Roses are red, aphids are dead

I smear the grainy brown bits and blood across my fingers and gloat like a comic book hero: “Die you filthy vermin; you think you have the evolutionary advantage but you are vanquished, you are nothing, I kill you.” I cease my pinching and crushing and wave a turquoise bottle triumphantly. “Nothing like the smell of Napalm in the morning,” I say, and I spray, as the directions say, “until dripping,” peering expectantly at the crime scene where the tiny iridescent bodies pulse and then freeze, mid-chomp, caught with microscopic bits of red, pink and yellow still in their jaws.

I passionately defend my roses. Aphids are the enemy.

This is new and unexpected. As a kid I participated in yard work as an indentured servant. I considered the lawn and various plant arrangements as manifestations of my father’s obsessive compulsive disorder (we had to mow the lawn twice in opposite directions) and I was forced into maintaining his pathology in exchange for food and blue jeans. Yard work for our parents fell along anthropological/ biological divisions—my father whacked and my mother tended. My father cut and pulled and edged with harsh intolerance. My mother planted and watered and staked, encouraging her zucchini to grow as big as chubby green thighs. I dragged through Saturday labors with no interest, even when my mother shook bags of carrot seeds promising gardening “fun.”

Most of my adult life I have lived in the city. I smelled other people’s lilacs and marveled at the Victory plots divided by crops and ropes of colored cloth. We rented a two family house for years with an upstairs landlord who was an avid gardener. Again the yard was stressful, but our job was not to share but to prevent boy feet and soccer balls from destroying his delicate handiwork. When he went on vacation we were asked to water, anxiously following a detailed flow chart of hose hook-ups and times of day scrawled on notebook paper like a science assignment. 

When we first bought our house in the suburbs one whole side was covered with chain-link fencing entwined with rose bushes. The bushes were completely wild; the old woman who lived here before us clearly watered, probably chatted with, but did not prune, her roses. I started by just removing the ugly wire grid and cutting a few of the most errant branches. I read a few books to check on the location and angle of my cuts. I was a little embarrassed by the whole process—roses seemed so stodgy, for retired people who putter. 

Then I started coming home from work and stopping to watch the leaves unfold, began to notice how over a few days they turned from velvet burgundy to shiny emerald. The flowers lured with surprising complexity. The subtle shades of color, the tight tease of bud and then burst of layer after layer of petals, the loose and eventual collapse of what was perfect, a hand falling open palm up, in sleep or death.

Looking after my plants allows me to consider control and acceptance. I can do what I can do, but ultimately the plant thrives or withers according to mechanisms I barely understand. I learned at some point that sun and water and air combine in something called photosynthesis. (There was a filmstrip involved which explains why my memory is a bit hazy.) I know that I can manipulate somewhat the diseases and bugs that plague the newer growth, I can recognize a bad sucker from a good shoot, but all this is a little shuffle tap before the Russian Ballet. In the end, my antics are a paltry warm-up act to something mysterious and beautiful and completely beyond me.

I don’t give the credit to God or Mother Nature. I believe in each little bush and its own tenacious grip in the universe. Living against a 60-year-old crumbling brick wall, alongside a blacktop with barely a foot of soil across, they dig deep and reach up. A few have died since the old lady, perhaps preferring feral neglect to my taming attention. The others tolerate me, even appreciate my devotion as I talk to them at night when the neighbors aren’t listening.  I tie and untie their support twine, my hands and arms scratched from not wearing gloves, and I think of The Little Prince describing how he cared for his rose: “It is very tedious work, but very easy.” I never say that I grow roses—they grow on their own. I always think that I serve my roses as I would my girlfriends at a tea party, presenting all their favorite crumpets and fussing over their brightly colored dresses.

In the fairy tale The Brave Little Tailor, the tailor kills 7 flies in one swat and makes himself a belt proclaiming his feat—“seven in one blow.” Of course the world thinks he has slain men and not flies and he gains bizarre respect and opportunity because of this exaggerated ferocity. I claim a swagger as I protect my roses from aphids, Japanese beetles and white flies. I walk through my world as one who protects lovely things from evil. My roses give me a purpose that both encompasses and extends the parameters of my parents’ yard. I whack bugs, I tend with water, and I observe with rapt conversion the intimate interplay of dirt, thorn, and poetry.

3 responses to “Roses are red, aphids are dead”

  1. Rachel says:

    This is just gorgeous. I avidly tend my herb garden, but that seems purely selfish compared to your custodianship over the roses (since I eat the results). Do you ever cut the blooms?

  2. PB says:

    Yes, but more to keep them pruned, I also leave some on bush until they fade. It only seems fair that they get to enjoy some of their own work. If you come over this summer you will go home with an armful. xox

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