In the backyard of my childhood, there was a no-man’s land of sorts — a small corridor, between the shrubs and house, where we would sometimes anxiously tiptoe to fetch a softball that had landed where it wasn’t supposed to go.
The spot behind the azaleas was a shadowy, itchy place, full of bugs, thorns and the threat — always feared but never realized — of a snake sleeping under the leaves.
Parting the branches of the bushes to rescue a treasure that had escaped our grasp, we were reminded of the uneasy truce between the wildness of the yard and our presence within it — a balance, or so it seemed, subject to constant renegotiation.
All of this has come to mind in these first days of autumn, as I try to tame a yard that was pretty much on its own during the summer. Heat prevented any outside work more ambitious than cutting the grass. Everything else grew with abandon.
Ferns have done well — perhaps too well — near the front porch, where rain slides from the eaves and keeps the soil boggy. Fern fronds leaned into the porch, not so subtly testing a boundary, like neighbors nudging their noses atop a fence.
Nearby, gingers fanned out their leaves like peacocks, a botanical pageant that blocked out everything else. While we were on vacation, a vine snaked up the side of the house and touched its tendrils to the attic louver, providing a perfect staircase for any mouse than might want to come inside.
Near the patio, a drake elm that had barely survived Hurricane Gustav six years ago asserted its strength this summer, shooting up a branch to touch the house, as insistent as a finger pressed in the chest.
I decided to go on the attack, my resolve building as I sat on the porch, with whetstone in hand, sharpening my pruner until its edge gleamed like a dime fresh from the mint.
As I sharpened, sharpened, sharpened in the first light of morning, the place was quiet except for the sound of stone on blade, the rasp of the executioner wafting over the lawn.
The gingers released a sharp, sweet smell when I clipped their leaves and sailed them, like paper airplanes, into a growing pile that my teen-age son carried to the curb.
Over the course of the morning, the pile grew high with vines, limbs and tallow trees, creating a mound as big as a funeral bier. We were burying summer, I told myself over the next week, as a string of clear, sunny days dried the brush to half its original size.
There’s still much to do. But more light comes through the windows now, thanks to a thinner landscape out front. I’ll welcome the extra brightness at the tail-end of the year, when the winter sun hangs low in the sky.
And maybe there will be a freeze or two to finish off what my pruning shears could not.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.