I once spent an entire summer clearing a hillock of blackberries. The exercise had to do with expiation and with the joys of swinging my pickaxe and finding in my movement a way to still my mind. I have never been able to sit still for long, and yet I know that my mind needs to quiet itself from time to time. In the tenacious blackberry roots, I found an easy enemy, too. I grew to hate the blackberries that covered the hillside, because they grew too easily, because everyone in Bellingham, Washington, where I lived, considered them more nuisance than treat, though on any given summer day, I might see a car suddenly leave the road so that a blackberry patch might be raided by the car’s hungry flock.
I loved blackberries in theory and practice as long as they weren’t on my property. I sometimes bought the gigantic variety called Marion berries at the local supermarket. But I considered my property under my absolute dominion and I wanted and needed to change things about it. The main thing I wanted to change was this overgrown hill of blackberries and the fact that I shared a large driveway with my neighbors, who were renters, the human equivalent of blackberries.
I spent an ungodly sum to dig up half the driveway and plant Russian laurels down the middle, and this prevented my neighbors from ever again turning around in my half of the driveway. What a sweet victory, and I watched with pride as the Russian laurels slowly filled in their leaves and blocked the view of my neighbors’ duplex. The blackberry problem proved harder to solve, but I eventually won that battle, too, and by the Fall, I had cleared the hillside and made way to plant what I wanted.
Not blackberries but raspberries. Blackberries were weeds, especially this type, Himalayan blackberries, an invasive species that was not a native. The raspberries I wanted to grow weren’t native either. Neither was I. But raspberries were more delicious invaders than blackberries, especially this variety, modified Meekers, a thornless kind that were easier to pick and enjoy.
My wife and I had moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, from the steamy South to the rain-soaked Northwest. In my Charlotte garden I grew azaleas and hibiscus and tomatoes sweetened by relentless summer sun and heat. Along my back fence, I planted ivy, which I coaxed year after year until after four years, a few hardy survivors fountained upwards in small sprays towards one another. The ivy, paltry and pale, perpetually dying, seemed not only foreign but foolish. In the Northwest, Ivy grew rampant on the side of my house.
In Bellingham, I planted a perennial garden at the bottom of the blackberry hillock, and here, my enemies were not blackberries but buttercups. Day after rainy day, I knelt on a small rubber mat in my garden, digging all the delicate roots of the buttercups from the soil, occasionally picking a slug off a plant it was nibbling and tossing it into a tray of beer, which was supposed to attract slugs, but didn’t. And sometimes feeling vindictive and taking their feeding habits personally, I’d range through the garden with a salt shaker and watch the slugs shrivel Wicked-Witch-of-the-West fashion. But certainly it was I who was wicked, not the slugs whose major offense was that they didn’t recognize the boundaries of my garden or my rights to protect it.
Things often jump the boundaries we fashion for our lives. After eleven years of marriage, my wife and I divorced, and the garden I had tended so carefully quickly became festooned with bright buttercups, the slugs took over, the raspberries became unruly like their darker cousins. All this taming. It never seemed to work. One of the last things I did on that property after the divorce was to pull the ivy down from the side of the house it covered. And then I pressure washed the dirty siding before putting the house on the market.
Robin Hemley is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction and the winner of three Pushcart Prizes in both fiction and nonfiction as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous other awards. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The Believer, Orion, The Sun, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and many others. He is the Founder of the conference, NonfictioNOW, a past editor of the Bellingham Review, and currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa and is the Editor-in-Chief of Defunct.
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett