Bluebirds in the Pokeweed

That crazy eco-nut (me) and her neighbors.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATE O'HARA

Here’s a scenario that used to snap my pitchfork:

I’m working in the yard. The guy next door goes for a walk with his son, and passes my way. I chat with the man a bit, long enough to confirm that we still have nothing more in common than our geographical proximity. Then just as the boy is beginning to take an intelligent interest in my activity, his father takes him by the shoulder, says, “Let’s let our neighbor get on with [dramatic pause] whatever it is she’s doing,” and steers him away.

“What are you doing?“ he whispers, thus proving that his father’s worries are justified.

This, of course, leaves me wondering why it isn’t perfectly obvious what I’m doing. Or if it is obvious, but he can’t imagine why I’m doing it. Does he mean to imply some subtle criticism? Is he actually expressing disapproval of my gardening strategies?

My mental channel, until moments ago tuned to crickets, now flips to a witty internal monologue: Our house is nestled in fascinating greenery that’s chock full of wildlife. What have they got over there? A nasty shaved lawn that makes the house look like a toy sitting on a pool table. A few precisely shaped shrubs, tortured into spheres, and one straight line of plastic-looking flowers.

If I sound paranoid, blame the fact that many of the plants I love best are often called “weeds.” Even the sweetest gardeners slaughter them by the millions, so that I despair of them surviving another century.

Stewing in my suppressed wrath, I reach into the trash bag of pokeweed I had gathered from a nearby construction site and go on laying the berry-filled stalks near the roses in front of my house. The boy is shooting a basketball his father handed him before going back indoors. He dutifully makes a few baskets, then he dribbles to the end of his driveway and, with a wary look toward home, kicks the ball to where I stand. Sidling up to me casually, he whispers, “What are you doing?” He thus proves that his father’s worries are justified. Left unsupervised, he will sop up my lectures like a sponge, and some fine day when he becomes a man, stab his father to the quick by acting on them. May I live to see the day! Not from any sense of injury, of course. Purely for the good of the planet.

“This,” I whisper, one spy confiding in another, “is called poke-weed. It was highly prized by our ancestors for many reasons.” I know better than to mention poke salad until he is 18. Then I will no longer be answerable to his parents if he prefers eating weeds to eating out of a box.

I smear a pokeberry into a tissue. “See what a bright magenta it is? If you get it on your clothes, it won’t come out. That’s why pokeberries have been used in dyes and inks for centuries.”

“I bet you have all the recipes, too,” he says in a neutral tone. He hasn’t yet decided if I am a nut or not. But I am interesting for being unlike his parents.

“I have a few recipes,” I say. “But I’m not planting pokeweed to make ink.”

He gets called into dinner, and our conversation ends. Fall turns to winter and winter to spring before we get another chance to talk. During those months I get only glimpses of him being hurried from climate-controlled house to climate-controlled car and back again. (His family must wonder what I could possibly be doing outdoors in the cold.)

Then one morning, while I am thinning the young seedlings, he comes over to me. “It came up!” he shouts. Then, as if remembering something he was told, he adds, “You won’t be able to get rid of it now.”

“I don’t want to get rid of it,” I say. “But I could. See how easily you can pull the young shoots from the ground?” I pull one up.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m encouraging them to grow into a hedge.”

His next question is cut short when his mother drives up and opens the door so he can scoot into the car.

Our next pokeweed encounter is in the summer. “Dad doesn’t like that stuff,” he says in greeting. We both stop a moment to watch butterflies fluttering ecstatically through the abundant pokeweed blooms.

I already know that his dad doesn’t like them. I had some growing near the property line behind our houses, and he invariably crossed the line to hack at them with his string trimmer—despite the fact that they were well pruned and well on our side. This was partly why I had planted the new patch out front.

“Why doesn’t your dad like it?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Why do you like it?”

“One of the biggest reasons,” I said, “is that pokeweed is a favorite food of the Eastern bluebird. The bluebird has been having a hard time around here. These berries will help the bird survive in the winter. And I’ll be able to watch them from the window.”

At least that’s what I’m hoping, I don’t add out loud.

The boy and I meet again that fall—as I am hauling a bucket of black walnuts to the porch so that my husband and I can see who comes to snack on them.

“Is there anything you don’t feed?” he asks. There is scorn in his voice. Oh, dear. Next he’ll be rolling his eyes and asking why don’t we watch TV instead of the window.

“My dad says there aren’t any bluebirds around here anymore. He says nobody has seen one for years.”

“Bluebirds don’t go where there’s no food or water for them,” I reply, a little too harshly.

At that moment, I hear quick footsteps coming up the drive. It’s the boy’s father. He looks excited about something. He points, jabbing his finger in the air, and we look.

There are bluebirds flying toward the pokeweed—at least three dozen bluebirds! They settle into it, play a game of musical perches, and begin stuffing themselves silly. My neighbors are beside themselves. They’ve never seen such a thing before.

The sun is bright, so the bluebirds are a startling blue, and their melodic cries and murmuring, their rustling and their wings flapping, are suddenly the only sounds in the world. The earth seems to pitch beneath my feet.

Jaws drop on either side of me. I planted pokeberries. I said the bluebirds would come. They did. Logically then, though I am still one of those eco-nuts, I am no longer a crank.

In the months to come, our conversations may be brief and far between, but now they are cordial. There is peace between our houses. Pokeweed prospers on our border. And what’s more, a state of the art, copper-trimmed bluebird house now flashes its welcome in the sun behind my neighbor’s house.


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