The Scythians

I have been weed-wacking in the back 27. The 'weed-wacker' is known in England as a Strimmer, a contraction of String Trimmer. S'truth. If personified, strimmer is a word that would wear a navy blazer with heraldically embossed brass buttons and cavalry twill slacks (trousers). Come the Revolution, this mode of dress will trigger, so to speak, under the newly minted Terms of Engagement, both Section 4 subsection (ii) para.(c) "Shoot at will" and 4,(iv)(f) "Do not attempt to take alive".

In Australia they call the implement a 'whipper snipper' which has a sort of droll charm. I have been wielding the weed wacker (an American locution of startling clarity) through fields of thistles - in an act of atavistic regression - like a scythe. Describing a shallow arc, forward and back, the machine cuts on both strokes unlike the traditional reaper. Our quarter acre in England, farmland until the house was built in 1952, was for many years after we moved in, tall grasses and weeds until the neighbors, busy cultivating their crops, demanded that we limit the blizzard of weed seed that drifted across their carefully tended gardens. My father decided that the scythe was an appropriately bucolic implement with which to tame our prairie.

At some point I was instructed in its use although, vertically challenged by my young age, I was never a match for its steely lethality. This Scythian idyll lasted a few seasons and then in a radical volte-face my father was the first on our street to purchase a power rotary mower. A Villiers two-stroke drove the steel disc with sub-tended free swinging blades at the perimeter which was housed in a cast-metal shroud luridly painted in red and silver. This machine not only cut grass but over the years of its use flattened out bumps, propelled flint and sandstone into the neighbors yard and chewed remnant barbed wire, ancient rusty horse shoes and other agricultural detritus into a fine mulch. I learnt, during my years as its chief operator, everything there is to know about blowing out fuel lines and cleaning fouled spark plugs. I retain a fondness for two-strokes although the little motor that powers the weed-wacker is distinctly lacking in personality (and for that I am grateful).

In an earlier piece (A Note From Joan,  2010 01-18) I noted that,

'In the seclusion of this kind of rural life – where the nearest neighbors are coyotes, rattle snakes, spiders, quail and hawks –the home has a particularly intimate connection to its inhabitants. It is the first and last line of defense against the rigors of the wild environment – there is no sheltering community of similar buildings as in a suburb, no carapace of urban environment as in a town, not even the protection of surrounding yards, fields and out-buildings as in a farm.'

A garden usually represents a zone of civilization around a house. Historically, gardens have functioned as a buffer between the wild and the domestic. We have made the decision to forgo even that transition. We bump up against the wild.

And yet, recently when talking to Lorrie about our plans for the property I surprised myself by saying, "Of course, I want a beautiful garden". What's that all about? I think I have finally internalized the notion that with selective pruning and clearing of the chaparral as it edges towards the house it can have many of the elements of a traditional garden in terms of color, scale, texture and massing. While I have held fast to the intellectual idea of living in a purely native environment it has been Lorrie's insistence that we 'shape and select' that finally has me realizing that the chaparral can be, to some extent, domesticated.

Around the time the scythe was developed by the Scythians (for harvesting hemp), Cyrus the Great was building his palace garden at Pasargadae just north of Shiraz in Iran. The scythe was eventually adopted by the Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval gardens of that time may have been directly influenced by elements in Cyrus' garden which included a geometric plan, stone watercourses, water rills, shade-giving pavilions and groves of cypress, pomegranate and cherry underplanted with lilies and roses. The Persian garden tradition began with Cyrus in 550 B.C. and was born as a retreat from the harsh Persian landscape. This idea of creating a paradisical haven from the encroaching wildlands is an essential aspect of all subsequent garden design.

We have created a built context for our garden: the house, the geometric gravel surround, the gravel pool terrace and the sculptural element of the pool (see New Moon 2010-04-21).The non-native plant material encroaches Triffid-like. We wack at it with swingeing delight.

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