Beauty and Berries
The first time I saw a beautyberry bush, sprouting from the up-side of a ditch not far from Sandhill, I wanted one. Sometime after that, with the help of a friend, I dug one up from another spot along the road and transplanted it to what I thought would be the perfect location in the backyard. It died.
I decided not to take it personally and thereafter took the position that, despite its Art Deco shape and pop art colors, the beautyberry bush was not meant for the tameness of yards. It belongs in ditches and on fence rows, in the shadow of pine trees and in the path of gopher tortoises. And every year about this time when I am delightfully surprised by the first poke through the summer underbrush of its fuchsia and chartreuse, I am reminded that wildness is precious.
So a few weeks ago when I was pulling grass out of the patch of dirt I call my herb garden, a small square that borders the deck and has turned out to be particularly hospitable to rosemary, sweet mint, peppermint, and lemon balm, I looked twice at what bore a striking resemblance to a beautyberry bush growing under the deck. Looked twice because it’s dark under there. Looked twice because I couldn’t imagine that something that big could have grown there without my noticing it.
It was a couple of feet high and the branches splayed out over about four feet. The leaves, even in the dim light, were clearly and eerily chartreuse, but there were no berries and I convinced myself that this plant was just a weedy cousin of my favorite deciduous shrub. A few days later I am back and there is no need for convincing; the tight clusters of berries have popped out up and down the skinny branches.
The beautyberry is native to South Georgia and is an important food for two of our iconic wildlife – bobwhite quail, who prefer the berries, and white-tail deer, who tend toward the leaves. It’s not going to be hard for the quail to avail themselves of the buffet now spread under the deck. They can tiptoe right through the pennyroyal and nosh away.
The deer, however, are going to have to settle for the saw-tooth oak acorns that have begun falling at the edge of the driveway. In light of the recent snake activity in the vicinity, there is no way I am crawling under there to dig up a bush that, based on my past experience, might not survive transplantation anyway.
And since the beautyberry is known to repel mosquitoes, I am thinking that its placement directly under the chair where I like to read and watch the hummingbirds is downright fortuitous.
Squatting among the fading stems of mint and staring into the dimness, I can’t help but consider the irony that something I tried so hard to cultivate has appeared on its own, unexpected and undeserved. And maybe, I’m thinking, it is the unexpectedness and the undeservedness that creates the beauty, that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. That it is never the object itself that is lovely, that is precious, that is holy, but my attitude that makes it so, my amazement at its appearance, my astonishment at its arrival. That it is entirely up to me what beauty comes into my life and what beauty remains.