in memory of Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006
The guy from the city said that we had to trim the hedge.
The hedge he was referring to is a succession of large laurel bushes that border the whole length of the eastern side of the Kitsilano property on which the house where I lived in Vancouver, at 2504 York, is sited. It’s a corner two-storey house running about a half block up the hill along Larch to the lane, between York and 1st, part of the long initial slope that peaks around 3rd or 4th Avenue, from which it rolls back down to the edge of Burrard Inlet at Kitsilano Beach.
Actually the whole south shore of that inlet is, now that I think about it in this way, a series of hills and slopes that makes its way downward, in a northeasterly direction, from about 33rd Avenue (I used to go up that way to see the Tallmans, who lived on 37th, many years ago when I first came to the city), and of course, thinking about it in this way immediately causes me to imagine the whole place before it was the city of Vancouver at all, or even an aboriginal fishing camp, when it was just thickly forested hills and slopes, rolling down to the unnamed shore, but I really don’t have time right now — as much as I’d like to, since it’s probably the only way that we can understand any of this — to give you the whole lay of the land. Instead, I’ve got to focus on the hedge.
Still, it’s only fair to, well, not warn you, but to simply note, that I’m not really an outdoors person, or a nature lover, or someone much moved by the sight of natural scenery or landscapes at all. I remember my mother saying, a long time ago when I was a child — I believe my father was driving us across America to see the Pacific Ocean, and we were in a motel in someplace like the Dakota Badlands — my mother saying, “The scenery is so beautiful,” and I recall my being struck by that sentence, by the oddness of her use of the almost abstractly indefinite term, “scenery,” rather than saying, for example, “That’s a beautiful mountain” or river or sunset or whatever. So, from the beginning, I experienced a confusion of some sort. Actually, I’m more of what you might call a protector of the Great Indoors.
In any case, the house itself was built in 1912 I’m told, and the hedge, as far as I can remember, was already there when we — who were then a group of students — moved in sometime around 1970. In fact, all I can really remember about the hedge is that it wasn’t nearly as tall then as it is now. I vaguely recall having seen sometime in the last year or two a photo taken back then, of the hedge and perhaps one or two of the student-communard inhabitants of the house standing there, and in my increasingly blurred memory it’s not much higher than a person’s shoulder. Whereas, at present, the hedge is, roughly, a height of about a dozen metres or 35 feet, which is pretty high for a laurel hedge, rising to a point nearly halfway up the sharply sloping roof, so that, coming at the house from the east, you literally can’t see the two floors of the house at all, but instead the lengthy, towering hedge, with its thick foliage of shimmering, glossy layer upon layer of laurel leaf, rising halfway to the top of the roof and leaning out from behind a low, stone Cornwall-type wall, arching over the sidewalk.
At first, letting the hedge grow had a somewhat practical function, because located directly on the other side of Larch Street is the last highrise apartment building — eleven stories — to be permitted in that part of Kitsilano. That is, once it went up, apparently a lot of people in the neighbourhood got together — I may have been one of them, my memory on these matters is patchy — and successfully demanded of the city that no building above three and a half stories be erected anywhere below 4th Avenue in order to avoid reproducing in Kitsilano the development that had occurred in the West End, on the north shore of Burrard Inlet, in the 1960s, whose thicket of towers can be readily seen any morning from Kits Beach. So, at first, leaving the hedge to grow offered us some privacy from the people across the street living in the 11-storey apartment building, people who were no doubt peering down on us, curious about the goings-on that might be going on among the hippie, artsy, student types (i.e., us) living in the old house.
But as the years went by, I began to appreciate the hedge for itself, even as, from time to time, irregularly, without any pattern, I would trim it back myself, using a rusty pair of ordinary pruning shears whose handles gave you blisters whether you did or didn’t wear a pair of grey buckskin work gloves that you get from Gandy’s Home Hardware up on 4th Avenue.
The best time to see the hedge, I think, is at night, under the illumination of the street lamps or the moon, because it’s then, suddenly coming upon this huge mass of glistening greenery that you have the best chance of appreciating its hallucinatory power — I mean, you’re driving or walking along, say, York Avenue at night, in this ordinary neighborhood of walkup condos, fruit trees, gloomy old houses, parked cars and the one 11-storey highrise building, etc., when out of nowhere — pow! — there it is, a massive wall, in the dark, of laurel hedge, rising up and up into the night sky with its smoky shards of cloud and star punctuation, and then stretching along for what seem like blocks and blocks, kilometres even, I mean, so long and so high that I’ve long since come to think of it as The Great Hedge of Kitsilano, somewhat in the way that we think of The Great Wall of China and other wonders of the world, visible even in satellite photos, so that if someone’s looking at pictures of the earth and asks, What’s that green line here off the Pacific, anyone would reply, Oh, that’s The Great Hedge of Kitsilano. Or when tour buses full of Japanese and German visitors roll through the neighbourhood, the driver brakes a bit as he glides the smoky-windowed vehicle down the hill along Larch and says through the crackly hand-held public address system, “And on your left now… is The Great Hedge of Kitsilano.”
