And you want to know something? They worship my tree! They worship the ginkgo! It’s in the exact middle of their world. Those shoots closest to it take on its shape, coiling around it, and are thus lifted upward. The shoots a few inches away from the ginkgo also grow upward, but they have no support, so fall back down into the general piles of stems and leaves¾ground cover, we call it. If these vines could really talk, they’d be saying to one another: Get closer to Ginkgo and be lifted up! You want to know something else? There’s bindweed growing in my vine patch below my ginkgo tree. Bindweed. Bindweed is like my old friend from home. Did you know that when you led me to the ginkgo, that eventually I’d discover the bindweed? Some people would call bindweed a vine, too. But compared to the vine, bindweed has tendrils (I looked up the right word!). Back home we hate bindweed. I suspect you’ll find the reasons interesting, although I really don’t know anything about you, other than the subliminal information you send out while standing in front of the class, and the values you reveal by walking a single student through the museum, and the patience you show by listening to my tales of Carson County, and the look that crosses your face when I talk about Mindy Johannes and Terry Spindler. All that information makes me think you’ll be interested in our reasons for hating bindweed.
Bindweed grows anywhere. You can’t kill it. The tiniest shoot gives rise to a whole plant. Try to dig some up and you find these white runners going all through the soil. Even in the middle of a drought, you can stick a shovel into cracked ground so hard it seems like a sidewalk, then break that shovel trying to turn over a chunk, and you know what’s alive and healthy underneath? Right. Bindweed. You stand there with that clod in your hand, thinking it will take a hammer to break it, and there’s a white healthy bindweed shoot coming out the side.
You know what I did one time? My mother was out working—make that trying to work—in the garden. We have a big garden. My father had brought in a bunch of topsoil from south of the river and spread it out near the house, and dug in a lot of manure, to make this garden. It was a dry year. The dirt was hard. My mother was out taking care of her tomatoes. She was chopping away at the bindweed, at its base, so that the runners choking her tomato plants would die. But I picked up some dirt, and a piece of bindweed stem, and put them in a plastic cup. Then I put the cup on my window sill and watered the dirt. You see, I’ve done this bit with the sprig in the glass of water before.
I don’t remember how long it took—days, at least, or weeks, maybe, certainly not months—but the bindweed grew up and all through the venetian blinds. The only dirt it had was that little bit in the plastic cup. My father came into my room and asked why I was growing that goddamn bindweed. I told him I was curious about it, since it was such a pest. He looked at me with a strange sort of expression, kind of a combination of sadness, and hesitancy, and something else I can’t even tonight describe. It was almost as if he was saying to me: I wish someone had told me it was all right to be curious about a pest when I was a child; instead, they told me to kill pests. But my father hadn’t really told me it was okay to be curious about a pest. In fact, in a way, I’d told him! Maybe I only reminded him of something he already knew. After all, this was the same man who found an elephant tooth on his father’s ranch then, by the time he grew up and had children of his own, forgot to let them go digging for giants in the sand. Or maybe he didn’t forget. Maybe he was just waiting until we were ready in some way. Are these paper assignments getting me ready to hear what my father has to teach me about giants? I hope so.
My mother, however, was not very impressed with my bindweed. You won’t be able to close the blinds, she said. I told her there was nobody to see in except coyotes and insects. And she looked at me with a funny expression, too, sort of like she was saying: When you’re a woman, you don’t even let coyotes and insects see into your room. I thought at the time she said that because she was afraid. Since coming down here, I wonder whether she said it because she thought that if you’re a woman, you don’t give up your right to be completely alone at times of your own choosing. A coyote looking in your window meant you had lost your privacy.
Bindweed represents something that cannot be controlled. It is insidious, lies buried beneath the surface until some random set of circumstances liberates it. Then it goes crazy and covers even the ground cover. It’s a grasping thing; anything with tendrils is grasping, right? Bindweed is not like my ungrasping vine, but instead grabs at its environment. Bindweed does everything for my little plant community that the Devil is supposed to do for my big person community. Bindweed would go into the museum for the express purpose of rearranging its thoughts, knowing in advance that the rearrangement was not what the gardeners wanted to have happen.
Although I know that my parents didn’t think in these terms, and to be perfectly honest with you, ‘plant community’ would never have entered my vocabulary had I not enrolled in your course, but nevertheless, I think my mother and father felt, down deep they sensed, what you’re teaching me as fact: That there are mixtures of kinds that live together, and interact with one another, thus can be called a community. And I think my parents sensed that the bindweed was the Devil, or at least the equivalent of the Devil. If my parents thought in terms of devils, then the devil idea must be inherited in humans, because I sure don’t remember much talk about devils around our house. If the idea of a devil is inherited, then humans probably don’t think a community is complete unless it has a Devil, or at least something that we can all agree is an enemy. That’s why, if there isn’t a handy one, they make one, or even choose one from amongst themselves. So Devils are like fence gates and other things on the ranch, i.e. stuff you need and find a way to provide.
My father must have been fascinated by the fact that I’d brought the Devil into our house and let it grow. Indeed, I’d brought the Devil into my bedroom. Even though I was (and still am) his daughter, something even far deeper than his sense of good and evil took control of him, something far more primal, and he was fascinated by a woman who would make a companion of the Devil. And my mother, too, sensed that the bindweed was the dark face of evil. And to her there was nothing more evil than to let the coyotes and insects see you in your bedroom. Or, for that matter, to let anything see into your room. Although it never occurred to me at the time, my pact with the Devil Bindweed, which grew all through my venetian blinds, allowed me to see out. My blinds were opened. I could look out any time and see the coyotes and insects. In fact, there were some moonlight nights when I actually watched the coyotes run across our pasture. Their tails were flying and they looked like they were having a great time. Now I realize that my mother and I were looking at the same situation in two totally different ways, and neither of us knew it at the time.
(THE GINKGO is available as a beautiful trade paperback from createspace, and also on kindle, nook, smashwords, and other e-readers. It should be required reading in English courses [in my humble and totally biased opinion!])