It took me three years to work up the nerve to level ours. First I tried to control the mulberry avalanche. I devised a scheme, on paper, for wrapping the tree in muslin each summer to create a funnel for the ripening mulberries, which I planned to collect in pails and boil into pectin-free mulberry jam, titrate into jars with a handmade label, and give away at Christmas and Easter or whenever someone had a dinner party. And why stop at jam? You could make pies and tarts and cordials and teas and sherbets and even medicines.
But it was not easy to find a hundred yards of muslin to turn your tree into a turban, and it is not a breeze to quartermaster the production of hundreds of pounds of mulberry jam. And of course until I bought the muslin and started harvesting I was stuck sweeping and scraping and hosing down the patio every other day for two months each summer. With each day the odds of my scheme coming to shall we say fruition were slimmer. This is the problem with a messy thing: you have to be willing to make a sacrifice for it. You have to say yes to the mess.
The tree was by no means all bad. I remember looking up, late one summer afternoon, while I was once again grudgingly sweeping the staining mulberries off the flagstones, to see my daughter and a friend of hers leaning out of the upstairs sunroom, picking mulberries off the tree and eating them. They were 8 or 9 at the time. I remember thinking: This is why you have to keep the tree. You have to keep the tree because it has given you this scene: your daughter, laughing, her simple pleasure in eating a hand-picked, never-fresher mulberry. The scene seemed to be a distillation of the decision one makes to stop adventuring and put down roots – to stay, to stay put, to have a family, to see what lies on the other side of routine. It was a gift from the messy tree. I told you everything in a garden becomes a metaphor.
Then something happened. A dislocation occurred. One of our children had some health problems, which in turn strained our finances and our tempers, and a fine grit of resentment dusted through the house for a while. In any event, life got a little messier. I am not averse to messiness, but I have my limits, and the mess of the mulberry tree seemed like the easiest one to clean up.
I began to raise the prospect of cutting the mulberry tree down, to see what the reaction would be.
“No, don’t cut it down!” my family implored. I told myself it was mock concern, simply a distaste for change. I must have been closer to the edge than I knew. One day, surprising myself, I called the tree chopper.
“Sure, “ he said. “I can do it in a couple of hours.”
And he did. Trimmed it, cut it down, chopped the trunk and branches into firewood, chipped out the stump, and carted it all away. Where the mulberry tree had grown and borne fruit for five decades there was now a sunny empty spot. There was no more stain on the patio. My wife and kids were away the weekend it happened. Gardening is not a rational act.
Two weeks later, I planted a pear tree. It was an act of remorse: If a tree dies, the great Linnaeus advised, “plant another.” Twelve years later, the pear tree has grown beyond the second storey itself, and blossoms like a good idea every spring. It’s beginning to take up the gap the mulberry left.
I can grow flowers now, and they add variety to the garden. I did not destroy the backyard, I did not ruin the garden or the house, and my wife and daughter forgave me for cutting the mulberry down. “I think we were all of two minds,” my wife said the other day. “And you made a persuasive case.”
But my regret over dropping the mulberry blows through me twice a day, regardless. It is the symbol of what might have been. You can’t avoid regret in a garden, where time is natural and slow and inelastic. “There is no gardening without humility,” British poet laureate Alfred Austin once declared. (He took over from Tennyson, and was not well-respected: critics called him “the banjo Byron.”) A garden eventually forgives pride and error, not to mention an aversion to life’s messiness, which is one reason so many of us spend time digging there. Whether you can forgive yourself is another matter.