able to do that. So look past the horrible, nasty floating island of rubbish we’re hearing about now, and marvel that the ocean currents have naturally evolved a system of garbage collection so efficient that any pointy-headed engineer would be jealous. Let’s use it quick, and then we can cross another item off the environmental ‘to do’ list.