Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Discovery/Dirt Under My Fingernails

The last leaves are finally wafting from the high branches of the oaks in our New England neighborhood. A few isolated bursts of late fall color punctuate the landscape here and there, but for the most part, the trees are now sharply defined silhouettes against the sky.

Fall cleanup is generally a family affair around here, with my husband and my energetic 87-year-old mother-in-law leading the charge as they vigorously scrub the lawns and flower beds with their broad rakes. Over the years, I’ve taken ownership of one particular patch of garden—a broad sweep of juniper shrubs that flank both sides of our driveway. The shrubs lie directly under the oaks, and by November are covered in a thick blanket of leaves that lie not only on top of the shrubs but get caught in the tangle of spreading limbs. The only way to remove them is by plunging into the hip-high bushes and plucking them by hand. It’s a slow and painstaking process. I wear two layers of gloves, thick socks and my indestructible, 25-year-old Wellingtons, but I still emerge with long red scratches on my arms and legs, a runny nose and flecks of leaf debris in my hair.

Despite the physical assault of unyielding branches that do not want to give up their prisoners, cleaning out those bushes is enormously satisfying. Even after only a few minutes of combing out the leaves with my fingers, I can step back and see progress, which spurs me to keep going. The task is a kind of detangling, teasing out the layers of clutter until the stark, prickly beauty of the juniper is revealed.

I find writing to be a kind of “cleaning out of the bushes.” You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, to get on your knees and scrape around the roots of things.

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