Planting ideas

I’m standing in dirt up to my knees, with mud smeared across my forehead and an earthworm wriggling down the cuff of my glove. My back aches, and there are bits of grass sticking out of my hair.

"Hey, freak girl!" shouts the Lizard of Fun from the front door. "Whatcha doing? Re-enacting a scene from Shallow Grave?" It saunters out of the house, where it’s spent the past several days watching the television news explore every conceivable angle of that story about those kids in Colorado with the guns and bombs. It’s beginning to turn even greener than usual – a frequent side effect of gory detail overload.

"Enough voyeur media," I say, dragging the Lizard into the front yard. "It’s time you got down to earth, and started to appreciate the simpler, natural things in life."

"Aww, Earth Day was last week," whines the Lizard. "And besides, I hate granola."

I hand the Lizard a shovel. "Shut up and dig."

"I dig. What are we doing?" The kid next door wanders over, hiking up his camouflage-patterned pants. "Whatcha doing?"

The Lizard yelps in fright, and scurries up onto the porch. "Keep him away from me!" it whimpers, quivering at the top of the steps. "He’ll pull my tail off! He’ll torture me! He’s one of those angry kids. I’ve heard about them – they start out by pulling wings off flies. Then, they’re mean to reptiles. Eventually, they’re wearing trench coats and … oh, it’s just too much to bear!"

"He’s 10 years old," I tell the Lizard. "You’ve been watching too much television."

"If it’s not on TV, it can’t happen," shrugs the Lizard. "They start young."

"Whatcha doing?" says the kid, louder.

"I’m planting trees," I tell him, glaring at the Lizard. "You want to give me a hand?"

The kid nods, and starts digging with my trowel in the flower bed. ("Oh great, put a weapon in his hand," hisses the Lizard.) We turn up a few earthworms, some dandelion roots, a beer cap, a few chunks of concrete and a 6-foot length of clothesline. It’s neglected city soil, where only the strongest weeds really thrive.

"Why are you planting trees?" asks the kid after a while.

"I dunno. Because it’s almost Arbor Day," I say, pointing at a small pile of sticks that came in the mail from the Arbor Day Foundation, with a card explaining that they’re dormant trees and should be planted immediately. ("Yeah, before they wake up and go on a rampage," says the Lizard.)

"They don’t look like trees," says the kid. "They look like toothpicks."

He’s right. Barely a foot long, each baby tree is to a spreading oak what a stick figure is to a Degas ballerina. They hardly seem worth the trouble. But if I don’t plant them, I keep telling myself, who will?

"When do they turn into trees?" asks the kid.

"Let’s see," I say, calculating. "Maybe when you’re 18. They might even be as tall as you by then."

The kid thinks for a minute. "That’s a long time. Those guys with the guns, who were on TV, they were 18. They shot lots of people, and they were gonna blow up their school but they committed suicide instead."

"See, I told you!" shouts the Lizard from the safety of the porch. "He’s already learning from the media! Keep it up and he’ll start trying to emulate what he sees on TV!"

"Don’t be ridiculous," I say, showing the kid how to make a slot in the ground, insert a baby tree, and push the soil firm around the roots.

"You really know how to plant trees," says the kid. "Do you know how to build bombs too?"

"Aaaauuuggghhh!" screams the Lizard. "Duck!"

I ignore the Lizard’s hysteria, and hand the kid a tree. "Here. You try."

It’s wobbly, but he gets it planted. We pour water around the base, and plant another, and then another.

"See?" I say to the Lizard. "He’s not going to hurt you. He’s doing something useful, unlike some reptiles I know."

The Lizard shrugs warily, and then ambles down to the flowerbed. Its toes sink into the muddy soil. "Hey!" it exclaims. "That feels kind of good."

"Maybe if you spent more time playing in the dirt, and less time in front of the television, you’d be less paranoid," I note.

"But he’s a weird outcast kid who wears camouflage," says the Lizard. "That’s a sure sign of a future crack-up. And I read in the paper that the Goth kids who wear all black and listen to Marilyn Manson are even more likely to be unstable."

"Absolutely. Or else they’ll grow up to write for alternative newsweeklies," I say, tossing a handful of mud at the Lizard.

"Ooooh, mud fight!" it squeals. "Now that’s fun!"

Oblivious to our debate, the kid stands back on the cracked sidewalk, surveying the trees. "It’s starting to look pretty good here," he observes with a note of satisfaction.

"Yeah," I say. "Yeah, it is."

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