As in the movie, "My Brilliant Career" my stint as an essayist was fairly short-lived but it remains as one of the most fun paid writing ventures I've ever had. élan Magazine is a regional publication of glossy colorful pages featuring art and music and literature and I had what I like to think of as a good ride for a little over a year as the magazine ran my feature "Slice of Life" essay in the front section, each one accompanied by a full-page color illustration. The first to appear was about my beloved lab, Miss Ellie, and her successor, my fantastic foxhound, Lucy, and my tenacious efforts to have live plants in their yard.
A Dog Runs Through It
[élan Nov. 2005]
Dog-lovers are often gardeners, not only will we dig up the beloved six-foot lilac before the black lab manages to shred and bury it, but we’ll use this task as an invitation to design a new space. After I dug another safer home for my French lilac out front, I replaced it with a purple plum tree. This was encircled with green liriope on a bed of ajuga; I then poked in a few impatiens for summer-long color, planning on pansies in the fall. The tree survives, the liriope blooms on schedule, but the ajuga ends up getting tossed about like a flattened football, its roots so shallow the dog doesn’t even have to dig her nails in to flip it up out of the soil. As for the impatiens, they are leggy and faded, apparently over-watered by said dog, probably just to annoy me. I know pansies wouldn’t have a chance.
For two years running grass seed is flung about hopefully. The dirt is raked first, a task best saved for when the dog is not looking, for she can’t resist a hearty dig, joining in with both front feet, sending the dirt flying in a suffocating heap behind her where the bleeding heart reaches out in agony, its lovely pink charms getting blasted, dropping, losing sight beneath the dog’s new mountain of fresh soil. Grass tries to bare its young lean stems to the sky but it’s so easily trampled. Not until the black lab turns ten do I begin to have a thick green lawn in that over-seeded, over-worried patch out back.
Then a new dog comes to stay, a young hound that looks like a long-legged beagle and bays at anything that may have scampered by but is no longer visible to the naked eye. The grass disappears. The trunk of the purple plum sports teeth marks. The redbud becomes a favorite flagpole for squirrels as they play chase with the dog. They sail through the air from the top branches to the six-foot fence, then parade along slowly, tails flicking, mouths chattering, while down below the dog howls and flings herself against the tree, biting its trunk in the most marvelous show of frustration.
A flagstone patio is laid out the third year. First its ribbons of soil are planted with grass which is spotty, not thick and green as shown in the catalogues. There’s too much shade from the plum tree and the redbud, now eight feet tall, impervious to the hound’s riotous barking and snapping jaws. The ground is bare and unsightly there at the base of the tree. I picture an arc of greenery and bright flowers. Out front I notice that garlic chives have taken over a sunny border of the vegetable patch. I move three big clumps of them to the base of the backyard tree. There’s at least an hour of sun there in the morning. Hopefully it will be enough and if not, no loss. These stark white star-shaped flowers reseed profusely and the greenery has such a sharp scent maybe it will deter the dog from stirring up its roots—or the squirrel from waltzing about in its wake. A sunny nook in the dog’s yard is reserved for pennyroyal, as I’ve heard it repels fleas.
At the back of the yard the neighbor’s bamboo has created an awning of soothing darkness pleated with thin reeds of light which may be enough to sustain a flowing quilt of English ivy, some evening primrose, sweet woodruff, wild orange daylilies and apple mint—again for its scent and because it’s so prolific out front it won’t matter if it doesn’t survive in the back. I also dream about a mock orange bush my mother used to have, something that will flourish there and be a bright focal point at the corner. I decide instead on a flowering quince, its thorns could keep the new dog at bay.
I’ve discovered the hound doesn’t like to get her feet dirty so I buy random-cut flagstones which are cheaper, and run a winding path from the patio up toward the quince. On either side I plant the seemingly indestructible liriope, weaving some lily-of-the-valley throughout, trimming the back with ivy. I cover the dirt patches with shredded mulch and later stand at the kitchen window to watch the rain create an indigo haze, darkening the mulch, polishing the leaves. The dog shoots out her door after the vanishing squirrel. She stands at the center of the patio and sniffs the air, then trit-trots up the new pathway and pauses elegantly on the last flagstone before the melon-colored quince, just like the single subject in a 19th century portrait.