Several weeks ago I sawed down two massive holly bushes, a couple of birch saplings about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, two boxwood shrubs, and a woody trunk of a bittersweet vine as big around as my wrist. All were crowded into the space on the front and side of my small porch, and the hollies extended outward about five feet. Their now-stubby wooden bases, composed of several once-six foot tall stalks, are about the size of a large cantaloupe. These babies have been there for decades.
But I want flowers there, a riot of color: wine-colored bee balm, blue perennial lobelia, some deep yellow daisy-like flowers (I’m sorry, I don’t know the name), echinaceas in red, pink, lavender and rose (my newest craze!), orange and yellow day lilies, bearded lavender/purple irises, vermillion poppies, coreopsis–the list goes on. Color: it’s so healing.
Taking the bushes down was only the first stage, difficult as it was with a hand saw, followed by carrying the limbs to the back of my house and tossing them onto an already high pile from similar shearings. The real labor is digging up all those roots; I’ve spent four days, so far in this frustrating, back-breaking labor, pulling, digging, teasing them apart with a pitchfork.
On Monday, while hard at it, lifting the upper layer of leaf mulch and topsoil, pulling out masses of the finest roots, I began to think about roots as a metaphor for having a sense of place, a feeling of belonging to a community. When we think of a large shrub or tree sapling, we focus our attention on the taproots, the thick woody veins that hold the plant in the ground and travel for yards. Yet, from these extend sequentially thinner roots of near equal length, holding the preceding ones fast, criss-crossing and intermingling on down to the masses of tangled strands that evoke some Hollywood art director’s take on zombie hair. It is these seemingly inconsequential roots that conduct the business of survival by taking in nutrients and moisture from the soil. And one cannot uproot the larger ones until the smaller ones are dealt with. Combine the roots of several shrubs, and you can get a sense of just how much these plants want to stay put. They’ve invested decades working toward that goal. (My guilt over herbicide is for another time.)
And so it is with people, their commitment to their land, their sense of community and belonging. There are familial taproots that go back generations, and, in my case, just six years short of three-hundred years in New Orleans. I’m one of six children, now five living, and our parents are dead. My father’s family goes back to the founding of the city; my mother’s a shorter time, but still many generations. Only two first-cousins, and their three generations of offspring, left back home. I was the last to leave, in 2004 (I had left once before when I moved to Hollywood in 1964, followed by six years in upstate New York, then returned in 1973), having spent a total of fifty-one years there. I love the city; I also cannot live there, heat, hurricanes, humidity being the top three reasons. I’ve said this before, and some, both here an in New Orleans, find this dichotomy difficult to understand, how one can so love a place yet shun it.
Even so, the greater New Orleans area was the only place I felt I belonged. There are many voices calling for my return, which heartens and reminds me that I my spirit is still there. It helps that the area is defined by its sense of community and the extraordinary percentage of people who never leave, or if they do, many return. It also helped that I was well known in the art community, which is large and very strong, and, over the course of my 15.5 years as society photographer for the Times-Picayune, my byline and some 20,000 (give or take) published photographs gave me even wider name and face recognition. Uprooting to a place where I knew virtually no one was and still is a shock.
Digging a section of upper-level tangled masses of roots, I began to see a relationship between the various sizes as metaphors for my sense of belonging or not belonging. Here in Concord eight years now, I have some roots, more along the size of a perennial than a shrub. My finer roots are the day-to-day engagements with those who provide sustenance, such as my mail carrier who takes time to pet and scratch Lucy, and makes certain that his substitute knows she’s friendly; familiar cashiers in supermarkets, like Marlene at Hannaford, who greets me with a genuine smile of recognition; Laura, the woman behind the pharmacy counter at Rite-Aid, who works hard to meet my needs, always taking the extra step. Then there are the larger roots, neighbors, like Roger, who’s 80 and never fails to bring his snow blower to help with clearing my driveway, Cathy, Gary, Rebecca, Andrea–all helpful with pet sitting or fixing something; other neighbors who are Lucy’s friends and make her day when they fawn over her; still larger roots, church members–a fairly long list of people who’ve been particularly warm and welcoming, and my women’s artist group: Laura, Kendra, Ethel, Elizabeth, Janet, Rosemary, Tara; other artist friends, Susi, Donna and her partner Bonnie; Chris, a former writing partner who is also a Goddard MFA graduate; my therapist and doctors; and even larger, my close friends, Mark and Mary, Kurt and Monie, Karen and John, Tim and Carol. I have no family here (no other deep rooted shrubs sharing a similar space), no history, other than my eight years. And since I spend so much time alone, away from the larger community of Concord, mostly by choice because I’m an introvert (different from depressed), which began manifesting itself when I moved to the Northshore and commuted to New Orleans for work, and has deepened as I age; even when I lived in a sweet little artist’s hamlet of 2,000 people, I stayed in my house when I wasn’t driving to the city for work or out on errands. The plain truth is that I enjoy my own company and my creative work; and there are financial restraints to my being out-and-about, which most often requires spending money. Therefore, I’m not likely to develop a wider and deeper root system akin to those hollies and boxwoods.
If I am to find a larger engagement here, it won’t be through volunteerism or engaging in politics, usual routes; I did teach in the community colleges for four years, although that was not satisfying, and I have no lingering connections. Rather, it will be through my writing (from my mouth to the Divine’s ear that my meta-farce about New Orleans gets published) or my visual art, perhaps through readings, exhibits, and accompanying reviews in the Monitor. I write about local issues, also, firing off biting satire in letters-to-the-editor when Tea Partiers and their ilk step over the line of human decency, which is pretty often. I may develop a smattering of name recognition that way.
Yet, even if I were to gain personal and financial success in these areas, it will not be because of a deep-rooted history and its cultivated connections, but because of the irony of writing about my homeland, and visual art informed by its culture. I’ll bloom, hopefully a perennial with gorgeous, flaming colors that attract humans, birds, bees, amphibians, reptiles, helpful insects and furry pets. My local community, here, where I am planted, in my garden of companion plants, with Lucy and Honeycat, and perhaps soon, a kitten to keep him company, and whatever deeper friendships that develop along the way.
And in the meantime, there is always my wide-reaching community held together by emails, phone calls and FB–a godsend, particularly, in times of crisis and difficulty for all concerned. Beyond the posts about social/political concerns, sprit-lifting does of mirth, genuine caring and support abound in a virtual garden of companionability. To be sure, there are the occasional destructive pests and invasive species, but these are easily removed either through silence or deletion.