To the outside eye, little would seem to connect me – politically or in any other fashion – to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. But, since moving to my little piece of Cape Cod, I’ve discovered I share an appreciation with these two Republican icons for the spiritual practice of brush clearing. More than, simply, physical exercise or a reason to be outside on a beautiful spring afternoon, I’ve found that whacking away at the acre of bull briar and bittersweet that comprises the back two thirds of my lot makes me happy in a way that seems inconceivable, given the odds of my ever actually completing Sisyphean task I’ve set for myself.
In the last few days of near-spring here on the Cape, I’ve gotten back in touch with just how lost I can get in the simple effort of clearing useless crap out of the back of my lot. I initially discovered the odd joy of reclaiming pathways and trees suffocated by myriad varieties of bethorned, climbing vegetation during my first spring here. Those first few months featured pitched battles against the climbing invasives that were threatening to strangle the life out of trees and shrubs along my two side lot lines. I then began pushing offensively into the back portion of my lot, in an attempt to clear simple paths to the lot’s rear boundary. In the process of hacking though grape and bittersweet vines as thick as a bodybuilder’s bicep, I got to know the beauty of my little piece of acreage in a way I hadn’t anticipated before I’d started the effort.
And, an effort it has been. To those who know Cape Cod only in photographs or, perhaps, through a beachside summer vacation, the landscape here is filled with an almost nauseatingly large supply of mop-headed hydrangeas and huge-hipped beach roses, an adequate number of well-maintained cranberry bogs and, maybe, a poison ivy vine or two. Those of us who live and garden here, though, know the dominant plant life is far less picturesque – it climbs and claws and sucks up sunlight like a collection of photosynthesizing sponges. Most of the nastiest species are as invasive as New York license plates in mid-July. These include bull briar (aka “cat briar”), with thorns that can rip through leather gloves, and bittersweet – yes, its leaves and berries are beautiful in the fall and its younger vines can make lovely wreaths, but when full grown, those same vines wrap like boa constrictors around growing tree trunks. Japanese bush honeysuckle propagates through underground root systems, and provides a foundation for briar and bittersweet to climb to surrounding trees’ lower branches. There also, though are some nasty local plants, including wild grape and black raspberry. However, I’m learning to go after these last two judiciously – their fruit is just too darned good.
To really make any headway against these varied foes requires a big effort in early spring, before warmer weather and plentiful rains give enemy plant life a chance to gain the upper hand. Last year, at this time, I was just too wrapped up in work and Dad’s care to muster the energy needed for a full frontal attack. So, pathways I’d spent the last three years establishing began to disappear. It was so disheartening, I simply stopped crossing over the ancient drainage ditch separating the front third of the property from the wilder majority portion behind it.
Dad’s doing a bit better this springtime. There are some serious concerns about blood pressure and moderate worries about a possible stomach ulcer – along with, of course, continuing kidney and heart issues – and his energy level seems noticeably lower than it was last fall. But at least I’m not dealing with a datebook full of doctors appointments every week, and attempting to ensure the visits of shower aides and physical therapists aren’t overlapping. So, when Friday afternoon’s sunshine proved too enticing to resist, I donned my heavy leather gloves and grabbed my collection of pruners and loppers and began having at it. This afternoon – Sunday – found me similarly armed and protected, as I went after the vines attempting to reclaim an old apple tree I had almost cut free two years ago.
I’ve become more discriminating in my slaughter over the years, so my current efforts require more thought and attention. For example, I’ve learned to leave a certain percentage of raspberry canes to ensure a decent late-July/early-August harvest. And this year I’m experimenting with grape-pruning techniques I learned via YouTube, to see if I can boost my jelly output in September. So, while I still go after bittersweet and briar full-speed, I take more time with my other foes – even the honeysuckle serves a purpose as a support for my newly trimmed grape vines, so I’m pruning it with care.
In addition to my bush clearing, I also spent time this weekend in a training workshop for a pastoral-care program forming at my church. We spent a lot of time talking about spirituality in our time together. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a singlular theology or teachings to draw on, so our spirituality is expressed in many forms. When we participants were asked to think about how we expressed our own spirituality, I found myself drawing a blank, falling back on spending time by the ocean as a somewhat pat, even if true, response. But as I took my time this afternoon examining grape vines to determine appropriate pruning points, and threading them back through interlaced honeysuckle branches in a way that would allow both sunlight and support, and studied the many bittersweet vines choking a struggling willow to determine the lowest and most accessible cutting point, I reconsidered that question. In the simple, yet practiced, effort of clearing away brush, I also was clearing away my own mental detritus. That work required a certain clarity and present-ness that forced away thoughts of systolic and diastolic ratios, and brought me to a point of peace with my body and my surroundings.
Of course, as such moments are, this one was short-lived. Soon enough, I was caught up in dinner drama, watching the clock to parse out the minutes required to fill Dad’s weekly pill box, the minutes required to get dinner from counter to grill to table, and doing the subtraction to see just how much time I’d have to myself for the blessed sacrament of gimlet and Vanity Fair indulgence.
I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed in my efforts to create a clear path, perhaps even one wide and clear enough for a mountain bike, through to the school and bike path that abut my property’s rear boundary. But, to an extent, it doesn’t matter, because the work, itself, can be so satisfying. With this last weekend’s concentration on spirituality, I see the experience of that work – the stepping back, observing, moving with deliberate action instead of reaction – as something to model in all the other hours when I’m not surrounded by nature’s furious bounty.