Poems by Tom Molanphy

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by Tom Molanphy

From Canary Summer 2015

Tom lives on the Vista Grande watershed of Northern California. Some complain about the sea fog in the area, but he remains grateful for the free air conditioning.

Miguel wears camo pants and drinks a Miller Light. He is Latino and stocky and flashes a gold-toothed smirk my way. Phillipe, my tall and flamboyant French neighbor, holds a glass of wine and leans over his brick wall. He shares Miguel’s skepticism about my lawn project.

“Come over for wine after zat craziness, oui?”

Of all my neighbors, Karen’s opinion means the most. With a Protestant work ethic as dependable as our coastal fog, she has lived in this quiet San Francisco suburb for years. I know she’s a widow and has a very sick son; she complains about neither.

Since exchanging our customary garden-gloved waves, we’ve both been working on hands and knees. While she adds supplements to her rose bushes, I subtract my entire front lawn.

I cut and roll over sod, section by section. The earth is so dry I can’t tell where the paper-feathered grass ends and the dust begins. No surprise: The San Francisco Chronicle recently confirmed that California is suffering through one of its worst droughts in history. The Sierra snowpack, the Bay Area’s major source of water for drinking and agriculture, is 17% of normal. Governor Jerry Brown has dubbed it a “mega-drought” because it’s the result of multiple dry seasons. And since California produces nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, it’s hardly a regional problem.

Miguel, Phillipe and Karen watch me. I like them all very much: Karen for her hard-nosed approach; Miguel for his zest; and Philippe for the duck-covered pajamas he wears when he washes his car on Saturday mornings.

I wonder what they think of me. I’m white, early forties, married but with no children. I stay at home a few days a week to teach online classes. I sport the heavy dark spectacles and two-day old shave of a Silicon Valley tech worker. Maybe they believe that’s my culture, the “techies” who have poured into the Bay Area to catch the latest Gold Rush, pushing rents to unreachable heights and jamming downtown with “Google” buses. Maybe they think tearing out a lawn is just another hip trend for the young and foolish.

Miguel beckons me over with a friendly wave of his Miller Lite. I wave my hand-shovel, then point to the ground. He smiles and resigns himself to his beer. I dig my shovel into the earth, crunching the coastal mix of soft sand and dry clay. I like the feeling, so I keep digging. I dig for the same reason I write: to understand what connects us.

Karen crosses the street and enters what’s left of my yard. I stand up and dust myself off. She wears faded dungarees, and her gray hair is pulled back into a tight bun. Her blue eyes outshine the clear sky.

We share a space for a small time. So much about the crowded Bay Area concerns sharing space. Grey whales traveling south down the Pacific Coast share travel lanes; neighbors share fences; native seedlings intertwine their roots and share the spaces we can’t see.

I decide to state the obvious.

“I look pretty funny here, huh?”

Karen keeps her eyes on my project. I can’t read her face.

“What are you up to?” she asks.

I tell her my lawn has beaten me. I can’t stop the salty fog from keeping the grass in a continual state of mutt-matted brown. I can win brief skirmishes with fertilizer and pesticides, but then I have to watch the resulting run-off stream down our street. That run-off would eventually reach the Pacific Ocean, a tiny sliver of blue just within sight of my home. Just out of sight lay the Farallones, and I could imagine the pesticides and fertilizer streaming out to those islands. The increase of nitrogen could create dangerous blooms of algae where blue whales and great white sharks fed.

It was enough to make a person stop and think.

“Go on,” Karen said.

I showed Karen how I had cut and flipped the lawn into two mounds, adding dirt to counter the high nitrogen content of the decaying sod. I had staked jute-netting into the mounds to hold the earth together on our slightly inclined yard, then covered the mounds with free woodchips that the county stumpgrinder was only too happy to get off his hands. A gravel path wound around the mounds. Once the mounds had broken down, I’d cover them with California poppy seeds and an array of native plants, including ceonothus, lavender, and fuchsia. The native plants would attract white-crowned sparrows, yellow-bellied warblers, Anna’s hummingbirds, and bumblebees. I’d have a whole new ecosystem instead of mutt-matted brown.

I finished my practiced speech and returned to the obvious.

“I guess it still looks crazy, huh?”

Karen put her hands on her hips and considered my lawn. I’m desperate to impress her because she’s so impressive. She’s a third-generation San Franciscan who doesn’t stand any nonsense. If Philippe plays his French records too loud, or Miguel lets his ivy clog her fence, they hear about it.

Karen was around during the last severe drought, 1976-77. That two-year drought was worse. Reservoirs got so dry that an emergency water pipeline had to be built across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Both droughts have been hard on fish; just last week, juvenile Chinook salmon were trucked past dry creek beds to give them a shot of reaching the Pacific. But neither drought can compare with the one recently reported in Time magazine: a California drought that started in 850 AD and lasted over 200 years.

I see the hard light of judgment flash in Karen’s eyes. She turns back to her roses but answers my question over her shoulder.

“Better to worry about water than to worry about how things look.”

Miguel beckons Karen to visit him, but she waves him off. Phillipe calls over to remind me about the chilled chardonnay, and I promise to join him.

Then I drop to my knees to work.

Previously appeared in Neutrons/Protons

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