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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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May 2011 Archives

Bittersweet Spring

I intended to spend this morning writing about last week's triumph: I'd finally accepted that I wasn't going to recover my grandmother's loveseat or restore the pair of Victorian walnut sidechairs that have been waiting in my basement for close on three decades.

Last week, I donated them to a charity and reorganized the basement, and I thought I could use that as a springboard for something pseudo-deep about simplifying one's life. Instead, I put the writing on hold - just as I'd done for years with the furniture in the basement - and went outside to marvel at the two-story crabapple tree that that anchors my backyard.

This was the first truly summer-like morning of the year, hot and sunny, and overnight the big tree had burst into billows of hot-pink blossoms. In full bloom, this tree is one of the most beautiful things I've seen, anywhere in the world, and I wanted to revel in its transient glory.

Then I made the mistake of walking around to the woodsy side of the house, to admire the result of last fall's battle with the bittersweet vine. Bittersweet is the scourge of my garden, and I'd spent far too much sunny, warm, autumn time attacking it with a branch trimmer. It had seemed worth it: I was sure I had done it in this time.

No. It had grown back. More than grown back: It had thrived, expanding its territory under the snow, and resurfaced more enthusiastically than ever. And in countless places: It puts down roots wherever it touches, and grows more and more of itself. I'm surprised it doesn't cover the planet.

So this morning, instead of sipping iced tea in the pink shade of the flowering crab, I fell to cutting bittersweet again, untangling its incredibly strong tendrils from the adjoining bridal wreath and trying to dig out its parent roots without destroying the ferns and the flowers around them.

This vine epidemic began years ago, when "country'' was the home-decorating style of the moment. One October, I bought a small bouquet of ripe bittersweet at a farmers' market and hung it on the front door, where its orange berries looked cheery as cold weather came on.

I didn't know that those sweet-looking little berries contained viable seeds. I didn't find out until the first hot weather of the next spring.

My house is old and has window air conditioners, and when I turned on the one in the window beside the garden, it gave a sad, desperate hum and died.

The reason was bittersweet indeed: Perhaps the wind carried a seed into my garden, or a passing bird had dropped it, but at least one berry in that bouquet had taken root and sent a tendril straight up into the AC's vents and around and around the fan blades, killing the machine.

I installed a new air conditioner in a different window, but the battle was joined, and because I don't want to use herbicides - they'd kill the rest of the garden I'm trying to save - the battle has been going on ever since.

There's some kind of life lesson in this, I imagine, but as I went mano a mano with the bittersweet vine this morning, I kept thinking of the tortoise and the hare. How did something slow and plodding get to be heroic? If the goal is self-renewal, the vine would win - definitely a bittersweet victory.