First published in the Broad Street Review 27 Nov 2023, and reprinted here by permission.

It’s been a good year for bedstraw. Its narrow leaves radiate out in evenly spaced fans along its vine; delicate white flowers pop out at the end: it’s a sparkler of a weed. It grows quickly and insinuates itself into the forsythia, hostas, ferns, the rose. This year, it was shimmying up the dogwood, assaulting the crape myrtles, and blanketing the weeds I do want to keep, the Joe Pye, the goldenrod, the milkweed. So, mid-spring, out it came.

It pulls up easily—I’ll give it that. I shake gobs of it into the cardboard box I drag around with me. You can’t drop it into the box; you have to shake it; it sticks to everything (gloves, pants, shirts, other plants) like Velcro. My wife Jackie’s cousin Dale, the dairy farmer, called it silage. He’d cut bedstraw, clover, thistle, boneset, vetch, and a hundred other volunteers in the field and bale or silo it. After self-fermenting, it’s ready for the cows to eat.
But since I’m not a farmer, bedstraw’s a weed.

Weeding fits into my life somewhere between desire and obligation. It forces me outside, away from my job, which is composing, and I’ve come to appreciate that. My system is to compose in the morning and early afternoon and again late at night. Mid-afternoon, I weed. It’s the hottest part of the day, so, no, it isn’t a great system. But a breeze always comes, if only once, no matter how hot it is, and there’s no feeling in the world like a breeze on your face while you work in the sun.

Crossing Route 130
When I was young, I’d ride my bicycle past a man who seemed always to be on hands and knees in his yard, and yes, it comes to me now that I’m that man. My bike was a second-hand, 28-inch, balloon-tire behemoth. When I got it for Christmas, I was too short to pedal it while sitting. I could ride it only by standing on the pedals the entire time. Other kids had new 20-inch Stingrays with banana seats; I called mine the Tank. I removed the bell, the front light and rear reflector, the huge battery holder under the crossbar, the front and back fenders, the front basket, the back book holder. It was still the Hoss of bikes, but it’s what my parents could afford, and when it got going, no Stingray could touch it.

When I was old enough to be allowed to cross Route 130 in Pennsauken, I’d work my way to the highway and across, then to Westfield Avenue, toward River Road, and to my cousin Walt’s. That particular exhilaration of riding your own bike on your own time is unparalleled by any other freedom. Sport-utility vehicle commercials nuzzle into that fantasy: the sweeping of trackless plains, the fording of rocky streams, the climbing of mountains. They sell a bunch of SUVs on those ads, but there sure are a lot of Jeeps and Broncos marking time in supermarket parking lots.

The fantasy was reality, however, to the nine-year-old, to the 15-year-old. Gliding the Tank onto cousin Walt’s street, I’d pass that man in the middle of his lawn, poking into it with his hand weeder, extracting dandelions, I suppose. I gazed at him through a veil of pity that in a world where you could pedal anywhere, you’d choose to be on your knees, stabbing a lawn.

The second phoebe in four years
I’m the one weeding now. Because a shoulder flare-up sidelined me for a couple of summer months, though, the pitiless weeds—the most aggressive of them all, ragweed—took advantage. Waving in the breeze like a palm branch over royalty, one ragweed plant can send billions of seeds into the air if left to bloom. Normally, I pull it up all summer long or whack swaths of it to the ground with the string trimmer. But my shoulder had put all that on hold.

By Labor Day, it was four, five feet high. It reached into the branches of the young peach tree. Now in its third year, the peach gave us our first crop of fruit, so after my shoulder calmed down, I started ripping out ragweed, starting at the peach.

With the trunk exposed, tiny twigs of branches were now visible on it two feet off the ground. I made a mental note to prune those off once cold weather hit. But a few days later, I was outside, and there, perched on those twigs, was an Eastern phoebe, enjoying a perfect stage from which to scan the ground for bugs. I had never seen a phoebe before we moved here four years ago, and the last one I saw was three years ago. Unbelievably, it waited while I went in to fetch the camera and waited for me to return to take photos. Then it hopped to the ground, gobbled a bug, and flew off.

I had planted a peach tree, pulled out the ragweed, and voilà, there was an Eastern phoebe. I felt like a magician.

The boy on the bike, again
Yesterday, it rained, so with the ground softened, today was a good ragweed day. I worked my way along the top of the bluff on my knees. Wearing gloves as always and, even though it was hot, an old long-sleeve canvas shirt because of the wild raspberry, I yanked out ragweed, raspberry, thistle, wild grape, a poison ivy upstart, and a few milkweeds encroaching into the crape myrtle (I leave most of the milkweed for the monarchs).

One exceedingly voluptuous, thick-stemmed ragweed wouldn’t budge. Sweating, I turned to grab the long-handled loppers on the ground behind me, and as I turned, a neighbor boy on his bicycle glided past our house. He looked at me. We’ve seen each other before. It’s a good bike, multiple gears. He looked back to the road, and I inwardly wished him well for whatever Route 130s he had yet to cross.

And then the slightest of breezes wafted up the bluff to me, sweating, on my knees, hand on the lopper, carrying with it the smell of the cool running water of the Pennypack a hundred yards away. I turned my face into it and inhaled. It lasted a second, two seconds. The tall ragweed swayed over me. I felt like a king.