Nandina Metaphor

I neglected to get a photo of my nandina bush, but it’s in the bamboo family so lots of little shoots for trunks. Mine has been the bane of my garden for the last 15 years. I’m sure in the right place they are lovely. I was at the nursery over the week-end and nandinas were selling for $10.50 per pot, so gardeners in the South like them. Me, not so much. They grow runners, or feeder roots, and within a year you no longer have a single bush, but a hedge of little saplings filling in every space. I’d cut or dig out my saplings and try to keep the main tree trimmed, but over the last few years this nandina grew into a grove next to the house. The original tree is over 30 years old so it was determined. Like I said, in the right place maybe they are lovely. This one wasn’t. My goal was to have this thing out by the end of October.  I see relationship in everything so these past 7 months the nandina and its dismantling became a work in metaphor.  

This is what the root system looks like.

I couldn’t just jab a shovel into the ground around it, because there really wasn’t dirt, just this nest of roots that extended for several feet in all directions. The only way to get through them was to cut each one individually. The roots intertwined so while I might cut a root on the front left, it actually ran to the back right of the stump. It was like playing reverse Jenga, instead of moving blocks and hoping the tower didn’t fall, I’d clip a root and couldn’t wait to see what other roots came loose and what holes it left. While tedious and time-consuming, the work was meditative.

I used branch loppers, clippers, and my pruning clippers, but also a screwdriver and a digging stick to scrape away 30 years of caked dirt and poke holes between the roots. The stick was one of the smaller branches of the nandina itself. I did feel a little guilty about that, like forcing the bush to attack itself.  

The nest of roots made me think of how all creation is interconnected. Our actions often affect more than ourselves, and like these roots, the effects may not be close to us. There are ripples we don’t even see. That thought was awe-inspiring and humbling. That intertwining of creation reminded me of Thomas Berry’s book, The Dream of the Earth. I need to read it again.

The nest also made me think of my writing. I’m making the final tweaks in my novel and the work is fun – and sometimes tedious and time-consuming – making sure all the story lines connect. It’s also about the writing process itself, as writers and poets sort through the tangled mess of notes and ideas on scraps of paper, seeing where the story goes, but also finding where the story or poem actually begins.

Everything below the upright shoots was once below ground. That’s my cannibalized stick beside it.

Hubby laughed at me while I worked – and with good reason. I probably looked silly in my bib overalls, on my stomach or my side down in the dirt, getting close to the roots. My tools were all around within easy reach, like a surgeon or car mechanic. Several times he asked why I didn’t just tie a rope to the stump and pull it out with the truck. That might have been quicker and easier, but not nearly as interesting. It wasn’t about getting the stump out, it was about me versus the nandina. Using the truck would be cheating. I was thrilled the day I finally broke the bridge between the main stump and two other large secondary stumps.

The secondary stumps filled that gap

We all know the excitement of doing the hard work ourselves, of making a breakthrough, and seeing the results. It can be anything from digging at a nandina to piecing a beautiful quilt top.   For writers that happens after those nail-biting, hair-pulling all nighters when the right word, image or solution finally appears.  

Life got in the way the last several weeks and I didn’t get to commune with my nandina. To be honest, part of me was avoiding it. I’d cut all I could, leaving only the stump and the tap root, which I knew were in pretty solid. This past Saturday, with the calendar showing October, I decided that stump was coming out, no matter what. The need for little tools was over, so I had my big ones – my shovel, my ax, and the sledge hammer. I was going to dig, hack, and whack that thing until there was nothing but a hole. I made the first plunge with the shovel and not only did it sink in further than I expected, the stump actually shifted. I could hear roots ripping. I dug and rocked it, and the complete stump was out in less than five minutes. I could not believe it.

Pretty much everything below the leaves was once below ground. It weighed about 20 pounds.

 As I looked at the stump and laughed at myself over how easy removing it turned out to be, my nandina reminded me that most things aren’t nearly as difficult as we fear they’ll be. They’re even easier when we do all the tedious, time-consuming, below the surface work beforehand.

So, while you’re reading this, I’m finishing those last few tweaks of my novel, because I have a self-imposed deadline and it’s approaching. It’s time to dig in and be done with it.

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