My back yard features one gigantic Mexican palo verde. Hawks and cardinals, butterflies and bugs. And Bermuda grass. Bermuda grass is a weed, in my mind. Something unwanted, with a root system extending 35 feet down into the bowels of the wash that runs through my neighborhood. A friend told me this, with a sad smile, when I mentioned to her that I pull it.
Still, I pull. A little bit each time I go out to empty compost or water pots. I pull a little more when it’s time to hang laundry on the outdoor rack which lists to the side, afloat in a field of Bermuda grass.
If I happen to be angry, I pull even more.
I think that if I take up just a few tufts each time I go out then one day, when I can no longer bend from the waist, it will all be gone. The birds will still be there, though. And the butterflies and wildflowers. Because I won’t use poison on the things I don’t want.
What usually happens after I work on the grass for a while is that I work more. I begin hunting for better patches. Once I start, I can see how far I am from my vision. This doesn’t deter me; it refines my focus. I’m in a race against time. If I don’t pull it up today, it will go to seed. And so I pull until I can no longer crouch without pain. Then, I go inside.
Bermuda grass is the perfect companion for rumination. And the desperate feelings that surface when I back myself into a corner in my relationship and refuse to budge. Out among the rhizomes, I stop noticing my separateness. I begin to realize how small I am. How small my problem is, in comparison to the volume of Bermuda grass I’m faced with.
Poisoning it is the only way to win. I have been advised to buy Round Up—by nursery staff, fellow gardeners, my boyfriend. By people who don’t know me, yet feel compelled to mention that this is not a sane use of my precious life energy. Fuck all of you, I think. I will pull it. In the name of the moths. And the grubs.
Although I am visible to drones and police helicopters, spottable through the living room window, I feel hidden in my task. I am hiding from myself. Today I am angry. Today I am spotted by my boyfriend. I have been ripping and tearing for over an hour when he joins me.
He begins to weed, and I continue as though he hasn’t joined me. I uncover a moth chrysalis, which looks like a long spiral snail shell. It seems petrified and ancient. Too solid to contain a living thing. I replace it. Cover it with earth.
I find a grub. Then another grub. Normally I leave these out for the birds. Completing the circle. Plus, they will eat the carrots. But this is not my vegetable garden. Today, I have pity. Today, there is a reprieve. As their mushy gray-white bodies emerge, as the tiny legs unfold, I pick them up and relocate them.
My boyfriend is following behind me, with a shovel.
I have reburied many grubs. I worry that my boyfriend will strike them with his spade, killing one. Rescued by me, from me, and then set down in the path of destruction. It makes me sad.
I have a relationship with those grubs.
I’ve held their sticky bodies. Calculated depth and previous orientation as I reburied them. Determined that they should have a chance to see summer.
I look up and wait for my boyfriend to notice. I point to a patch of grass far from the one I’m working on, when he asks for guidance.
I don’t say anything. I don’t look him in the eye. We’re not talking, after all.
It’s up to me to forgive him. Again.
Each time I find myself in this particular cul-du-sac, the gray-white bodies of past forgivenesses, forgivenesses I’d forgotten giving, show up.
Again, I think.
Sometimes, I remember that I’ve also needed forgiveness.
So I try to rebury the grubs. This is how I go on with the work of trusting.
They’ll show up again soon enough. After it rains. When the ground is soft enough to unearth the really deep roots. I prefer to pull grass during the monsoons. Twice as much comes up with half the effort.
Bermuda grass spreads. Seed, rhizome, blade, or root ball—each bit can grow a new plant. The rhizomes I unearth in my yard have been gaining mass since the 1950s. They are pale, fibrous, and thick. Like a carpet of white asparagus stalks. The satisfaction I get from digging into this mess scares me. Surely it’s a symptom of something. The work is mindless and thankless. And it makes me feel as though I am accomplishing something real and lasting and important. Although I couldn’t say what that is. By the time my boyfriend arrives to help, I have entered the zone: I believe I can eradicate the grass with my bare hands, which have begun to bleed. Tiny bits of goats head and the sticker bits of other weeds I have not bothered to identify stab into my palms. Look at that, I think, straightening my body. Surveying the yard. It’s so much better.
