Chapter 1

The fence, the quince, and the black bamboo. Part 1.

Kieran Egan



Clearing some space

My first close look at the shrubbery aggressing into the area where I was to build the Japanese garden was not encouraging. The major bulk of the invasion was fronted by the exuberantly expanding forsythia, sending a multitude of new shoots in spreading clumps that clearly found my side of the fence infinitely more hospitable than its own. Adding density to the advancing front were twisting strands of dreaded morning glory. It had run amuck, huge white flowers defying one to dislike it, or, at least, making one feel guilty for wanting to destroy it. As I poked around, I found a mass of its writhing roots in a deep mound of ash where our neighbors had clearly dumped their barbecue leavings for the past two hundred years. . One of its English names is, appropriately, "devil's guts". The appearance of daunting impenetrability was further due to an attractive but ubiquitous dark green ivy. And adding a prickly and aggressive edge to this nasty brigade were sturdy thumb-thick stalks of a wild blackberry. One stalk had somehow managed to take off from the top of the forsythia and get a tendril attached to our distant pear tree. It was dropping a searching tip that was beginning to root itself into our lawn. Perhaps, I reflected with uneasy premonitions, it would be easier to take up some other project--growing bonsai or bird watching.

I had to shift from planning the garden itself to thinking what kind of fence might be able to hold back this determined group of floral desperadoes. They were supported, I needn't add, by battalions of the sneakier kinds of weeds that propagate, prodigiously, by sending out underground rhizomes of supernatural and malevolent cunning, along with a paler ivy of Amazonian fertility and metallic toughness, all thickened and interwoven with a riot of anonymous but determined rainforest bio-forms.

One stimulus to gardening, that maybe one wants not to acknowledge, is that it is as close as humans get to creation, to making a world of stone, water, plants, and so on; a smaller scale Earth. The gardener presumes to become God-like. And like the God of the Creation, we want to make a paradise. Our paradises, of course, need boundaries, fences, to separate that wilderness beyond our control from the area where we can attempt to work a compromise with nature. Even the Garden of Eden had a fence, through whose gates Adam and Eve were expelled by the angel with the flaming sword. But yet, paradoxically, in the Zen tradition the whole universe is contained in each of its parts, and the garden is a part of the whole that is the world, wilderness and all.

The fence marks a barrier, but we must recognize that it is artificial. We are intruding on nature, making a crass human mark across nature's continuities. One principle of Japanese gardening requires us respectfully to disguise our intrusions, harmonizing what is on our side of the fence with what is beyond. The ideal garden will succeed in two diametrically opposed objectives; to cut one's created paradise off from the rest of the regrettably imperfect world, and yet to suggestively include within one's creation whatever is outside its boundaries. The Japanese call it "borrowing scenery"; suggesting that one's garden continues into what is beyond it. What is beyond, in this case, is the overgrown riot, but also trees and some tall shrubs, and I must think what I can put in place to soften the intrusion of my fence into this surrounding flora. Bamboo will help to reflect the greenery beyond and also soften the sharp lines of the fence. And the neighbor's Japonica quince, delicate red flowers showing despite clinging ivy and branch-high weeds, will need protection during my affront on the matted overgrowth, and will, unintentionally but happily, become duplicated on my side of the fence.

Good fences make good neighbors. Love your neighbor, but don't take down your fence. Well, there's that too, but the Japanese concern is not just with property limits and getting along with others, but reminds us always to be attentive to the rhythms and slow dark music of that most significant other, nature. The spirit of gardening is a co-operation with nature. But we need to recognize, even while we attempt to co-operate, that nature has made no promises to co-operate in return, and will resists us with slow, remorseless energy.

My fence, my gross intrusion, was to serve as a barrier against the invasion of the neighboring wilderness and be the necessary limit that any paradise requires. And so I had to amass the resources of human ingenuity to clear the ground. The most gratifyingly effective tools were a simple pair of secateurs and the wonderfully destructive mattock. I thought I had bought a pickaxe, till a friend with a farming background referred to it as a mattock. It has a sharp pick at one side of the head, and an adze-like flat blade at the other. .

How to begin? As soon as I approached any part of the thicket, something tried to poke me in the eye or grab my sweater or trouser legs with its thorns. I started with the secateurs where the condominium fence ended and the thicket began, just snipping the reachable ends of everything that jutted over my side of the line. This was no doubt enormously wasteful of time, but I wasn't in a hurry. I was more interested, for this first foray, to get some sense of what I was up against. It was slow and pleasant work; and what I was up against was an enemy who knew time was on its side, and who seemed to sneer at these early attempts to throw back its front rank troops.

