Slaying the backyard beast

Clearing the hill behind my home, I thought, would connect me to the earliest work of America, to Manifest Destiny

Published August 18, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

A week before I moved into my house, the previous owner stood with me by the big windows in back, showing me the gardens and grounds, which are elaborate and which he planted, telling me what to water, what to prune, what to weed. The property, which rambles across two acres, rises in terraces, each filled with perennials and ornamentals, ending at a hilltop under the shade of very old beech trees.

To the left of where we stood, the property continues down a gentle hill, which was lost under a sea of vine and weeds. Looking at it, I immediately appreciated the hard words used to denote such growth. Thistle. Thorn. Bramble. When I asked about this part of the property, the previous owner behaved like a captain turning the bridge over to a petty officer who is not quite worthy: "Just forget about that hill," he told me. "Don't touch it, don't even think about it. You'll have plenty to keep you busy right here."

(The previous owner was not the sort of man to sell, move and forget. Even now, all these months later, he still sends the occasional e-mail: "The first frost is coming! Time to cover those magnolia trees!")

Of course, as soon as he told me to steer clear of the hill, my attention was drawn there. It was as if the land itself carried my thoughts to this wild annex, the way, in certain Edward Hopper paintings, "Cape Cod Morning, 1950," say, your eye is carried away from the main action (a woman looking out a bay window) to the darkness under the trees; or the way, in the Hemingway story "Big Two-Hearted River," the attention of the narrator is drawn away from the comfortable stretch of river to the swamp where "in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic."

I've always been drawn to wild places. What's more, as the rest of the land had been landscaped, shaped, done in finery, the wild hill was, as the surfers of Sheboygan, Wis., used to say -- I've spent many summers with them, waiting for a storm -- the only place I could "make my mark." In my mind, the chaos of unchecked growth would be replaced by a rolling meadow, a refuge that gives itself to wild flowers and butterflies and the romantic light from the old Hank Williams tune:

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky

In the early days, when the hill was a tangle, I was mesmerized by the image of the man clearing brush. I did not like George W. Bush, but I did like those pictures of him, dressed in cowboy gear, hacking at the Texas undergrowth. My land was like a full-whiskered, jug-carrying ne'er-do-well, and I wanted to get at it with strop and strait razor, work that would connect me to the earliest work of America, the work of plowing and settlement, of Manifest Destiny. I would homestead like Shane. I would build and own and bust sod and war with the ranchers, whose time had come and gone. I would possess the land as a man possesses a fine Philadelphia lady.

What feeds the soul of a man? I ask myself this every day, sometimes twice.

That first hard season of drenching rains, I went to work with a scythe, because that is what the gleaners use in "Anna Karenina" ( "the old man would wipe his scythe with the wet grass, rinse its blade in the clear water ..."), and because that was the tool on sale at the hardware store. It was Excalibur, calling me by name,"Oh Richard, wield me, swing me like a prom date, use me to possess the land."

(One of the great pleasures of this job was regular trips to the hardware store, and its smell, which is cooked into my earliest memories, rubber and seed, the cherry wood floors varnished to a high shine!)

I went into the field at dusk. I swung the scythe. The blade reflected the setting sun. I worked until my back ached and I was tired. It was, as David Letterman used to say, the good kind of tired. My friend Greg walked the land with me -- he knows a lot about this kind of stuff -- and said, "Like Goldman Sachs, you are doing God's work." My friend Jim, who also knows a lot, said, "Let's go into the house and have a drink."

Wild grape, raspberry, sumac, which, for whatever reason, always makes me think of dinosaurs and primordial ooze, many kinds of vine, the worst being the kind that makes your hands sting and smells like peanut butter and play dates -- I devastated everything. The hill was full of bugs and snakes and crawly things, but I was the baddest of them all.

Between sessions, I sat in my den -- it looks a lot like the Lake Tahoe office where Michael Corleone planned his campaigns -- drinking whiskey and listening to the washing machine. Clicking into high spin, it sounds like a chopper. When this happened, I used to look at my hands, nicked and bloody from my battle in the field, and think,"My God, I'm back over there!"

I became obsessed with mulleins. In case you don't know, a mullein is an evil weed that takes off like a rocket. And when I say rocket, I am not thinking of the Apollo or Gemini missions, but of that sinister dingus that launched Sputnik. The mullein arrives one day as four leaves, ugly little things that look like hairy ears. Soon after, a single spear appears. It's a spire and it grows straight up with terrifying speed. Left alone, it will be 6 feet by August, towering above the garden like a raised middle finger, a big "F U " to the fool who thinks he can conquer nature. Eventually, the tip of the spire is covered with tiny yellow flowers that look less like flowers than corpuscles or cells, the kind you are advised to irradiate. Mulleins indicate a wild or waste place, an abandoned field, the side yard of a house in foreclosure; a place from which people have been driven. There's nothing sadder than a mullein by itself on a hill. Now and then, when, from the window of a train, I see a field of mulleins, I can taste the bile in my mouth.

At some point that second summer, I switched from scythe to weed whacker, and it was one of the great days of my life. The smell of gasoline, the feel when the engine turns over and the orange plastic haymakers spin, the throb that travels through your entire body. The waste trees and scrub had been cleared; I now went after all the remaining growth, wiping the hill clean as the hand wipes clean the blackboard after the last day of school.

When the hippies raced through Chicago in my babyhood, Mayor Daley, the real one, the original, asked the throng, "What trees have you planted? " To that I say: more than a few, my friend, more than a few, this being the latest move in my battle to retake the hill. Long grasses, short glasses, perennials and trees.

I write at the end of the third summer. I write from a mind filled with Zen poetry and a body nicked and bruised. I bleed, but I am happy. The work goes on but the back of the enemy has been broken. In the evening, the blades of the long grass wave in the wind and the lark sings and fireflies linger. A treehouse has been built. It's made of cedar, like the trunks of the Japanese trees that mark the entrance to the meadow. It's like a sniper's nest. If all goes to hell, I can survive there for weeks with little more than a bag of sandwiches and a piss bucket. I have, in other words, settled my own little piece of America. My son Nate has even made a flag. It looks like this:

We plan to apply for admission to the Union early next year. 

Rich Cohen is the author of "Israel Is Real," "Sweet and Low," "Tough Jews," "The Avengers," "The Record Men" and other books.

By Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of "Tough Jews," "The Avengers," "The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and The Birth of Rock & Roll" and the memoir "Lake Effect." His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

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