Chapter Nine--Part 1

Finishing as spring comes again

Kieran Egan



There seem to be a thousand things to do still to finish, or at least to get the garden into a condition from which . . . well, what do I mean? I was going to say that I would finish and then there would be just routine pottering, that there comes an indefinite and indistinct time when one moves from making to maintaining. But, of course, there is no finishing point because there is always something to add or change to take it closer to the foolish heart's desire. It is only our stories that have beginnings and endings. Nature doesn't recognize our starts and finishes, but just carries on around us, heartless and storyless. We are the story makers, and so, athwart nature, I am going to come to a finish when I have the overall shape of the garden more or less fitting the vague notion I began with.

Spring, at least, is punishingly reliable, but I wasn't so sure I had done the right things to enable it to do what I hope for the bamboo. The thin stemmed pots I had planted certainly hadn't died, but perhaps the soil or the placement or the water barrier might in some ways combine to stunt their growth. I kept looking for signs of new culms bursting from the ground, but nothing showed. I talked to people in nurseries, some of whom assured me they should be up by now, and others reassured me that they still had time. I was almost ready to take the Walkman out to play Mozart to them, when, one morning, there were suddenly half a dozen thumb-thick pointed culms already inches above ground. Within days, the tallest was over a foot high. I had read about the speed with which bamboo grew, but this was ludicrous. Within a few more days they were shoulder height, and then above my head and making for the clouds. And then, quite suddenly, they stopped, about the level of the top of the fence. Perhaps next year the new culms will go higher.

Between the raised garden, pond, and fence, where the bamboo is now growing vigorously from each of its three containers (I hope they will contain it!), I can now finally lay down a covering of stones. I go back to one of my favorite places, the landscape supply yard.

Once in the gate, there are shoulder-high mounds of stones, bound in wire and tough plastic. Further back they tower higher, as pallets are piled one on top of the other. The first sets are wall stones, from the gray basalt I had used, through endless shades of green and brown, to rose and ochre, and pretty well any color you might want. Nature seems to supply them all. I park the car and amble through some of the mounds, delighting in their names and textures. Here's a dark pile of "midnight slate," and, next to it, "tumbled Pennsylvania bluestone," followed by "Kootenay jade," "green marble," and "mountain blueberry." On the other side is "random summer sunset slate," "Kootenay rainbow rock," "goldleaf," "Mile 40 river rock," and "Bristol Isle river flats." (No one at the yard seems to know where Bristol Isle is. There is a tiny Bristol Island out in the south Atlantic, I discover, but that hardly seems a likely source of the stones. The guys I talked to assume they are from somewhere in British Columbia. More research is needed.)

I had earlier bought some dark blue/gray stones as samples and decided they were what I wanted. But nothing is easy. Here next to them are wide tubs of stones in colors I hadn't seen before. Particularly attractive were a dark tan stone, which was called "red Mexican pebbles." Alongside it were "purple Mexican pebbles," "black Mexican pebbles," and "tequila sunrise pebbles." The black was what I imagined getting, but I filled a couple of bags with the red as well, just to lay them against the fence to see whether some magic confluence might strike. The pebbles I had were half to one-inch in size&emdash;though many were bigger than that&endash;&endash;but here was a tub of two-inch black pebbles, and perhaps they might work better along the fence. So I added a bag of those as well.

Inside the office area I asked a new young man behind the counter if he knew where the various stones came from. I had a notebook, so mentioned I am writing a book about my little building project and hoped to add some background to the items I was buying. He didn't know and called up the stairs behind him, which led to a balcony where the yard manager had his office. The laconic man I had dealt with a few times before looked down unsmilingly. In all my visits he had maybe spoken a dozen words, of the yes/ no/ over there/ check or visa?/ variety. I was interested in the black Mexican pebbles, and had to begin with the question that would mark me as an idiot, but tried to soften the blow by putting it the form:

"I assume they come from Mexico?"

He lowered his elbows onto the ledge of the balcony and his face relaxed into what might count as close to a smile.

"There's a beach. Miles long. Endless stones of all colors. They've been stripping it for twenty years. A guy or family buys the rights to a section of beach and they sort the stones by hand&endash;&endash;colors, sizes, shapes, quality. Imagine the day. Down to the beach with the family, even the kids get a bag each. With your own kind of stone to find." He stopped, or seemed to pause, but didn't begin again.

'Do you get them direct from Mexico?"

"No. Supplier in San Diego. I can give you his phone number. He'd know more."

"Oh no, thanks. That's O.K. You've told me the kind of thing I wanted to know."

