Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The War of the Roots

I spurred myself into action. It was either going to be the porch or the patio. The porch is the most immediate project because the tongue-and-groove slats are rotted in places and a big square board has been nailed over a hole someone stepped through years ago. Yes, the porch needs immediate attention. So I decided to start on the patio first.

The objective is to have a place out-back where I can sip cool drinks, barbeque some meat, and enjoy the shade of the big maple that covers the yard with its branches. I have a whole landscaping campaign lined up that involves hearty bushes like holly and birdbaths and a planter to grow herbs. I’ve become so used to this vision that when I actually look at my back yard the reality of the mess back there shatters my illusion (or delusion) like plate glass. You see, a very enthusiastic and brilliant but untidy black lab has been using the yard as a playground (and bathroom) for four years. But now the black lab has mellowed slightly, and the time has come to take back my property. There’s only one problem. The maple is putting up resistance.

I started the campaign by gathering supplies. I took a trip to one of those monolithic home-improvement stores where I invariably park at the opposite end of where the item I am looking for is located. I entered this store with the usual gait, one of a man who wants to look like he knows what he’s doing and what he needs to do it. This is a hard posture to keep up because the store is the size of a rural county in Texas and soon I’m looking down aisles like a three-year-old who has lost his Gramma. But I knew on this day I would be in the lawn and garden department, and that is where I headed.

The first thing I found was a book about building patios. I budgeted myself for this trip, and the cheapest book on patios ended up going with me on the rest of my search. Then it was to the paving stone area. I did not intend to buy the material for the surface at that time but I wanted to get some ideas. After looking at the prices of various stone and pre-fabricated paving materials I realized that I would need a bigger budget. I adjusted to this reluctantly, still determined to complete the project I envisioned.

So the first day I gathered a flat-head shovel, a level, and the patio book. This was not exactly an arsenal to go to war with, but at this time I wasn’t really expecting a war. I would move some earth, get the area level, throw down some stones, and start inviting people over for rib-eyes and veggie-burgers. The project would be finished in oh, say, about ten days.

I started digging. I immediately realized that a flat-head shovel is not the type of shovel you want for this job. Actually it works fine if you know how to use it. This knowledge was a long way off for me at this point. I dug, hunched over, trying to remove dirt from the surface one shovelful at a time. I managed to demarcate the outline of the patio. This took me about an hour of back wrenching movement and convinced me that I had to change my method quickly or the only digging being done for me would be a grave.

I learned a while back that gloves save your hands from debilitating blisters. I at least had the foresight to wear some. As I stood panting and sweating and cleaning my glasses—geeks shouldn’t do this type of work—I looked own to see my dog, Booker, digging a little hole for himself. I wish, and sometimes I’m not so sure he isn’t smart enough, I could teach him to do the whole job for me. Anyway, he was cool and rested and I was exhausted after only an hour. He doesn’t need a fancy patio and a deck chair to be comfortable, he’s fine with what he’s got. Now who do you think is smarter?

Defeat was not an option. I rallied and tried to become methodical. Bending over again and again like this was going to turn my spine into a giant piece of fussilli. I started turning up earth instead, planning to loosen all the dirt in the area and then digging it out. At least this way I wouldn’t have to bend for quite so long. Then I realized the flat-head shovel has a corner like a garden trowel, and if you use the corner you can cut through earth like butter. This encouraged me.

But then, clunk! A root. “Okay,” I acquiesced, “not a problem, I’m sure the shovel can handle a few little roots.” I gave the shovel a good stomp and felt the solidity of the root vibrate all the way up through my cowlick. I had to sit down for a minute to get my ears to stop ringing. Then I realized that the shovel was not going to work on roots.

I have a new rug in my living room and I have been doing everything in my power to keep it from getting prematurely destroyed. This is not easy with a black dog who sheds enough hair in a day to stuff a comforter for a king sized bed. Plus, digging holes and plopping down in them is conducive to the transfer of dirt when that same animal comes in the house and plops down on the rug. So every time he comes in I have to towel him off like Rocky Balboa, which he loves, but I find tedious, especially when he decides he wants to go out right when I want to go to bed.

Because of the rug, every time I enter the house during this project I have to take off my gloves, take off my shoes, make sure my socks are okay, run in and get the ice-water or whatever, come back out, put my shoes back on and give myself a new pep-talk to get going again. This is frustrating when you realize that what you need is in the house every five minutes or so.

At this point it was a hand-saw. I had tried the old axe that was under the house when we moved in, but as I was raring back to chop out a root the head broke away from the handle, luckily not taking out a window or a bystander. For the rest of that first day I loosened roots, sawed them up, and yanked them out, becoming more and more aware of the power of root structures and this particular maple tree.

