A Mint Condition

By Elizabeth Hunter

Years ago, a friend brought one of his college classmates to my house for a visit. The classmate was not easy to talk to, perhaps because he'd just returned from a couple of years in a Japanese monastery where he'd spent his days in silence, on his knees, picking clean the moss around a temple. I was envious of that experience, wanted him to transfer it to me somehow, though clearly he could not.

Their visit occurred while I was wresting the place I'd just bought -- the Blue Ridge mountain cabin I still call home -- from the blackberry and poison ivy wilderness that had encroached during decades of neglect. One of my first projects was to clear a stretch of yard for a flower garden. All the grass and vines and briars came out; the cleared space yawned before me. In my haste to match my border with my vision for it, I tended not to heed dire warnings from fellow gardeners about certain plants I was welcoming into my life.

My gardening guru caught me transplanting bouncing bet I'd found along the railroad track into spaces between my few clumps of daffodils and iris. "If it can survive in those rocks and cinders, it's going to go crazy in your garden. It'll take over," he warned. I tucked in another plant, my mind's eye focused on glossy gardening magazine photographs showing tiers of simultaneously blooming plants in glorious massed borders. "I want it to take over," I proclaimed. And it did. Likewise the tansy I salvaged from his garden. "You don't want it," he said, savagely yanking the fragrant dark foliage out by the fistful. "If you must," he insisted, as I picked through his discards to find some with roots, "at least put it off by itself."

But I didn't. I've spent years now trying to control those and several other invasive plants I moved into my garden (borage, ajuga and oregano come to mind). But it's mint, a relative newcomer, that confounds me now. It's taken over a corner (a corner -- more like a third!) of one of the two large beds that contain my garden's bestsoil. It was there, among the rhubarb, asparagus, and flowering perennials, that the mint established its base camp. It has since invaded the lawn, and is making a concerted effort to gain control of the part of the bed reserved for my annual vegetable crops.

Unlike the other plants that plague me, I did not knowingly introduce the mint. Near as I can tell, it infiltrated my flower bed three years ago, when I was falling in love and not thinking clearly. My whole garden barely got a look-see during the months I was discovering the man with whom I now share my life. The mint caught me with my guard down, my attention diverted. That's all a lowly interloper of its ilk seeks -- not sunlight, or fertilizer, or water, or space -- just time.

When I finally refocused on the garden, the mint was firmly entrenched. Where it's been in residence longest, I have to pound my garden claw into the soil, then tug at the roots with all my might. Sometimes even that fails.

I sift the soil for every shred of mint root. Each is capable of sending forth new shoots and reoccupying the territory in remarkably short order. For the last two years, I've devoted untold hours to what I acknowledge now is mint containment rather than mint eradication. It's slow work, ultimately hopeless, like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon. Evening after evening, I kneel to the task I think of as "the discipline." The work's not hard, just time-consuming. It focuses my attention, un-addles me, gives me a chance to think, to celebrate, to ponder and to grieve. Sometimes, as I work the mint, I draw a step closer to what it was I wanted that man who'd spent time in the Japanese monastery to give to me. It's easier now than it was back then to picture myself in pale monk's robes, silent and serene, removing every bit of grass, every pine needle, from the blue-black moss, which is spongy and resilient beneath my hands.

Eyes on the ground, I shake the dirt from from the mint's tangled roots onto an enlarging rectangle of soil loose enough to stir with my fingers. My thoughts drift to my courting days. I recall the hot demandingness, the all-consuming fire that allowed this crinkly-leafed, indomitable plant to dig itself in. As I stand to dump a bucket of mint roots over the bank, I look across the daylilies to the hammock, where the man I deserted my garden and my senses for lies reading. He's slower than the mint, but he's rooting himself here too, in this garden, this season, this life.

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