I came home with bags of the red stone, and of the larger black stone. Wheelbarrowing them to the rear of the garden, and tipping them against sections of the fence, I realized immediately that both were mistakes. The red were too bright. I had thought they might be a good continuation of the reddish-brown balcony decking. And the black stones were too big. Heigho. The small black ones were right all along. I should have remembered the principle from one of the books I had consulted&endash;&endash;"small fish, small stones." I assume this doesn't mean I will have to upgrade the size of my stones as the fish grow.

Of course I was convinced of this only after I had spread all the stones I had brought home on top of the compacted gravel. The next day I faced the chore of gathering all the stones and getting them back into the bags. Knees and back complained again, as well they might. Then I discovered that the tire on my wheelbarrow had given up the ghost. What had been a slow leak had become a total deflation, and it let air out as fast as I was pumping it in. Now how was I to get the stones to the car? Recently I had bought one of those trashcans on wheels, so forced it into reluctant service. It was obvious that it thought hauling heavy bags of stone across the lawn was not at all its kind of work, but, complaining and digging its small wheels into the lawn here and there, it did it.

Back at the landscape supply center, the laconic manager was happy to accept back these stones, and swap them for five bags of the small Mexican black pebbles. By this point my knees were creaking, and I happily accepted the help of the young man who came out to show me where to return the old stones and where to get the smaller black pebbles. They were in bags, straight from the Mexican beach, via San Diego, under the awning next to the shed in which the pond liner had been cut, or mis-cut, some months ago, and in which the familiar bags of Chinese bamboo rested.

"This is my last job of the day," he cheerily told me.

In front of the tightly piled bags there was an area of oily mud, a couple of inches deep at its center. We tried to avoid it, climbing onto the piles to find the bags with the pebble size I wanted. Taking the easier part, I tossed the bags forward for him to pick up and load into the back of the car. To get the last one, he hopped up onto the front pile and began to step down holding it.

You know those moments when you can see something happening before it happens, but don't have time to say or do anything even though everything seems to be moving in such slow-motion you could play a game of cricket in the time it took? The bags of stone were shipped from San Diego in sets of about fifty in heavy-plastic sheathing, which had been cut through to allow access to individual bags. At the front, the plastic hung in a loop just below the level of the top bags. The young man caught his foot in it on the way down, falling forward directly into the inches of oily mud.

He lay for a moment, rising without any evident damage except mud all over his pants and sleeves. The bag of stones, onto which he had fallen, had saved the front of his coat.

"Well, that was my last job for the day," he said good-humoredly, but not quite as cheerfully as a few minutes earlier. I drove home with the bags, a little guilty that he had borne the cost of loading them. They were so heavy that I had to climb into the trunk of the car to toss them out onto the driveway.

Before I could get them to the back of the garden, I needed to get the wheel of my barrow fixed. At the bicycle shop the following morning I was greeted by an unshaven guy eating a sandwich, at about 10 a.m. Early lunch, or perhaps a late and unconventional breakfast?

"This is a bike shop," he accused me, pointing at the squat wheel I was carrying.

"I ride a very small fat bicycle," I said.

"We've had a run on these wheelbarrow wheels recently. I've fixed three of them in about two years. So I'm really good at it now."

I wasn't encouraged, though this Pythonish exchange was more fun than the usual politenesses. He grabbed the wheel, switching sandwich and wheel a couple of times as he led me energetically to the back of the shop. After trying to pump compressed air in for five seconds, he said:

"The seal's shot. You'll need to get an inner-tube. Try the lumberyard or the tool rental place across the street."

Warily I entered the tool rental shop, concerned that I would be told I needed a hovercraft for the job not a wheelbarrow. With some relief, I saw that my friend who always insisted I needed something other than I asked for was just leaving.

"Ted'll take care of you," he said. And Ted did, in minutes putting in a tube, blowing it up and sending me back to trundle the stones to the rear of the garden, and pour them out around the bamboo and against the fence. They were exactly right. But I still needed, I calculated, about another eight bags. After another visit to the landscape supply yard, and spreading the further eight bags along the fence, I decided I still needed a further four.

I thought this might be my last visit to the supply yard and its paradise of stones, and felt almost nostalgic. My laconic manager greeted me cheerfully.

"More Mexican black?"

"Four more bags should see the end, and about six or seven basalt wall stones to give an edge for them."

"O.K. I'll have one of the guys load the stones for you, then you drive onto the weighscale, make a note of what the car weighs, then pile in what you need of the wall stones, back onto the scale, and we charge you for the difference."

With the stones in the trunk, I drove onto the weigh machine, which announced in red lighted numbers that I weighed 4,050 lbs. I then backed to the piles of basalt and loaded in enough to complete a small wall round the side of the tea house, irritated that I had forgotten my work gloves and was getting grime from the stones on my leather town gloves. The idea was to make a small wall separating the Brazilian black pebbles from the gravel under the teahouse. I would have liked to continue the pebbles to the rear fence and under the teahouse, but to do that I would have to take out another mortgage. I had already spilled around $500 worth of a Brazilian beach into my garden. No doubt the Mexican family that laboriously selected and packed the stones made about $10.