But to come back to the issue at hand, the guy from the city said that we had to trim the hedge. He was a guy in an orange plastic hardhat from the City Engineering Department, I guess, wearing one of those fluorescent red-orange vests that would presumably prevent him from getting run over by a speeding jeep driven by a coked-up drug dealer, or eaten by a grizzly bear if any grizzly bears happened to be roaming around Kitsilano.
Now, as I said, I’d already done some hedge trimming now and again over the years. The principle of my trimming — and I offer these details in case any computer programmer is seeking some of what is now called “expert opinion” for a computer program on hedge trimming that he or she is putting together — the idea was to trim it whenever it occurred to me, or caught my eye, or whenever I suspected that its overhang was obstructing the sidewalk that ran alongside it, thus putting us in danger of being cited for violating the city’s Unsightly Premises By-Law. I call this a Principle of Benign Neglect.
I’d go out in the summer afternoon with the pruning shears, whose wooden handle had now broken and been cinched up with duck tape to keep you from getting a handful of splinters on top of the blisters that you’d get whether or not you wore the gloves from Gandy’s Home Hardware on 4th, and I’d cut into some of the lower part, trimming it back from the sidewalk, and then reach up to get some of the overhang — I was always meaning to bring along a step-ladder but I never did — just chopping enough so a normal-sized walker-by wouldn’t get an eye poked out by a stray low-hanging laurel branch, and while I was at it, just for variation and to keep myself from getting bored, I’d also pull out some of the morning glory that had hopelessly entangled itself in the laurel, and I’d do this until I was sufficiently soaked in sweat and dirty enough for a bath on a summer’s afternoon.
Before going back in, I’d sweep up the cuttings with a bamboo rake and stash them in the diminishing space between the back of the hedge and the house, leaving them to peacefully rot over the course of the rainy season, or if not to rot and compost, at least to pile up, no doubt violating some city fire regulation about creating natural tinderboxes, but the business about the house and grounds in relation to a whole passel of civic regulations is another story entirely, which I’ll spare you for now.
Rather than concentrating on the trimming part, I increasingly focused on the tending of the hedge. That is, when visitors came by and asked me to offer an exposition on the hedge, I would emphasize my tending rather than my trimming of this laurel hedge over the past two decades.
I regarded the tending — and I’d underline that word in saying it — as the core of my horticultural triumph. And of course, someone would sooner or later ask me for some tips about tending, or about the philosophy of tending, you might say, and it is then that I would point out the principle that was the secret of my success, at least as I viewed it. The fundamental principle of tending, I would say, is benign neglect, just leave it alone, or more or less leave it alone, and apply the principle in inverse proportion to the degree of knowledge possessed, which is to say, and I think I would apply this in general to most of nature, the more you know you don’t know the more you should leave it alone.
But of course on this particular rainy morning I’m talking about, and it was one of those days in early autumn with a fine, cutting West Coast mist falling and running down the asphalt slope of Larch Avenue alongside the hedge, on this morning the guy from the city in an orange hardhat and fluorescent vest was saying that, far from leaving it alone, we must do something, and from the sobriety of his tone of voice, I took it that he was speaking on behalf of Western Technological Civilization.
I saw no way out. Or rather, what I saw as the alternative to doing as he said, namely, doing something, was a series of bureaucratic encounters, something like one of those demonstrations of perspective in painting, stretching out to an infinite horizon, except that in this case, it would take place in an endless set of offices, probably in City Hall — I think I have a memory of going there once for some sort of permit and waiting in lines with guys with long rolls of blueprints under their arms and eventually being shunted from counter to counter — until, at last, the apotheosis of the vision I had while standing there with the guy in the orange hardhat (I myself may have been wearing a baseball or tractor hat), was that I would at last progress to one of the City Hall committee rooms in which the humiliation of being cited for violation of the Unsightly Premises Bylaw would be visited upon me, etc. And this fantasy of being cited would fuel some small amount of paranoia about whoever had turned us in to the city, followed by outrage about being complained about by some unknown sneaky neighbours — so that, suddenly, I, who had opposed the concept of private property under capitalism with near-revolutionary fervour, was puffing myself up as a property owner, full of shopworn maxims about a man’s castle, etc.
