I hated to do it. It hurt my heart. I stood there and stared for the longest time, hand saw held in one gloved grip and hedge trimmer in the other. Rosemary is my favorite. Rosemary is for remembrance. And once my friend James told me that rosemary grows where strong women live I was hell-bent to make it grow at Sandhill, but it grew too much, too tall, too wide and now it had just about taken over the entire corner of what I pretentiously call the herb garden.
It was the size of one of those neon pink azaleas that line the course at Augusta National or one of those topiaries at Disney World (if somebody had forgotten to trim it up to look like Mickey or Dumbo or Ariel). It had grown around the corner of the house into the holly hedge and over the concrete edging into what passes for grass at my place. Shoot, it had even overrun the mint, leaving just a few scraggly sprigs fighting for enough sunshine to stay alive.
So, there I was, backlit by the morning sunshine like Scarlett on the hills of Tara, muttering something like, “As God is my witness, I’ll never let the rosemary grow this wild again.”
I advanced into the thicket, discovering immediately that the clippers were useless. Either they were too dull or the life force in the rosemary was too strong. I turned to the hand saw, grabbed a handful of branches, and started hacking. The scent – that sweet yet pungent, sharp yet smooth, musky and at the same time bracing scent – surrounded me and for a moment I stopped. Could I do this? Could I cut away still-live branches, toss them into a big pile where they would dry out and die?
The sun grew brighter. I could feel the hair on my neck grow damp. I muttered as mutantly long branches sprang loose from my grip and slapped me in the face. It is hard work, pruning. I looked down to see blood running from a cut on my arm. One of the newly trimmed branches had gouged me in retaliation. I kept going.
Soon I could reach the hose pipe coiled like a cobra beneath the winter’s deposit of dead leaves. I could see a whole patch of new mint that had sprouted defiantly in the rosemary’s deep shade. And I could see the entire bottom third of the massive rosemary bush was nothing more than dead branches, leafless stems, slender twigs that snapped like pretzels.
It took me a minute to absorb the significance. A minute to recognize the contradiction dwelling within my handiwork. It’s pretty obvious, in life as in gardening, that eliminating the dead limbs may also require the sacrifice of some of the living. What is not so obvious, but what I couldn’t deny standing there in the spring sunshine with sweat and blood running in separate rivulets down my body and toward the ground, is that the dead limbs were so hard to get to, so hard to see because the live ones were providing cover, that the live ones were – by continuing to grow, continuing to produce, continuing to spread their fragrance profligately across the landscape – protecting the dead ones.
Down on my knees, I snapped the limbs off one by one. Felt the roughness of the scaly bark, felt the resistance as my hand pushed down, felt the release as separation came. Over and over. The pile of dead limbs grew.
It is not easy to rid anything – a rosemary bush or oneself – of dead undergrowth. It is not easy to wield or yield to a sharp instrument. First, you have to be willing to lose some of what looks good, seems healthy. Then, you have to be willing to feel the roughness and the resistance, sometimes over and over. If you can, if you do, and only if you can and do, you will experience the release. Release from the necessity of giving cover to something that would never be able to give anything in return.