May 8, 2006

Cutting back to where we began

Before there are roses, before they are made, there are only pieces. Somewhere they grow the roots, and somewhere else they grow the flowers.

The flowers are delicate, weak-wooded and willing to fall to bugs and weather and rot. They're guarded in greenhouses and they bloom there, once in a test bloom, and the buds explode into colors. It happens in the morning when the sky is right and the sun is shining and the whole flower-house glows green and then the colors open – red and white, yellow and pink and purple and orange, burgundy and black in every manner of variation and variegation. They bloom in bushes of four, five, six, ten, twelve, and twenty. Each color catches the morning and takes it for it's own and the gardeners gush and give the flowers the names of the blushes of celebrities and goddesses.

The root flowers come up strong, thick-willed and thorny. They grow in rows straight into the ground where the weeds are cut back a little ways. The bugs come and land and look, but leave again. The water gathers around their roots but the rootstock pieces pull it in, suck it in between the grit of dirt and take it to make themselves stronger. The temperatures rise and fall and the sun comes and goes. They bloom there, they bloom there too, out in the ground, but they bloom plain and simple and unnamed and every one colored the same.

And then, one day after the root flowers bloom and the bloom flowers bloom, they’re all taken up together. They're wrapped in burlap and wetted and placed in crates on trucks. The trucks take them from somewhere and they take them from somewhere else and they take them all to a factory. On that day all the roses are brought to their makers, to rows of anonymous women wearing gloves, holding knives and shears and tape. Cut and spliced, hacked and grafted, separated and sewn, the rootstock is taken and joined to the bloom-stock and the two stocks grow like that, knotted together. The rootless flowers are fused to the flowerless roots. They're cut together, healed over, and tagged with the word, the sweet name "rose." There civilization begins, and a rose is a rose.

Before you can begin to prune, you have to know this. Before you can unlatch the blades of the shears, before you can slide them from the sheath and feel the weight balance in your hand, this story must be told: Once there was a gardener who didn't know about before, who didn't know there was a time before roses were roses, before they had their name, back before when they were just the pieces. There was this gardener and he pruned some roses. They weren't cheap roses picked up anywhere but nice ones. Sometimes they say they were imported from France or England or India. Sometimes, purchased as a wedding present from one rich family for another. The gardener pruned the roses, cut them back to joint and bud, cut them cleanly and the juice oozed in little rings around their throats. He cut them like he had heard to cut them and he waited and then they bloomed like no other roses had bloomed. There were twice as many flowers and the flowers were twice as big. Children playing the street stopped to gawk. Neighbors out for a walk said they were amazing, astounding, incredible. The woman who owned the yard and who owned the flowers rolled down her window, the next time she saw the gardener, and she leaned out of her window so far that her necklace swung against the paint of the door.

I can't believe what you've done to my roses, she said. You must have a green thumb, a divine blessing, an ancient secret. They've just been gorgeous all week and everyone's said so. Thank you, this is just astounding.

Then the gardener went to the roses again. Sometimes the teller claims to be that gardener, sometimes to know him, and sometimes just to have heard the story as you’re hearing it now. That gardener went again to the roses in the rich person’s yard and he cut them like he had before. He heard the clean shear slicing and the sap spilled over the blades and he cut them back, back to bud and branch, except that this time he passed the line. He didn’t know how to see it, the bark knotting over the break between the root and bloom, the graft-point joining the pieces that make up a rose. No one told him what I’m telling you, that a rose is not a rose, is never one rose but always two.

When he returned the roses were ruined. They'd bloomed again, flushed up towards the sun but all in one weak color. The celebrities were gone. The goddesses were gone. The whole display of colors was cut away, replaced by flowers that didn't even have names.

This is the story they tell, but I wonder. Every time I've held a pair of shears, someone starts that story. Because they're grafted, I'll say to cut them off, but they always tell it long. Owners tell it and old gardeners tell it and anyone who prunes and gives advice tells that warning, but I don't know. I wonder if it wasn’t an accident. Maybe he knew.

Maybe he saw the secret and wanted it to be revealed, saw the captured roots and wanted to open them to the air. The story's set up to preserve the make up as it is now known, to prefer the pretty blooms, to always go with the exotic. But what if he saw those knots and wanted to undo them. I think he saw those grafts, layered over in new-grown bark and hidden down behind the leaves, and felt some urgent call to cut back to before the wound.

I feel it, holding the shears in my hand dyed black and green, callused with dirt and leaves and sap. The scissored blades slide oiled over each other, making a sound you can't describe, the sound of cutting back to old rejected ways, to out-of-fashion flowers that could have grown, to pale and brambly flowers with five plain pedals. I feel the urge to cut it all back, just to see how it would be.