Make no mistake: It’s war out there. Arduous, protracted war, in which prisoners are endured only if necessary, but their execution is preferred. In this witless zero sum game, sun and soil and water are the prizes, and brutal, single-minded purpose is the cost of pursuing them.
My name is Wisteria, and my goal is to cover every square inch of Earth.
Mind if I sidle in here underneath you for a spell?
Thankfully, wisteria won’t likely achieve its goal, but it will not be for lack of trying. To its no-doubt chagrin, it hasn’t (yet?) figured out how to survive and thrive in oceans or on tall chilly peaks, about which it remains ignorant. But here in the southeast, it knows all too much about surviving and thriving, having long since mastered the art of absorbing essential nutrients in great abundance after its major varieties were introduced as ornamental flowering vines from Asia in the early 1800s.
…sending out countless criss-crossing vines that form a checkerboard of prodigious strength and maddening complexity—an herbal garrison fortified to the proverbial nines against all that would do it harm.
Here, it bedecks trellises and pergolas that present in spring as Mother Nature’s pendulous breasts in a palate of bright colors, under which garden party guests gather round the punch bowl or newly beloveds recite their vows.
But elsewhere, it indiscriminately climbs trees and downspouts, garages and fences, outdoor sculptures and bird baths, showing no favor and seeking none but the support of a sturdy, stationary object it can wrap itself around and continue its outreach to the sky.
Left unchecked, it can eventually topple fences, crack foundations and strangle its host trees, depriving them of nutrients it keeps to itself in pursuing life and more life (which can stretch to 50 years and longer).
And perhaps most diabolically of all, it can grow a monumental root system that grows—and grows and grows—stealthily beneath the soil, sending out countless criss-crossing vines that form a checkerboard of prodigious strength and maddening complexity—an herbal garrison fortified to the proverbial nines against all that would do it harm.
Did the beauty and strength of wisteria deter me from trying to harm the living hell out of it the other day?
Did I succeed?
Wisteria vines are programmed not only to climb and keep on climbing, but down below, to get tight-packed into the soil and spread out like the world’s most many-legged spider. When they’re young and skinny, you can easily enough get under them and give a yank sufficient to begin pulling up the 5, 10, 20 feet they have traversed barely beneath the surface of grass or dirt.
There’s something inherently satisfying about this stage, like fishing a hairball or child’s rattle out of a stopped-up sink and feeling an almost visceral “Ahhhh…” as the water flows freely again.
But the pleasure is short-lived when you eventually grab hold of a mature vine, as you must if you are ever to do more than temporarily halt its cunning march. Once the vines reach about an inch (and many more) in diameter, they require considerable exertion on your part, very likely with an assist from a shovel or blunt end of an ax to get sufficiently under the vine to dislodge it from its tenacious clinging to the soil and its fellow crossing vines.
Grunting, sighing, pausing to catch some air and allow the dizziness to pass, your efforts, one hard-earned inch at a time, initially suggest a reward might await.
So very naive of you.
Because then, almost invariably, you are brought up short with a thick, fibrous crossing vine running nearly perpendicular to yours and wedded so tightly that even getting it to yield a fraction of an inch to allow for clippers to get in between the vines requires a rest and recalculation.
Or right along with your vine crossing with another, it also forms a V to become two vines, heading on diagonals to different corners of the lot. (And crossing or V’ing maybe another 10 or 50 times before they get to those corners.)
For a while, you take to these developments with even more determination, throwing your entire body and being into it in pursuit of some magical, final, vine-busting blow.
This is when you realize how heavy with perspiration your shirt is, and how loudly and involuntarily you have been making desperate-sounding noises reminiscent of interior football linemen just after the ball is snapped.
Which is also when you decide the only sensible (and possible) course of action is to lean back against the garage, wait until your panting subsides, and consider how you are going to end the day’s labors with a modicum of grace that does not leave the yard a miasma of snipped and uprooted vines, pointing awkwardly at the sky from little dirt mounds, awaiting the ministrations of a competent attendant.
Because here’s the thing: Every time you think to restore order by snipping off a last remaining vine and patting down a little soil to give your efforts the patina of a logical and systematic stopping point for the day, you find another crossing vine, another V, another tangled, inscrutable mess between you and your goal-directed ways.
At which point you rant and despair and cry to the heavens, “Why me, Lord? Why me?”
But of course, you know the answer. You are engaged here in an age-old, colossal struggle for power, a fight (in some instances) to the death of one party or another to achieve dominion in nature.
For the wisteria, it’s about freedom to be, to exist at all.
That’s no small matter for a plant or any other living thing, though one could certainly argue wisteria goes to rather excessive lengths in comparison, say, to coleus, a seemingly very distant cousin in the plant world that politely folds up its leaves with fall’s first freeze and gives way to succeeding generations.
For all my wailing in the garden, it’s not my existence at stake here—only my and Mary’s aesthetic. It’s our desire not to behold off our back porch the veritable jungle of wisteria that greeted us upon our arrival at this property, and against which we have been whacking, snipping, axeing, heaving, hoeing and cursing since our arrival, having made plentiful progress to date but with oh, so very long still to go.
Having had its way with this patch of earth for at least the past 20 years, the wisteria is clearly now in retreat, stunned and chastened by new sheriffs in town, enforcing new ordinances which include a diversity, equity and inclusion clause allowing for other, less incursive and marauding life forms.
I can’t say I feel badly about that, because just like our giraffe friend pictured above (who used to get toppled by a light breeze but now remains stoutly upright through gales), if I were to pose immobile against a post or tree back there in what could still plausibly be called Wisteriaville, it wouldn’t think twice about wrapping itself around my ankles and proceeding up the rest of my body while also industriously pursuing its criss-crossing and V’ing work below to ensure I remain immobilized and impervious to uprooting.
And there I would remain, slowly returning to the soil, an inert, subdued host in the ultimate struggle that drives wisteria and all other living things on Planet Earth to just keep on going, an inch, an hour, a foot, a day at a time, as long as that time shall last.
And for the flip side, from tenacity to pure majesty…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Wisteria garden by Nick Kenrick, Wirral, UK https://www.flickr.com/photos/zedzap/
Wisteria vines and giraffe sculpture photos by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/