As much to intercept this gloomy train of unproductive thought as anything else, I said to the hard-hatted civic employee, “Well, so could you guys trim the hedge?” My quick move, shifting me into the guise of a responsible property owner co-operative with the authorities, seemed to slow him. And as we stood in the fine morning mist, he reached into one of his fluorescent vest pockets and pulled out his plastic pocket calculator, and began punching in numbers. While he did his calculations, multiplying trucks with cherry picker extending stepladders by the rate of civic labour divided by gas-powered chain-saws, etc., as I was waiting I got an imaginary glimpse of us, shot from overhead, as if from one of those blimps that hover over sporting events and crucifixions: two bulky men standing at the foot of a slope in the West Coast morning rain. “Well, it’d cost you around $1200,” he finally said. ($1200!!, my mind yelped.) “I’ll think about it,” I said.
Then, a few days later, I was standing outside the house, along the hedge, with the thirty-something brother of somebody’s sister we knew, a guy not in a hard-hat and fluorescent vest, or driving a large city vehicle, but a guy in jeans with a pickup truck with some gardening gear in back, and he pulled out a pencil and a crumpled notepad from his back pocket and began scrawling some numbers on it. “Umm, we could do it for about $500,” he said. “Oh,” I said encouragingly, “I’ll think about it.”
And then a few day after that — we’re getting to the denouement (I’ve always liked that word, denouement) of this shaggy-hedge story — I was talking to my friend Rob about the hedge. “The city says we’ve got to chop it back,” I explained to Rob, a twenty-something, suburb-bred, sturdy young man with dirty blond hair and blue eyes, and with whom I’d had a lengthy relationship involving various intimacies — although I have no intention whatsoever of elaborating on the intricasies or grotty details of it, or of Rob’s hard-knocks experiences of the world as an orphaned tyke, etc. Suffice it to say that Rob owned no civic vehicles or pickup trucks or gardening equipment, and did no calculations with pocket calculators or pencil and paper. He didn’t even have to look at the state of the hedge; he knew the hedge, and anyway it was just outside my bedroom window, each year pressing in more closely on the glass, its branches scraping against the house and roof when the wind from rainy season storms rustled through its foliage. “I can do that,” Rob announced. “Fifty bucks ought to do it,” he said. I didn’t even have to think about it.
“But won’t you need a chain saw?” I asked. “We can rent one from Gandy’s on 4th,” he said. “All’s I need is a stepladder.” “Like the one under the porch?”, the one I’d always been meaning to haul out when I tended the hedge. “Yeah, that oughta do it.”
I stayed in, at my desk, reading a book, the day Rob cut back the hedge. All I heard was the roar of the gas-fed chain saw hacking away, and Rob up on the stepladder crashing through the brush, like the sound of a two-point buck bolting through the woods, and the occasional merciful pause in all the racket when my sweat-drenched employee took a water break in the kitchen, grinning crazily, burrs and bits of laurel leaf caught in his dirty-blond hair, exulting in honest endeavour. Eventually, late in the afternoon, he called me out for a formal inspection and praise of his labours. Naturally, the poor old hedge looked like a glowering cat who’d been unwillingly subjected to a bath, with hacked off branches poking up here and there, the sidewalk covered in amputated laurel fronds, a botanical and aesthetic mess, but nonetheless chopped back, reduced, trimmed to satisfy those offended by its exfoliance. I helped Rob gather up the cuttings and we piled the refuse alongside the house, then we stood at the garden gate, taking in his handiwork and gazing down the slope to the inlet as the sun finished its traverse of the sky for the day.
I suppose there’s some economic lesson to be drawn here, or some moral to the story, some overarching truth. I can’t think what it might be, other than it’s often best to allow only those to work in your garden whom you would trust to your bed. As for the hedge, the Great Hedge of Kitsilano, it looked like hell now, but I took the long view, knowing that in a year or two it would heal itself, and with a little luck and benign neglect, outlast us all, or at least outlast me, its faithful keeper from c. 1970 to whenever. And the only overarching truth is that the hedge would once more arch over the sidewalk, providing a shady mid-summer bower to grateful elderly folks on foot, trudging down to the sea.
May 1, 2006. “The Hedge” is from Stan Persky’s forthcoming book of new and selected writings, Topic Sentence.