Thursday, February 3, 2011

Much Mulch

You say you don't want another section from the new manuscript? Too bad. Here's one anyway.


Much Mulch

It’s late morning already, and we’ve finally made it to the new house. In two weeks we’ll move in, married, but until then—and before the sod gets laid—my fiancee and I are here to spread mulch. Twenty yards.

The sun feels as if it’s being reflected off of a series of mirrors, each mirror focusing the heat and light. The air is thick and it’s windy, carrying the musky smell of a nearby farm. I slide a wheelbarrow out of my hatchback and give my wife two buckets—she insists that buckets will be easier.

On the east side of the house, on an empty lot, is twenty yards of wood mulch. Three quarters of it will go behind the house, the rest out front. We dig in. I map out the edges of the garden by outlining it with wheelbarrow loads, and my wife fills in the soil one small bucket at a time. “Are you sure you don’t want to go buy another wheelbarrow?” I ask, and she insists that it’d just be too cumbersome and heavy. And she may be right.

After a few loads I see how long this will take. My wife has already retreated twice into the house to rinse out mulch dust from her contact lenses, and I’m beginning to feel like a slave driver. We must establish a rhythm ingrained in me during my childhood: years of spreading hay in dirt basements each winter for my dad as he built houses, untold rooms swept as workers installed plumbing and electrical, and hours of mowing weeds on empty lots—all of these $5 per hour jobs ensured me that steady repetition was key to surviving. One must retreat deep inside one’s head and make a whole comatose world out of manual labor, and to get there meant emotionless efficiency. My wife disagreed, as I stopped to encourage her with a hug as she cried out the grime and heat.

Each load I jammed in more mulch into the corners of the wheelbarrow, tempting fate and gravity. As we finished about 200 square feet we approached the soggy part of the future garden, and I laid down a mulch bridge that quickly absorbed the water. Several times I got stuck and my wife pulled the wheelbarrow as I pushed, once with the load spilling out to the side like a S’dumpr truck. Yet I kept adding mulch, even half shovel fulls, even individual pieces, anywhere I could in each load. When I went home and found mulch in my socks, pockets, and underwear, I saved them in a container to bring back.

Soon my skin color changed, from red to brown as the mulch dust glued to my sweat, perhaps having the side benefit of working as sunscreen. “You want to go inside, take a drink, cool off?” I’d ask my wife. “We could just go home,” she’d reply, but then refill her 10 gallon bucket and carry on.

It hit me what the neighbors might think, what they’d guess or assume about us or our project. No one has any landscaping within a solid one block radius, just grass up to the foundation walls of each house. And no trees. Not even street trees planted by the developer or city. Instead of lawn, one might assume, we’d have a field of mulch, an expanse of violently shredded trees that after a rain shower left the yard smelling like sweet leather or tannin. Or like the woods I grew up around in Minnesota. Indeed, perhaps subconsciously, the olfactory sense of smell—the oldest sense in the human body—was now enacting itself from deep within. I was creating not just a home with my soon to be wife, but I was creating the home. One mulch chip at a time.

8 comments:

scottweberpdx said...

Nice...I really like the part about retreating into yourself...sounds so familiar, reminds me of summers spent doing hard, tedious field labor.

James said...

I like the detail about bagging up the hitchhiking mulch to return it to the new house. Even with 20 yards to begin with, this tiny handful ranked as important as the rest...

Elephant's Eye said...

Not 'just a home' but A home. I remember a neighbour coming to ask - you are making a garden, and there's no house in sight! And we did it again here, for the year we rented, we gardened until the new house eventually went up.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Scott--Whoops, sorry to bring up bad memories. :) Just as soon as I was coming of age my family stopped wheat farming, so I got lucky.
James--I'm a geek, every piece of mulch is important, and placed just so. Well, not every piece, but I can get pretty specific about it.
Diana--Yes, THE home, A home. I would also see myself making a garden before or while the house was being built on my imaginary / dream acreage. Why not? Gotta get it started so it grows faster!

fransorin said...

Benjamin...just beautiful. you continue to amaze me with your 'clean' descriptions. The best metaphor I can offer you right now (yes, I am tired, so fogive me if it's weak) is that you're writing feels like a grandmother sitting in a rocking chair drinking lemonade...slowly. But just below the surface of this aura of rocking laziness is a bubbling, brewing inferno....

The bottom line is that it grabbed me. And FYI, I have not forgotten about your book. I downloaded it onto my computer which has been with a tech. for a week now. I am borrowing my daughter's on and off...so I am basically computerless...once I start reading it I'll let you know. Fran

Benjamin Vogt said...

Fran--Oh, what a wonderful comment to wake up to this morning! Thank you! "Mulch" is the 2nd section of the new book, so there is a lot of underlying fire that will come up later on. And no rush on Morning Glory--computers are more trouble than they're worth half the time.

Karyl said...

This was an absolutely lovely post to read while enjoying my pre-dawn personal time. Thank you for sharing it.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Karyl--Pre dawn? Yikes. Thanks for reading me in the dark. I've got some other nice posts from this new manuscript below, if yer interested.