Jim Murphy & Sons

To dig your way out of trouble, first stop digging

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One of the many challenges of living large in the 21st Century simply has to do with keeping up. For example, if you are a gardener, it’s helpful to be familiar with the jargon of gardening.

With the Internet available on our laptops, phones, dashboards and soon, eyeglasses and wristwatches, there are fewer excuses for remaining unplugged.

In other words, dear reader, try to keep up. We’ll try to help, which requires me to refer to the box below for future reference.

There are only a few alternatives for keeping up, and some do not end well for those who fail. One is to try and fail; or not to try at all (Luddites and troglodytes seem to take pride in this approach); you can keep trying which means that “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Parents and grandparents like to quote this to their children, often beginning with the line, “Why, when I was your age….”

My own favorite authority on the topic of keeping up are Pogo and Yoda, neither of whom really existed, but then who really does if you think about it? It was once my duty to persuade my college debate partner that he was a figment of my imagination. This proved to be good training when it came to writing columns and editorials, but did little for his self-esteem.

Yoda’s advice was expressed this as, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Easy to say if you’re a Jedi.

No matter how long and hard one considers these universal lessons, they eventually lead back to the garden, which is where a fair number of believers insist that all life began. It is not so much where as when.

What is a garden anyway? Is it like peace, which has been defined as “the absence of war.” Is a garden “the absence of weeds”?

This is like saying a successful picnic is “the absence of ants.”

One definition of weeds is they are merely flowers in the wrong place. To these, I simply have these words of defiance: the “Tree from Heaven” (ailanthus altissima), sometimes referred to as the “tree from hell.”

There are few better examples of a tree that is also a weed. It will grow anywhere, as much as two-to-three feet per year. Plus, when it blooms, it stinks like a dead shrimp, some say. It also spreads faster than a rumor.

For those with a sense of cinematic history, the 1940s best-selling novel and popular movie called “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was in reference to the “Tree of Heaven.”

It unlikely you will find just one ailanthus altissima growing in your sanctuary. Nor are you likely to find one in obvious places. This is one that will grow in a sidewalk crack, or a rain gutter, in sun or shade, poor soil or rich, along foundations. And of course, in your gardens.

Our discovery occurred just a few steps from our beloved clematis, and for a time we were fooled into believing it was a returning long-lost clematis that disappeared years ago.

Both are of Chinese and Japanese origin.

In Texas, among riparians trying to preserve native habitat, ailanthus altissima is known as the “tree from hell.” And although Texans are often prone to exaggeration, in this case they may be right.

Like many exotics, Ailanthus altissima was brought to this country from China, where it is known as chouchun (foul-smelling tree). Immigrants may have brought it because it the host plant for the silk worm. It was also thought to cure baldness and served as an astringent.

In the 1800s, it was favored briefly as an ornamental plant and then as a “street tree,” capable of growing nicely in urban areas. It was this tenacity, persistence if you prefer, that it symbolized in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” This was before Donald Trump.

Our guess is that it arrived in our backyard sanctuary compliments of the bird population. Spurred on first by drought, then by the cool and wet spring, they are now just about anywhere we look.

By way of metaphors, we now realize that there is a challenge to almost everything that lives in the glow of the Urban Campfire. With flowers come weeds. But with milkweed (hardly a weed, but we didn’t name this beauty), come Monarch butterflies. With tomatoes come hornworms, which if allow to pupate, become the lovely hummingbird moth.

So it is with songbirds, which dine on finch blend, sunflower seeds, insects and nectar. And perform their songs at decibel levels hard to imagine in one something so small. But they also leave ailanthus altissima , or Trees From Heaven (or Hell), and prodigious amounts of white stuff on lawn furniture cushions and the hood of the family flivver.

Years ago, when we first realized that we had a though about just about anything you could imagine (and for four decades a modest living), we made a resolution. “Never point out a problem without offering an alternative.”

We have tried to live by these words in penning Urban Campfires: Tales From Our Own Back Yard. In the case of ailanthus altissima, the answer seems to be simple enough: pull it up. Just be quick about it.

That said, be cautious. Pulling up the clematis is not an alternative.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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