Gardening and the Novel Idea

Something about toiling amongst weeds, trimming hedges and raking plant cuttings that busies my mind on the novel idea.  It can be anything.  A novel I’ve been thinking about writing or a brand new storyline.  I hem and haw over character’s and their potential predicaments as I snap my clippers at the weedy Oxalis, it’s buttercup bloom simple but elegant.  I’d let the yellow flowers grow all over the yard, but my landlady says a yard unkept looks like a place that has been abandoned.  So I snap, clip and trim and yet as I do this, a computer programmer or an accountant falls in love with a strange girl somewhere.  A girl he’s not supposed to fall in love with.  He lives with his mother who is a domineering  critic of all his love interests.  Or no, his mother is a sweet woman and the new girlfriend is the castigating shrew.

I pull up the dandelions, or dandelion-like plants, as these weeds seem much bigger then the dandelions I remember in Michigan.  They come out easy and I let them lie, root ball and all, for the rake that will come by soon enough.  The mallow will grow prostrate for awhile then throw up a stalk with its palmate leaves towering above the other weeds.  Many of the weeds perform this earth hugging trick and the push mower will only cut what extends above a certain height.  If I don’t want to see it again for a awhile I have to come back over with my clippers and nix it right close to the dirt or pull it out completely.  As I weed, the cast of characters in my mind can grow if I keep a running storyline.  Since my last gardening day I may have developed a number of scenes during my walks home from work.  New scenes often introduce new characters.  It can get cumbersome.  It might be fun while the novel is embryonic in my head, but it soon feels like a neighbors yard that has gone fallow.  It makes people wonder if a neglected child lives inside the house of that yard.  I remember one conversation with my friend Dow while on a road trip through the Sierra foothills.  I talked a bit about a Western gold rush story I had in mind.  Somewhere in my litany of characters Dow got a bit satirical, as he does when he thinks I’m carrying on.

“Then there’s going to be this woman that lives on a ranch by herself.  She’s beautiful but fierce,” I say. “She endured a rape and the loss of her child.  Or something of the sort.  She has some Indians that work for her; they also have suffered at the hands of white men.  She is strong and doesn’t take any crap from miners or anyone else.  Sometimes I build characters off of actors I’d like to play the parts I develop.  I picture Cate Blanchett in this role.”

The dry yellow grass of the hills speeding by as Dow holds the wheel and turns to me, “Yeah, you just want to meet her when they make the movie.”  We both have a thing for Cate.

“Well, maybe.  Anyway there is also this Chinese group that dig a claim.  And the patriarch is an old Chan Buddhist or a Taoist herbal master.  He saves the life of the runaway slave who gets sick at the Negro Hill claim.”  As I go on it gets a bit confusing in my head also.

“I think you should leave the Chinese out of it.  You have too many heads in this story,” Dow states.

“Yeah, but this is a historical novel set in gold rush era California.  The Chinese were an integral part of that time.  You know, this is like a Michener novel.  You’ve read him haven’t you?  Alaska, Hawaii, Texas.  He portrays all these different characters through the history of the place he is writing about.’

Dow staring straight ahead now.  “Does he portray them or parade them?”

Dow is right of course.  I’ve never finished reading a Michener novel.  Too much going on for me.  I need to see the story arc of one person and the few characters that play off that person.  So it is the same with my yard.  I clear everything out I deem a weed and rake them all in a pile to be composted.  Maybe the coffee plants will get a boost if the weeds aren’t soaking up nutrients and water.  Cafe arabica is not doing too well in my yard.  One plant seems to have filled out a bit, but the other is still spindly and weak.  Its leaves brown and dying along the edges.  I’m not sure what it needs.  I’m not that good with fertilizer.  I tend to believe if it can’t make it with the compost I give it, maybe it’s just not destined to grow here.  Will I ever develop these novel ideas into published works?  Maybe I need to find the right fertilizer in my head that will turn suffering seedlings into berry fruiting bushes.  Even if it is not meant to grow here.

I have cleared out the Oxalis and some other jungle grass-like thing that grows around the banana plant.  She has been doing well, the banana.  And I don’t think she cares one way or the other whether the weeds root around her rhizomes.  She’s called an Ice Cream banana and she is getting big and gorgeous, though she may never produce fruit here in this subtropic climate.  No, she favors the tropics where it rains every night.  I’ve lovingly tasted her and her kin varieties on the island of Kauai.  Peopleless road stands where you shove in a dollar or two into a little tin box and take a bunch of apple bananas (that’s a variety, not two pieces of fruit).  I meander down the road between the sugarcane fields and marvel at the orange-red dirt, a novel idea sprouting somewhere in my head.  I know, I’ll have this couple on vacation on the island.  They are trying to save their marriage with some restoring time together.  They fight about everything, but do share a love of hiking.  So they take to the Na Pali trail.  It’s winter and wet and the trail gets monsoon muddy.  She did not want to come in winter.  “But it is hot as hell in summer,” he protests.  Soon a tsunami comes and they must fight to save each others lives.  Lives they were ready to divorce from only a month before.  Yeah, two characters.  I can deal easily with that.  Back in the Hawaiian rain forest amongst abandoned, terraced, taro gardens, the domesticated banana and guava have gone feral and the weeds grow into jungle forest plants.  Thick, vibrant life with nothing out of place.

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