As a gardener, I am a very reluctant pruner. I recall getting very upset over my Dad’s proclivity to prune-with-gusto in our family garden. A landlord that pruned “my” garden severely without notice also sent me into a rage.
Although we have rarely had a garden of our own, my partner Alex has had to curb his pruning too. During the years of managing my mum’s rental cottage (formerly our family-and-friends holiday cottage) on the central coast, we planted a lot of little native Australian bushes. But due to both distance and my reluctance to prune, these grew over twenty years into much larger bushes than indicated on the tag. And despite our bias toward Australian natives, some non-native hibiscuses that date from the 1960s were allowed to remain on the property due to my attachment to “the old days” of my childhood holidays up there. One of these hibiscuses, in the neglected back yard, had sent branches far and wide, oft covered in morning glory creeper, and more recently forming a haven for a brush turkey’s mound.
Then with my mum’s passing, we found ourselves the new owners of this wild backyard, and Alex began a project to wrestle it back from the weeds and the brush turkey. The latter had so scratched off the ground cover that storms were washing our topsoil into our neighbour’s yard!
Alex engaged his horticulture course friend Rowan to landscape one of the back corners of the garden, and work had been underway for a couple of days when we arrived at the property. We were surprised to find the brush turkey mound material already relocated completely to the back corner behind some new gabions forming a low wall. I was relieved that Alex wouldn’t have to do this mound relocation after all, since we had been told that the mounds often harbour wildlife such as deadly funnelweb spiders and snakes!
On our return Rowan was just leaving for the day. Alex went into the back yard to see how the work was progressing with the gabion wall. He came back and suggested I come and see, and I got my camera to continue my documentation of the progress. As I approached I noticed a lot more space in the back yard. Suddenly it hit me – the hibiscus was GONE!!! It had been pruned back to several stumps. Devastated is too weak a word. It was too horrible to bear. I turned and went back into the house. I lay on the couch in shock.
When Alex came into the house he knew how upset I was. He said he didn’t know Rowan was thinking about pruning that day, so he hadn’t made a point of communicating my wishes before we left to shop. It was all a terrible misunderstanding. I told him he could have the back yard, that I no longer wanted any part of it. He retreated into a self protective shell.
Tormented by grief, I returned to the back yard with my camera to take a photo of what was left of my hibiscus. Hardly anything. It was then that I made the macabre discovery of the stack of hibiscus branches on the other side of the back yard. It was an enormous pile of beautiful green leafy hibiscus branches, and the sight of it made me weep out loud.
In my tormented state I started dragging each branch onto the grass around the washing line. Branch after huge branch. My beautiful, wild, overgrown, messy hibiscus! It had known my father’s hands, and had become so old and unpruned that it had found an architecture like a magic cave, which the brush turkey had occupied. It was a piece of history of this place; it KNEW that backyard like no one else; had watched years of brush turkey chicks hatch, sheltering the mound so it could be maintained at just the right temperature. I felt that I had lost a friend. I felt I had to say goodbye, how SORRY I was that I failed to protect it. I didn’t KNOW. I blamed Alex; I blamed myself. If I had known it was in danger, I would have stopped the pruning. I could have decided which of the branches to prune and which to leave as magical green archways.
My neighbor Max must have heard my unbridled sobs as I dragged the branches around, and, looking over the fence, he asked me what was wrong. I told him, and in trying to comfort me by saying that “it will grow back”, he unleashed my rage all the more. “Yes, it may grow back into a tidy little hibiscus bush! I hate tidy little hibiscus bushes! I loved THAT untamed hibiscus!” Max left me to my grieving.
I assembled what was left of my friend into a bushlike circle on the lawn and took photos. I sat in the middle of the cut branches – so much cut off – unbelievable! I got the secateurs and cut off small branch tips with little new leaves and buds. I didn’t know whether they would grow roots, but I just had to save the life in them for a while at least, even if it was only to put them in a vase. Before dark I dragged the branches back to the pile, perhaps to hide my episode of madness in case the workers would be coming back in the morning.
As I lay on the couch afterwards immersed in my grief, it dawned on me that I myself am part of a branch that may soon be pruned. I felt the grief I had been pushing away, the grief and the guilt for all my fellow species that are already being pruned off the tree of life by the climate disruption, and those that are to follow. No one knows how severe this Great Pruning will be.
All night I tossed and turned and felt physically ill. I am living inside a slow motion horror story. Am I a character in someone’s nightmare? I realized that there was no turning back the clock; that what had been done was done. Shit happens. Horrible.
In the morning, anticipating that Rowan and his assistants would be returning, I suddenly knew I wanted to protect the “bones” of my hibiscus from being cut up and fed to the mulcher. So I once again dragged the branches off the pile and made it clear in a friendly way to the workers when they came that I didn’t want any more pruning without consultation. They understood and apologized for the misunderstanding. I told them not to worry about the branches, that I wanted to use them for a “project”. I had no idea what I meant! Alex seemed to know more than I did – he explained that I am an “artist”, which seemed to justify this mad idea.
Over the next few days the “project” emerged, piece by piece. It unfurled into a documenting and honouring of the beauty of each individual branch, carefully pruning it so that its architectural features were clearly visible, and then photographing and drawing the structure. I also measured all the saw points on branches and the stumps that were left, gradually forming a map like a giant jigsaw puzzle of the original bush. For some reason this meticulous mapping and artistic appreciation of the wild hibiscus gave me huge comfort.
The tips were also “propagated” into little pots, which now sit on my city balcony. Perhaps by beginner’s luck some will grow roots, and then I will wonder what on earth to do with them! But for now, this is how I am coming to terms with my loss.
For some people, this story will be incomprehensible, I suppose. All this fuss over a hibiscus bush! Yes, it was about my treasured hibiscus. And The Great Pruning. It all blurs into one, and perhaps I learned something: that it can be a huge comfort to give meticulous attention to the beauty in my life, even while carrying a broken heart.