I snipped and cut, and occasionally struggled to sever bits of thick forsythia, pulled out chunks of morning glory, and particularly tried to free the green plastic mesh fence from whatever vines and branches entangled it. After a couple of sweaty hours, I had covered maybe as much as four feet, and had an accumulating mound of fronds and stems and branches in a pile on our lawn. I was making progress, if only in discovering how matted and tenacious were some of the deeply clotted forts of the enemy. Ah, but my slow and cautious maneuvering was really part of a larger strategy to lull the more resilient of my enemies into a false sense of security. They could confuse this tidy snipping with an invigorating pruning, not realizing that I was just clearing space to wield the mattock like a berserker.

After a few hours the next day, I released about six feet of the old green mesh fence, and pulled it out and down onto the lawn. The four-foot tall posts that it was attached to came down with it, rotted through at the base, and carried forward by the invading horde. A couple of more sessions and the mesh was completely released, rolled up and ready for the dump.

I nailed U shaped fasteners to the fence posts at either end of the stretch where I was going to build, and tied a bright yellow string between them, using a carpenter's level to make it, well, level. This marked a clear line against which I could site the new posts for my fence. It also showed how much more of the thicket I had to cut back. The depressing part was looking down at the ground and seeing what a mass of coagulated stems and roots remained on my side of the line.

This was the point when I realized that all those millennia of experiments with metals and alloys, from ancient Sumaria to the Industrial Revolution, hadn't been a waste of time. Wielding the mattock, I cleared in an afternoon what would have taken a prehistoric village a month. The dense stems of the forsythia crumbled, and the adze blade ripped out the roots with ease. Occasionally a twig lashed at me as it fell, and things with thorns snatched at whatever they could reach.

But the power of the mattock was intoxicating. It struck with satisfying carnage. Sweating and sticky, I lifted the heavy tool over my head and swung again and again. It sheared through everything in sight. Knotted clumps of roots, which I had poked at ineffectually with a spade, exploded under the mighty mattock. Luckily I started mid-afternoon in the early spring. Had darkness not called me to my senses, I might have hacked my way across town. Alas, destruction is deliriously more dramatic, with its seductive satisfactions, than construction.

I realize that this destructive zeal isn't quite in keeping with the ideals of pacific harmony the Japanese garden is designed to produce in my soul. No doubt one of the Zen masters has a paradoxical observation about violence leading to calm, like Samson's riddle about strength producing sweetness, or the repose that follows storms that require the storms for the repose. Perhaps I should give up trying to justify the delight in demolishing plant life with the mattock, and note only that nature exacted some revenge as I rolled out of bed the following morning with knotted muscles.

What leaves one disturbed by such destructive triumphs, of course, is that the plants seem so unrecriminating. They are just biding their time. Already I was beginning to sense that the romantic partnership between the gardener and nature was really no such thing. It may seem a partnership only because the weaker and more temporary partner claims it is; but the other partner is utterly committed to anarchy and wildness and the long, long view, arching beyond our temporary intrusions. You might be wondering what the neighbors with whom we shared that fence thought of my heroic slashing and ripping of their forsythia and other flora. Fortunately, for me, they had moved out, razed the house, and were selling their lot. Unfortunately, for them, they set about this at the point when an economic downturn led to a dive in the local real estate market, and no one was showing much interest in buying. On the "It's an ill wind . . ." principle, this did mean I could hack away with some impunity at the overgrown shrubs, and helps explains why they were overgrown. The neighbors occasionally came back to prevent their lot growing too wild, too "natural", and assured me it would be fine to slash away as new owners would likely level the whole site anyway.

Beginning the fence

While engaged in this assault on the thicket, I was also having to decide what kind of fence I would put up along the line of cleared ground, to hold off further encroachments--underway, I realized, millimeter by millimeter from the moment I stopped for the day. I wouldn't like you to think I took this battle personally, but as I lay down to sleep or sat reading with a cup of coffee after work or even while teaching, I would be conscious that they were out there with nothing else to do but grow. And do it most energetically in the direction of my garden. At night I imagined listening to the ground with a super-sensitive ear. Roots would be squeezing through soil, scraping past stones, sucking nutrients. If one could hear these faintest noises, one would know the tumultuous, ceaseless energy of these aggressors. The peace we have sitting in our gardens comes only because our hearing is so dull. We think of plants as silent, but they make a riot of the first foot or so of soil.

