One of the perks of buying an older home is the mature landscaping that comes with it. This can also be a pain, but it’s all in the attitude.
Our house was built in 1942 and we purchased it in April, 1983. Most of the plants we inherited were very common to the era in which the house was built – Rhododendron, Juniper, Pieris, and (music from Psycho) a laurel hedge. Lord, how I hate that hedge.
But, there was one tall shrub I hadn’t noticed until June when it came into bloom. Philadelphus coronarius, Sweet Mock Orange. This shrub had not caught my eye before because it resided in the back of a large bed, surrounded by daisies, Rhododendrons, and one or two weeds.
The foliage is not unique, nothing special that would capture the attention of a passerby, but it does have lovely, flaking bark. It can become leggy, as many plants in the Hydrangeaceae family do, but when it is in bloom, it has few rivals. Delicate, 4-petal white blossoms that fill the air with a sweet, gentle fragrance. On warm days I notice a slight spicy note to the fragrance, as well. Heavenly!
Anyway, the shrub probably had not been pruned before we moved in, and we certainly took our time in tending to it. Over the years that I gardened around the plant, its blooms had decreased, the canopy had become too open for my taste, and the center filled with old, dead branches. So much for my gardening skills. The plant was now in need of serious rejuvenation pruning, so I decided to have the job done in early July. As pruning has always filled me with dread, especially when a venerable old plant is involved, I gave the job to my spouse. His pruning style is of the chain-saw type – enthusiastic, power-driven, and noisy. But the results are always beautiful, so I trust him . . . from a distance. But by the end of the day, the shrub had been taken down by 1/3, all the dead material was gone, and a few of the tallest, oldest trunks had been pruned to the ground. This pruned material gave me a couple of very tall, twisted, lichen covered trunks that could be used throughout the garden for many different purposes. The largest, at least 7 feet tall and 6 inches in diameter, was exceptionally beautiful. In addition to the lichen, the lower portion of the trunk had strips of flaky bark that revealed the cream-pink wood beneath. Three smaller branches alternated up the trunk, and we pruned these back a few inches each to create a symmetry of length. I wanted to put some thought into where and how I would use this piece, so I propped it against the (Psycho music again) laurel hedge for safe keeping.
Early summer mornings are a lovely time to work in the garden. The air is cool and still, plants are refreshed, and my energy level is at its most caffeinated. Early morning, also, is when the neighborhood wildlife is out and about; I share my garden with many. One frequent visitor is a squirrel who can be ID’d by the missing patch of fur on his tail. He’s come through our yard for a few years now. When our beagle, Pippin (known to the squirrel as That Damn Dog) was alive there was bad history between them. This grudge-holding little rodent would torment Pippin by sitting just a few inches outside the fenced portion of Pippin’s yard and eat peanuts. Pips loved peanuts. If he was lucky enough to find one, he would eat it, shell and all. (There’s not much a beagle won’t eat.) But this squirrel never shared. Pippin would sit, nose pressed against the wire fence, and do a full-body shake. Then a whine. Then a full volume bark. But the troublemaker wouldn’t share. Another bark. No peanut. This torment, which was apparently fueled by the memory of an old chasing incident, lasted for years. The chase incident happened when the squirrel was new to our yard. Pippin had escaped through the gate that I forgot to latch. He chased the squirrel at least twice around the house before the little monster remembered he could run up a tree to get away from the damn dog. Pippin had great fun and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to bay in his own yard. For the squirrel, however, it was a memory he couldn’t get beyond.
Anyway, on that lovely summer morning as I worked, the same little squirrel was rummaging through the fresh mulch I had just applied when he saw me walk by with a large shovel in my hands. He froze. I had no intentions of using the shovel on him, of course, but the sight of That Human who Owned That Damn Dog, with a large tool in hand, walking in his direction, was just too much. He ran towards the hedge and shot up the tall Mock Orange trunk that leaned against it. There he clung, tail twitching with indignation, and chattered at me in rapid, frantic squeaks. Maybe it was because of the twitching tail, maybe it was from his rude vocabulary, but somehow the trunk dislodged from its position and began a slow, unsteady slide down the face of the hedge. The little miscreant froze again, eyes wide with terror. The trunk caught on a thin laurel twig and stopped. The squirrel used that instant to scramble up to the very top of the trunk where he stretched up on his hind legs, thinking maybe he would jump across the top of the hedge and escape. He didn’t make it. Still attached to the trunk with his back paws, the jump attempt resulted in the trunk breaking free from the hedge and going into free-fall, knocking the squirrel off-balance. This caused the squirrel to land upside down on the trunk, chest flat against the wood. The trunk fell rapidly, twisting as it went, while the squirrel clung to it with all his might. At this point I began to feel some compassion for the little scoundrel and lunged to catch the trunk, but I missed and ended up pushing it towards our pond. The trunk then fell across the pond, crashed onto the surrounding rock ledge, and lodged itself between two large stones. The horrified little rodent, still clinging to the trunk, was now upside down with his tail touching the surface of the water. This was his breaking point. With a speed I didn’t think existed in the rodent world, he scrambled around to the top of the trunk, ran across its surface to the opposite edge of the pond, ran through the yard, across the street, and up a utility pole. At the top of the pole he stopped, turned to face me, and let loose with a string of squirrel expletives I hope I never hear again.
Summer is coming to a close, fall is a few days away, and I still haven’t seen the little squirrel. I doubt he’s forgiven me. The beautiful Mock Orange trunk has been moved to its permanent location, and it is secure enough that if another squirrel ever decides to climb it, it will stay put. I still put out a few peanuts in the areas our squirrel used to visit. Maybe he’ll come around. But even if he doesn’t, I believe that the balance of justice in the animal world improved just a little on that day.