I’m not going to stop now.
My boyfriend hates pulling Bermuda grass. My boyfriend loves caterpillars. Last year he spent weeks tracking a caterpillar he found clinging to a desert willow, noting distance traveled and relative fatness each day before work. And he raised the alarm the day his caterpillar went missing. Had it suffered? Turned butterfly before we could catch it?
Bird’s stomach, I assumed. He Googled it.
Which is how I know that the long, spiral snail-shell thing that I pulled from the Bermuda roots is actually a moth chrysalis.
I look at my boyfriend, who cares about caterpillars more than Bermuda grass. He is bent over. Whispering to something. Briefly, I forget what I was thinking.
As we shake soil off root balls, we begin to interact. We marvel at the size and depth of the roots. We wonder, for the tenth time, whether miniature goats let loose in the yard might solve the problem. We make eye contact and I realize we are working together. Cooperating. Then, I remember. I’m angry.
Motives are what matter to me today. And I don’t need to ask what his are. I’ve decided. They are bad. Why is my boyfriend out here? He’s trying to soften me.
He is afraid of my anger. And I’ll take advantage because I like the help.
I direct him towards another distant patch and our contact ends. I look down and begin to excavate. Roots emerge. Irritation melts away. And Bohemian Rhapsody flows into the gap. I hesitate to name this song. It is day three of not being able to stop hearing it. Off and on. Up until this moment, weeding has helped.
I unearth a tiny grub. Its legs flail, as though it’s trying to locate the limb that is long enough to block out the light. I apologize and sprinkle it with soil. I wonder if the grubs can hear me. I wonder if grubs can hear Bohemian Rhapsody when it’s pumping from the radios of passing cars.
If I was relating normally to my boyfriend today, I would have mentioned that Bohemian Rhapsody will not leave me alone. I would have said this, without thinking. It may have turned into a conversation about ear worms. Or inspired someone to search for Queen songs on YouTube. Today I ration my words. I feel powerful and safe. Here is one thing I can control.
I’m not yet ready to bury the grub. And free myself.
This is year three of my Bermuda grass project. In addition to pulling, I smother. I have covered patches with cardboard. With plastic. With tarp. There is another spot I dig up with focused regularity. As an experiment.
I don’t want to keep doing this. It’s futile.
I want to keep doing this. It’s a distraction.
When my boyfriend and I bought this house there were two empty bottles of Round Up resting on top of our gas meter. I did not put two and two together. After three years of not poisoning the grass we have primroses and daisies, amaranth and goats head, mallow and wild mustard. Some of these flowers are called weeds. But from the living room, it all looks good. A back yard filled with birds and the things birds like to eat. All we have to do to get more of this, is move the Bermuda grass out of the way and not poison the ground.
And not break up. Because the person who buys this place next will use Round Up.
The yard is blooming. Underneath it all, a chrysalis. A grub. They are waiting. There is a lot of waiting that happens. I am waiting for the grubs because I remember last summer. The morning after the first very hot night I met their skins. A parade of exoskeletons, clawed and see-through, looping up from the ground and around the trunk of the palo verde. Clinging, somehow, to the foundation of my house. Skins, shed as the grubs launched themselves, transforming into something that sings and flies. Buoyant, delicate, amazing cicada.
Still, grubs, I think. And yet, both.
Grubs are assembling themselves under my feet. Mushy and zombie colored, but with surprising orange heads, they are not equipped for sun.
They are vulnerable as they go through this change. This pause. A pre-flight era of silence and aloneness that is part of who they are. All they have to do is continue. They don’t have to figure anything out while they’re waiting. Things have the space to work themselves out. The grubs need time to remember–they can fly.
I think about this, as I rebury another grub. With apologies.
Is it a rock ballad or an opera? I think it’s both. And I can still hear it. I listen for a while.
Then, I get back to the grass.
Kirsten Voris is an essayist whose work has appeared in Hippocampus, The Knicknackery, the Brevity Blog, and Superstition Review. She is a contributor to the anthology Expat Sofra: Culinary Tales of Foreign Women in Turkey (Alfa) and co-creator of the Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids (North Atlantic Books). She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Image from Tucson Clean and Beautiful.