for Phil Doub
If roses won’t prove fatal to write about, wilt they must with pleadings set with idyllic settings. You can’t always see this coming, a biochemical response beyond naming, a nameless byproduct characterized by falling up and swooning. It’s not like it kicks up any dust or anything, or sounds an alarm like a panicked conversation might, arriving both early and often to drive the unsentimental crazy.
I may not be as practical as I sound. Yesterday I went looking for the answer to a question I couldn’t formulate. It went something like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ In contrast, today is the day of days, the most wonderful I’ve ever lived through. It’s been a long time since I worked with my shirt off in the hot sun. I’m planting dwarf roses around stone walkways. Climbing ones over trellised arches. Note the care I take to prune back the element that makes a comedy romantic. It’s worth it even if all romance is hilarious. If my aversion here makes me giggle condescendingly, let me at least informally acknowledge your love of sap as an incredible source of power. But this is about science, man, and the Old Enologists who for centuries now have lived and worked up the road from here. Everyone knows the trick they play, for me a perpetual revelation: In fashioning an early warning system against sharpshooters and bunch rot, encircle your grapevines with ever-blooming roses of the same pH and watch for critters getting after them.
See this rose here. It’s yours for a dollar. You may ask, ‘Why would I pay a perfect stranger a dollar for a rose growing in my own garden?’ See that one there, the one spilling into the one you have your eye on? Before I knocked on your door, I plucked an even prettier one and sold it to your neighbor for a fiver. You get the discount for owning the bushes in the first place. You may ask, ‘Why would my neighbor give a perfect stranger five dollars for a rose out of my garden?’ One, these are beautiful flowers and, like a game of hide and go seek, it is the nature of things. Two, their scents, nasturtium, orrisroot, apple, clove, lemon, are things out of nature. Three, in our love of reds, pinks, and yellows, some splotched ones occur naturally in the wild. Four, what appear to us as our reds, pinks, and yellows may look different to their pollinators. Five is my hunch that, with the obvious exception of the sky, blue doesn’t happen as naturally in the wild as other hues do. Six, nowhere in the Bible, the Rig Veda, the Zend Avesta, or the Homeric poems is the sky called blue or its color even noted. One wonders if they ever looked up or, if they did, what color they saw. Seven, it’s a hot enough day for sweat to soak through from our armpits. Eight, kids are playing air hockey in the air-conditioned basement and roller hockey on the hot asphalt one street over. Nine: smell of grass clippings. Ten: chit-chit-chit of an old-time sprinkler system. Eleven: rubber of cars rolling over pea gravel. Twelve: wind shishing in treetops. Thirteen, the sky is blue and cloudless.
Our early warning system reminds one of the Old Miners’ trick of hanging canaries in their cages in the old mines they dug. Guinea pigs running headlong into waves of carbon monoxide may give us a sense of meaning in our own lives, when April showers once brought Mayflowers and roses fail for phylloxera’s arrival. If ever more sensitive birds get sick before men do, any sentinel species, honey bee, bat, crayfish, swallow, may inform our Climate Change Thinking. The grand dame of resistance writing, Muriel Rukeyser made it more urgent in U.S. 1, her poems from ’38, when she drove to West Virginia to record a wife saying: ‘I first discovered what was killing these men.’ Their labor was subterranean whose reverse alchemy took them away from gold into the business of carbon. Said the doctors at the time, ‘Miner’s phthisis, fibroid phthisis, / grinder’s rot, potter’s rot, / whatever it used to be called, / these men did not want to die.’ So we must answer yes to the question of whether or not silicosis is an occupational disease or a hazard.
The Old Enologists arrived here from Transcaucasia and Asia Minor with pit stops at the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta. ‘Hello Franschhoek,’ they said. And ‘Howdy’ to Kakheti, Istria, Valle de Guadalupe, Sherry Triangle, and Colchagua. And ‘Hi’ to Alsace. And ‘How do you do, Porto?’ They soon had everyone driving pests away from their vines and flavoring the wines of a not-so-distant future by amassing clumps of rosemary and lavender around the shanks of rosebushes. This was about the time I found a faience cup in the California loam with a chip like a bite taken out of it. It beamed not the name of a pharaoh but that of a far distant rancher.
‘The unfortunate need of words,’ I tried explaining to everyone. My most obvious emendations were the addition of words, half a dozen big ones plunked down in the middle of a plainspoken elegy, to arrest the attention of the departing dead, John Rutherford, in case he clung to his love of stilted language throughout his transition to the afterlife. In case he clung to sarcasm, I put that in, too. Insult? One or two searing ones. Wordplay? The best I could manage. Practical jokes? I couldn’t think of one in time. Like Shakespeare’s least famous fools, he never caught his own malapropisms, when opinioned is pinioned, odorous is odious, and vigitant is vigilant, so I packed my speech with them, that he might hear his own flawless diction one more time. Though he was never a churchgoer he believed in the function of God in his increasingly secular community. Explain that one to me. In any event, I can see him now, carried up the hill head-up by celestial children. Soon after their departure, the roses in his garden surrendered to convolvuluses.
Finally, the story I was meant to tell could be the trailer of a feature length movie. As sick to my stomach as it makes me to say this, for the best effect, read by rose-light from the penumbra of high personal pathos: He loved her even after she left with that man of hers. He loved her today. He loved her yesterday. He would always love her. When that man of hers died, he cried for her, and he cried. A different she loved a different he, even after he left with that woman of his. She loved him today. She loved him yesterday. She would love him forever. When his woman died, she cried for him, and she cried. They’ve known each other for a few weeks now. They remind each other of the men and women they didn’t go with. They make love in the afternoon, at lunchtime, when their spouses are away and the house is filled with daylight. There are funny parts, too. The funny parts come later. They bring us into a time when everyone looks visibly older.