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Winter Work

Every now and then somebody sees my great big yard and says, "Looks like a lot of work to me." It always takes me by surprise. I never think of it that way.

Some of these people pay good money to walk around a big, green golf course, hitting little hard white balls with sticks and trying to get them to fall into holes. Takes up quite a bit of their time.

We call it gardening because otherwise we'd seem like lunatics. We bought a house on a lot that's big enough for three or four houses (with yards), and ever since we have had to spend all day every Saturday and Sunday doing YARD WORK.

I hear the golfer thinking, "Sell it, Stupid. Move away. Get yourself a nice little town house with a patio and maybe six potted plants."

If you call it gardening, it sounds like fun. You picture fluffing up the mulch underneath a shapely tea rose and snipping off the bloom with a gloved hand. This actually happens from time to time. But only after a whole lot of yard work.

And what we do in winter really is unvarnished yard work. Phillip Miller may be harvesting his parsnips, but we are clearing dead brush. Heaps of it.

I started yesterday as soon as it was light enough to see. It was a cold, gray morning, and the tools drained the heat right out of my fingers as soon as I picked them up in the shed.

I got out three kinds of clippers and a pruning saw. I tend not to think of gardening as exercise, because it is so very complicated, physically. You make odd movements at a slow pace. And although you make the same movement many times, it varies infinitely.

I used the hedging shears to clip back the purple fountain grass -- dead as a doornail -- and to trim last year's brittle stems off the Zexmenia, a yellow native flower that will come back in the spring and bring its friends.

I whacked my way from one side of the front yard to the other. This one is a funny rapid scissor movement with the forearms, like wheezing away with a bellows. I was plenty warm by now. My cheeks were cold, though, and my nose was running.

For stems approaching pencil-size, like the branches of lantana, I switched to the hand clippers. All the work is in the right hand and forearm. Some of it is fast but easy. Clip clip clip clip, go the stalks of blue salvia. But sometimes, for the woody stems of spicy-smelling salvia Greggii, I need two hands, and sometimes it takes all my strength. Sometimes I can't even do it. Time to use the loppers.

By now, Craig had joined me, and the neighborhood began to stir. A painting crew showed up across the street, and now I know who's throwing cigarette butts around. The Korean couple from a block away passed on their morning walk.

The loppers made short work of the remaining salvia and lantana, but now I was working on the crepe myrtle, which I have decided to head back this year. Soon I was panting and straining with all my might to bite the tops off branches more than an inch in diameter. Here's where the pruning saw comes in.

By now, it was 55 degrees and faintly sunny. Pat slowed down to talk to Craig from the window of his truck. Norma's cat wandered over, looking for attention.

The lady with the yellow lab came by and laughed with us at the growing mountain of discarded brush.


The couple down the street saw us in the yard and came by to talk to us about another neighbor who is violating deed restrictions. We don't like it either.

The man next door to them walks a ten-year-old German shepherd. He was dismayed to hear that Wily's gone.

An ancient Chinese man walked by. We have greeted him for years, but we can never figure out where he lives. He is very friendly, but he doesn't speak any English. We call him Secret Asian Man.

I gave up on the crepe myrtle. I couldn't reach it, and anyway, Craig had the bow-saw, which was what I really needed. This job will have to wait for another day.

I think I had to walk about a mile to pick up all the branches and carry them over to where Craig was getting ready to shred. And for almost all this work, you have to bend over. I had now been bending over and straightening up for more than three hours, and I could feel it in my back and legs.

At noon I saw the mail truck and waved, thinking it was Laura. It wasn't. It was a black man I had never seen. He was surprised by such a friendly greeting. He smiled and waved back.

I swept the driveway and carried the last of the twigs and branches to where Craig was running the shredder. We bought this miraculous machine many years ago. We split the cost with Pat and Norma, and we trade it back and forth. It can mulch a branch three inches in diameter. Craig and Pat get weepy when they talk about the horsepower. It's a scary piece of equipment. It would take your arm right off.

Altogether, we did YARD WORK for six hours yesterday. Afterwards I felt about the way I feel after walking seven or eight miles. Today, my arms and chest and legs are just pleasantly stiff and sore.

I couldn't cut a perfect rose, this being winter, and we didn't harvest any parsnips, since we didn't plant any, but we did come away with a little pile of firewood, and that was just as nice.


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