On days when it rained, I would look for pictures of distinctively Japanese-looking fences. Most of the fences pictured in the books were made of bamboo, and usually tied with knots of supernatural complexity. I think I had measles when they did knots at the boy scouts, and I never really caught up. Another problem with so many of the books about Japanese gardens, from my perspective, is that the authors assume you are landscaping the back eighty&endash;&endash;acres, rather than square yards--and have a squad of skilled workers to call on. Half a dozen clever-fingered experts in bamboo might have made some of the most attractive and distinctively Japanese fences, but, alas, there was only ham-fisted me to do the work here. After some time, I found a sketch of a fence in one of the books. It looked Japanese in style, if only by virtue of the cap on top and the decorative strips under the cap. Here it is:

The trouble with this simple yet elegant design, as you may note from the enlarged view, is that the dimensions given for the lumber seem to be occasionally wrong. (The dimensions for the cap, for example, can't be 1" by 3"s.) But more of that when we get to building the fence.

An alternative that would have been much simpler (which, needless to say, I saw only after I had adapted the one above and had bought the lumber) involved putting in the vertical 4" by 4" posts and two lengths of horizontal 2" by 4" stringers nailed between them, one high on the posts and one low. Then one simply nailed to the 2" by 4"s alternate vertical 1" by 8" boards and 1" by 2" strips. The 1" by 2"s extend up about three of four inches higher than the wider boards. The effect is simple but attractive. One might also manage a similar effect with 1" by 6" boards--in fact I can't be sure from the picture which it is.

I couldn't use the design in the sketch as it stood, as I was constrained by the neighbors' fences on both sides of it. When I measured across from the fence on the north to that at the south I realized that they differed in size by more than two feet. The cap allowed me to disguise the difference at both ends. Instead of the 4 foot tall planks, I decided--to be more coherent with my neighbors, to go with 5 foot. I measured up the space, calculated the amount of wood I would need, and bought rough cedar 4" by 4", 1" by 8" boards, miles of 1" by 1", and various other bits and pieces. Unfortunately I had to be away for a few days and so had it delivered. Bad move--the lumberyard guys have no interest in chosing the best pieces of wood for you, indeed, they are eager to get rid of the junk no one will select for themselves. So when the pile arrived, some of it was less than beautiful.

I set aside the damaged boards and took them back to the lumberyard to exchange. It is hard for the middle-class type to get lumberyard chic quite right. One can try to mimic the professionals, with worn and faded jeans, the battered and soil-encrusted tape measure clipped to the belt, the rugged shirt, and pencil stub behind the ear. A three-day beard helps. But it is the confident contemptuous look I can't manage. The other end of the scale is the guy who drives up in his Mercedes, with Gucci loafers and starched designer work-shirt and "gentlemen's jeans," and buys some exotic hardwoods and teak dowels. No doubt building harpsichords as a hobby.

Somewhere betwixt and between, I stumbled into the yard with the unsatisfactory boards under my arm. Whatever I had gained by my carefully neutral sartorial preparations, I immediately lost by wearing whimpish hard fabric gloves to prevent splinters. A real man would no doubt rub his work-toughened hands along the boards, instead of using sandpaper to smooth them.

But however inadequate I feel in lumberyards, I am always slightly intoxicated by the wonderful smell of the wood. The dominant flavor that day was cedar.

A slim, red-haired young man came towards me. He glanced at the boards as he approached, showing what seemed disproportionate horror at their condition even before I could begin to complain. He seemed more distressed than I was. His long face and pale blue eyes outraged that anyone would give such stuff to a customer. "Rubbish! It's rubbish!" Had the boards been pointed, I felt he might have impaled himself. I began assuring him they really weren't so bad, apologizing for bringing some of them back. He helped me replace them with the very best he could find and slid them into the trunk of my car with a delicacy that would have done a brain surgeon proud. As I pulled away, I saw him slide my returns back on top of the pile to await the next incautious customer. He had probably selected them for me in the first place. But he was a veritable Mozart of outraged sympathy.

I set about the fence.

First I rented one of those tools for digging neat holes for the 4" by 4"s&endash;&endash;a Posthole Digger, it is called. It is like two narrow shovels hinged together. One drives them into the ground, pulls apart the handles, which forces the shovel-like blades to come together, then one pulls up and throws aside the first scoop of soil. In a surprisingly short time I was looking down into a three-foot deep hole, not exactly elegant, but adequate.