With the basalt in the car I now weighed 4,220 lb. How much would I have to pay for those few stones? Weren't they some significant amount a pound? I was trying to calculate what this was going to cost as I walked back into the office where my laconic friend was poised over a calculator.

"4,050 in and 4,220 out," I said, still trying to calculate. "Can that be right? That seems a lot of pounds for the few stones I put in the car."

I was puzzled that moving 170 lb. of stones was so easy.

"Well, you're a good customer, so I'll just call it 100 lb."

"Oh no. No, I mean, I'm just interested to know whether I could have carried 170 lb. so easily. What, maybe 20 lb. to 30 lb. per stone. I see, of course, it could easily be 170 lb."

But by this time he had entered it as 100 lb., and charged me only $12 for the basalt. I do well as an inadvertent bargainer.

I built a small curving continuation of the pond wall along the west side of the teahouse and around the back of the second set of bamboo. Then I poured the remaining stones inside the new wall. While setting the stones in place, I wasn't surprised to see that the culms of bamboo in the now hidden&endash;&endash;except through the teahouse window&endash;&endash;set towards the rear corner were by far the sturdiest and blackest, and those most visible behind the pond were the weakest and most mottled. Perhaps another spring may change this.

Tuning the music of the waterfall

One feature of the garden I had intended to come back to was the waterfall into the pond. A waterfall's harmonics need careful attention if it is to create peace in the mind of its hearers. I had tried to improve its music when I fixed the overflow I caused by my loading too many stones in the stream, but the flow of water was still too concentrated. It fell in a rush, creating a noise that had in it disturbing undertones of hurry and anxiety. I spent a careful hour of so, moving stones on the top of the falls, altering the siting of the rocks, spreading the water out over the flat rock at the edge where the unsuspecting water found itself suddenly unsupported, dispersing the spray across more of the rocks on the way down, and ensuring greater diversity in the set of rivulets that splattered the pond.

Silly of me to think the water might not expect the sudden drop, of course. It does nothing all day, every day, but settle for a while in the pond, get sucked into the pump, rush up the dark narrow hose to the bottom of the bog&endash;&endash;and heaven knows what it's like down there&endash;&endash;rise up through the stones and emerge from the gravel into the light and air for the brief run down the stream to that familiar dive back into the pond.

After an hour or more fiddling, the water sounded as though it was not rushing, but making a more cheerful, many-toned, lighter, more diverse music.


Protecting the fish

Once the teahouse balcony was in place, removing and replacing the chicken wire frames I had built to protect the pond from raccoons and herons was quite difficult. I needed to come up with some other solution. Brendan had worked on a project where the owner had installed one of those motion sensor devices that triggered jets of water shooting in all directions around the pond. It was effective. But for that I would have to pipe water permanently out to the rear of the garden. Also I would have to lie in bed at night hearing the spray lashing every wandering cat and squirrel in the neighborhood. And I would have to live with the constant problem of ensuring it was switched off when our grandchildren decided to take a totter down the garden, or my wife and I ambled romantically down to the pond in the cool of a summer evening. Motion sensor spraying seemed likely to cause rather more problems than it might solve.

I had already dismissed my son's land-mine option. Someone said that most pond owners simply accepted that they had to "restock" the pond at regular intervals. Apart from the cost, I found this a distasteful way of thinking about my good friends the fish. They weren't merely decorative commodities, they were, as St. Francis would have called them, brothers and sisters, with their own fishy sensibilities.

A friend suggested a single large chicken-wire frame that I could lower from the front of the pond. At the moment there are three frames. Two are four-foot by eight-foot, and one is a smaller irregular shape that fits the garden end of the pond. The single frame could be twelve or fourteen-foot long, he suggested, by maybe eight-foot wide, and made with light 1" by 2"s reinforced by 2" strips of thin plywood. But where would I put such a monster once I had lifted it off the pond? We also discussed my idea of a roll of mesh&endash;&endash;either chicken-wire or fabric&endash;&endash;that would fit under the deck when not in use, be stapled to the teahouse support posts, and then could be rolled out when protection was needed. The problem with this is that it would require two people. Also I wasn't sure how one could arrange it so that it wouldn't interfere with the marginal plants.

I had written the above with the notion that I would return to finish this section when I came up with a solution, earning your admiration for its efficiency and ingenuity. The old chicken-wire frames are difficult to maneuver into place, but they are possible and do do the job. The ignominious end of this section is that I am having to settle for what I had at the beginning. If I come up with something letter, I'll add it here later.


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