The next day, as soon as I could lift my arms past my waist, I was surfing blogs and I came to one called Healing Magic Hands. This site is maintained by a gardener extraordinaire and is full of inspiring photographs of her work in her garden. I’ve had people on the web entertain my novice ambitions before, so I asked her if the aerating tool she featured in one of her posts might be good for roots. She might have told me to go back to sand-box 101, but instead she gave me a detailed reply on just the tools I would need for this project. It was a big help, and encouraged me immensely. It was the wisdom I needed, and by the weekend I had re-armed for battle.

She suggested that I use a digging-stick or a hatchet. I opted for a one-hand pick-axe that I found at a discount store. It has become my Excalibur, to get grandiose about it. It isn’t very sharp, but it hacks away at the roots nicely. But even with the pick-axe the job is slow going and I have to pace myself and take water breaks—the American south is nothing to mess around with in summertime.

And, I’ve employed help. Mike lives across the street. He was homeless until my neighbor took him in some months ago. He was evicted from his former residence because the city is building a new baseball stadium where he was renting, and he was sent packing like many others. He ended up with Clint, who has failing health (along with his wife) and Mike takes care of them both in exchange for board. He also does odd-jobs around the neighborhood. He drinks like a fish, probably more, but I am in no position to judge. He works hard and knows how to do this type of job, giving me good advice when I get overwhelmed. Plus he is someone to banter with to make the job easier.

Mike uses an old shovel of Clint’s that looks like it has been around since Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration. He brags on it relentlessly, never letting me forget that it is “digging right through them roots.” When he holds it up you can see daylight through it in places, but he is right, it is a good shovel and I’m damn glad it, and he, are helping me.

The maple tree centers itself around this whole project. It is huge, and sometimes when I am chopping roots I feel like a dentist performing root-canal—but the biggest, complicated root-canal known to man. The maple has dominated my back yard for what seems like eternity. It drains the ground of water and blocks out sunlight so that no grass can grow. It hogs rainwater like a giant inverted octopus. In Africa, they have a tree called the Baobab tree. The legend is that god, or gods, uprooted the original trees and made them walk. Then when the gods replanted them they planted them upside down. This legend reminds me of the maple which seems to have some sort of angry god on its side. Sometimes I feel its anger directed at me, and I pacify it by telling it that this whole project is for it, to showcase the dynamics of its being. Then I hack off another root. Mike says it reminds him of the tree in Poltergeist.

The war of the roots should draw to a close tomorrow. The area for the patio is almost fully dug, all the earth is loosened. A small Japanese maple put up a fight (its roots are harder than the maple’s) but all of the trees will be fine, just free of some roots. De-earthed roots have piled up next to my fence like wooden arteries, and I’ve put aside some of the bigger ones. I pulled up one that looked like a cave-man club, and I’m already considering sanding and staining it.

The paving of the area will have to wait at least a week or so. I’m going out of town this weekend and the next and I want a good long period of staying in town to complete the project. Precise leveling is the next hurtle—a whole new set of challenges I’ll bet, but one with less physicality. The demarked area looks good, and I can superimpose a paved area over it in my mind’s eye, now that real progress has been made. I know one thing, when all is said and done, and eventually the patio is finished and I am grilling on it, Mike gets the first steak.


Emily Barton said...

Boy, if I knew you were so handy, I'd have invited you up here for the summer and put you to work repairing our deck. Then again, maybe it's Mike I really need for that.

linser said...

I kept laughing out loud over this post. Sounds like you, Mike, and Booker should start a landscaping business. Or better yet, a reality show called "The Graveyard Shift" or "Grassroots" or "Sticks and Stones." (Okay, that's probably enough).

Froshty said...

That backyard has begged for a patio for years. I always envisioned one with either bricks or those gray patio stones. Unfortunately, this was pipe dream for someone who spent most of her time in that house either pregnant or having huge parties. I also envisioned dividing the backporch into two rooms and then building out the one closest to your music room into a sun room, which also included hacking a door through the wall of your music room. Anyway, I can't wait to see how it comes out.

imichie said...

Emily, I'm not really that handy, I spend half my time trying to figure out how to do things. This project is a diversion more than anything.

Lindsay, I'm glad you laughed, it was meant to be funny. Heck, it is funny, and that's what I like about the project.

Froshty, I've thought about making a door from the music room to the back porch as well. That would open up the house a lot. I've devised a plan that would make the patio look like cobble stones.

By the way, thanks to all three of you for taking the time and effort to comment on my blog!

Valarie said...

Interesting to know.