One difference between the professional and the amateur is that the latter typically does each job only once and then moves on to another job that he or she does only once. The professional gets to make all the mistakes over the first half dozen tries at any job, and then learns all the tricks and shortcuts and techniques. This project looks as though it is going to be a series of hundreds of jobs each of which will be done only once. Mind you, I did have to dig three holes, and the third was discouragingly neater than the first. The neatness mattered, I was to discover soon, in that the first hacked and irregular one required a lot more concrete to fill around the post. I consoled myself that I will have to dig many more for the tea-house, so my small but accumulating post-hole digging skill won't go to waste.

Then I sweated away at mixing the concrete in my new wheelbarrow. The pictures in the Landscape Design and Construction book I bought are of calm men in immaculate clothing mixing the concrete with casual ease. I found it backbreaking and sweaty, and, of course, as it was the first time I had done it, full of anxiety. The trouble with mixing concrete is that you can't stop and think about it too much, or the stuff will set. I did the work with a spade, turning the dry stuff over on the damp cement, then adding bits of water to get the right consistency--I hoped. Just follow the instructions on the bag and don't worry, was my conclusion. There's a fair latitude for error. I later read that one can mix the water and cement better with a hoe than a spade. I'll try that when I get round to the tea-house. When it seemed ready, I slurped the porridgey mess into the holes around the standing 4" by 4"s.

The result was as to the right. Note the slightly mounded top to the concrete which is to keep water from the base of the post.

A tad off perfect verticality, and horizontality, but not too bad. You'll see from the picture that I began putting in the 2 by 4s, and testing to see that the planks fitted. The design I was following was quite clever, in that it avoided nailing the planks to the stringers, slotting them instead inside strips of 1 by 1s. I nailed the 1 by 1s in parellel onto the top stringer, leaving enough space for the planks to slot in, and then nailed a single 1 by 1 on the bottom stringer. I would then be able to fit the boards in place and nail the final 1 by 1 to hold them once everything was up. It went pretty easily for a while, though my knees were complaining after a day of bending and heaving.

After a while I had the fence up. It looked like this before staining:

You can see here the mounding of the concrete that is desirable to ensure that the water flows away from the foot of the fence posts. The near one above was my first effort, and I think I may have overdone it. But the rotten posts that had been hanging onto the old mesh fence I had removed were a vivid warning of the results of not keeping water away from their feet. The original builder had put the mesh fence upright by nailing it to the posts; in the end the plant-tangled fence was the only thing keeping the rotted posts upright. No doubt a metaphor that carries a deep meaning for our lives, but I can't think just what it is at the moment.

I used 1" by 8"s to make the cap at the top, which produced an effect like the diagram. The other change from the plan was to use 4" by 4"s as supports for the cap between the post, rather than the 2" by 4"s indicated. It looks more coherent, but perhaps was a mistake, I concluded months later, as the extra weight caused the top stringer to sag a little. The unquestionable mistake, which was to have serious saggy implications for the bottom stringer as well, was using eight-foot spaces between the posts, and heavy five-foot boards. The extra weight across the long bottom 2" by 4"s encouraged droops like the dowager's pearls.

But getting this far had involved cutting and hammering cedar, one of the most aromatic and friendly of woods for building purposes. It is hard, building anything, not to feel affection for wood. Its utility to humans is so great that one could write the history of the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of the availability and exploitation of wood. Take the Roman Empire&endash;well, someone did. Its power was built on the use of wood for its great fleets which fed its cities from the grains of Egypt, and for much of its fortifications. The Empire's fall came with its inability to produce silver from its Spanish mines to pay the troops that held back the "barbarians." The silver required smelters, which were fueled with wood. As time went by, the forests that supplied that fuel were laid waste, and the costs of getting wood to the smelters proved excessive. So Rome couldn't pay its troops, so the barbarians overran the operation. Well, one's mind does tend to wander while slapping nails into wood, and admiring the material's hospitality in accepting the nails, and its willingness to grip and hold them for you.

But I did have a problem with the 1" by 1" strips under the decorative cap. The idea was to make the strips look as though they go right through the 4" by 4"s. I cut the long pieces to fit exactly between the posts, and tacked them in place at both ends. That was easy, apart from hammering the occasional thumb and finger. The 1" by 1"s had to be held in place against the 4" by 4" posts and nailed on each side. This involved a fair amount of neck and arm bending, and tacking small nails in the confined space under the cap wasn't wonderfully easy. But tacking the short one-foot pieces on to the other side of the 4" by 4"s was much harder. The problem was in fixing such a small piece of wood firmly at a 90-degree angle. I found that after tapping in the first nail, the wood drooped down. After the second nail, it sloped off to the left. The third and fourth nails seemed unable to straighten it out, and after a while there was more metal than wood evident. I tacked them more or less in place and decided to leave them to wait for inspiration, or the guidance of an expert.

A visiting architect friend seemed like the answer. Over lunch I kept encouraging him to look out the window, mentioning fences and problems with their building, and eventually just crudely offered to show him around the site, whether he liked it or not. I mentioned my problem with the drooping strips. He looked sagely at the fence, and suggested a solution. I had, until desperation got the better of me, been wary of letting a professional architect see my efforts, remembering from somewhere Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens comment on seeing Simla, the Hill Station in the Himalayan foothills (from where the British ruled India for much of the year, unable to bear the heat of New Delhi): "If one was told that monkeys had built it, one could only say, 'What wonderful monkeys--they must be shot in case they do it again.'" I expected my architect friend to be less explicitly judgmental, and to come up with a solution to my sagging wood problem that involved some arcane technique that might need great skill or some complex tool I might be able to rent. He asked if I had a source of very fine fishing line. "Tie it to the end of the hanging 1" by 1" and then staple the line to the inside of the cap above. No-one will be able to see it." This reminded me of the similar tip an expert handy-man decorator once offered when I asked how to fix a damaged wall tile in a bathroom. "Stick a picture over it." These pieces of advice seem to lack the Zen master touch.

Staining the fence

Having tested that the boards all fitted, I then removed them and began staining the fence-supports on a fine sunny day. The sky clouded over early in the afternoon, and within a short time those ominous heavy-bellied purple-gray monsters were headed towards the fence. I knew that they had heard about the painting, picked up lakefulls of water, and stormed towards my garden intent on gleeful dousings. The instructions on the stain-can reassured me that unless the stain was kept dry for at least 24 hours, the work would be ruined. Sigh. Grabbing assorted bits of waterproof plastics from all over the house, including my daughter's tent tarp, I covered my handiwork as follows: :

Needless to say, it didn't rain.

In the above picture you can see the colors I chose--a dark charcoal gray and a slightly dull, strong green. I had been looking at colors in the various Japanese gardening books, trying to fix on a typical or traditional matching set. At one point I had imagined a combination of a rather pallid terracotta with ochre, having seen a number of buildings in various shades of ochre, and having imagined how it might go well with a kind of washed out terracotta. But I decided that the black and green would present a more restful combination. I haven't regretted my choice, but we'll see whether it mightn't be a little too subdued if I also use the same combination on the tea-house.

When the boards were in place, and I'd left them for a few days, it became clear that the bottom 2" by 4" stringer was unable to support their weight. The dowager's sag. It became clear not just because one could see it, but because the boards in the mid-points between the posts fell out in even a slight breeze! Even I knew that when the boards of one's fence dropped onto the ground, something was not entirely right. The diagram I was following seemed to have weightless wood.

I needed to provide some support for the bottom stringer. I thought of a variety of solutions, favoring those that would require least work--like slamming a big stone under the mid-point of each eight-foot stretch. But, having wandered the neighborhood looking at how people prevented their fences from sagging (and earning a number of suspicious looks as I pulled at grasses and poked around the base of various fences), I realized that the obvious solution was to screw another cedar 2" by 4" on its side under each of the sagging stringers.

I had decided, for some reason connected with their being in front of me in the hardware store, to try galvanized screws rather than nails for fixing the stringers to the posts. This proved a good decision. The screws are stronger. I also saved a lot of time due to having two drills. I fixed a drill bit somewhat thinner than the circumference of the screw in one, and a bit that fitted the screw head in the other. Dragging the two gun-like drills along behind me, it was an easy matter to make a guide hole with the first, then put the screw in place and zoom it firmly in with the other. I had been left the second drill a while ago by a dear friend who had died, and somehow it was comforting to use her tools on this slightly mad project, as though she was still around taking part in the work. It was the kind of project she would have enjoyed, serendipitous but with the challenge of practical making without much of a preordaining plan. Drilling upwards at about ground level, I had to brace myself by lying stretched along the trench I had dug the length of the fence. The dirt was satisfactorily dirty, and no doubt added to the workmanlike authenticity of my jeans. One of my sons came out as I was putting the last screws in, and was clearly impressed at the old man slogging through the muck, swinging from drill to drill like a mechanized gunslinger.


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