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Selected Podpieces

The Dutchman's Pipe

Dutchman's Pipe Flower
One day last summer I was poking around in the yard with my clippers, eyeing a tendril of American bittersweet that was shooting too vigorously toward a white pine, when a dark spot on the leaf of another plant caught my eye. I turned, blades raised, ready to nip incipient disease in the bud, but the spot moved. I took off my glasses, leaned in close, and saw a herd of tiny caterpillars, each no more than half an inch long, all of them munching as fast as their little mandibles could munch toward the stem of the leaf that held them. (Note to self: Do caterpillars have mandibles?)

Now, I am no caterpillar expert, but I knew at once that these must be Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly larvae. My clue? Duh! They were devouring my Dutchman’s pipevine, Aristolochia durior.

I have been sitting at this computer for an hour trying to think of a way to describe how I felt at that moment. It was a moment of perfect harmony, of knowing that some god was in his heaven and all was right with the world, when what was supposed to happen did happen. I can think of few times I’ve felt so content.

Every morning after that I went out to check the fence, and every day the flush of little black caterpillars had surged farther and farther along the plant. Clumps of them would munch their way out the stem to the final pointy tip of a leaf and – well, I found scads of them on the ground, wandering through the mulch. I suppose they met their doom. The more successful ones munched across the entire plant in a few days, growing larger and larger as they ate, until the vine itself was little but bare stems, and then they disappeared. It didn’t take long for new leaves to grow, and before long the fence was once again hidden under a fresh canopy of green.

One of the phrases in gardening literature that can get a gardener’s heart racing is “grew in my grandmother’s garden.” Apparently, in the first part of the twentieth century Dutchman’s pipe overflowed the porch of the standard American grandmother, creating a deep, cool shade in mid-summer where a budding garden writer could dream endlessly on the porch swing. Even for a gardener whose grandmother, like mine, sold ladies’ dresses at Shepherd’s Department Store and never had more than a potted petunia on the back stoop, it’s a seductive image. For a long time I had felt that possession of a Dutchman’s pipe would be the ultimate in gardening.

I conflated that literary image with the Meerschaum pipe that had belonged to my grandfather. He was himself a Dutchman – or, as he once explained, a Pennsylvania Deutschman, the original term having been corrupted by ignorant locals. It was a disconcerting object, because although it was clearly an adult item, it was decorated with animals in caps and scarves, clutching valises as they hastened on their hind legs around the pipe’s bowl. I have never identified the species, but they weren’t cuddly; they were more like sly creatures from a Grimm fairy tale, dark and sinister and redolent of too-soft yellowed paper and crumbling leather bindings and the not-quite-unpleasant smell of oldness.
As for the pipe itself, so carefully stored and reverently retrieved from its velvet-lined case, I was sure it had some significance I couldn’t grasp. In fact for much of my life I was sure that behind most things there was some meaning or purpose that hovered tantalizingly out of my mental reach. Poems, for example: it was obvious they meant something beyond what they said, but how to figure that out? Or music: the swoops and swirls of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major swept into my chest and tossed my heart on its sharp blue waves, but what did it mean? Even the white metal squares that covered the upstairs windows of the library: until I learned the term “decorative grillwork,” probably somewhere in my thirties, I was sure that the maze-like turns and angles held a message I couldn’t interpret.

At any rate, the image of my grandmother’s nonexistent porch and the memory of my grandfather’s mystical pipe created an aura of desirability around the Dutchman’s pipe. And when at last, while planning a new garden, I saw one described in a mail-order catalog, I sent for it at once. I have written before of the deceptive nature of seed catalogs, which play upon desire, obscuring and skipping over details and emphasizing the glory and imminence of a lush future. What I ordered was the vision of myself lounging with an endless novel in a gently-swinging hammock under a porch-enveloping leafy screen, a jaunty pipe-shaped flower dangling beneath each heart-shaped leaf, and cicadas humming in the tulip trees beyond. What I received was a naked one-inch stick in a two-inch pot, tidily packed into a cardboard box with the two dozen other little seedlings I’d fallen for long-distance.

I planted it beside the fence around the dog yard and waited. It put out a leaf, but it stayed the same size for the rest of that summer and the next. And the next. But in its fourth summer my patience was rewarded. Five woody stems shot up from the earth, from each of which soft green tendrils curled up and through the wires of the fence and burst out into a great canvas of leaves.

My Dutchman’s pipe being Aristolochior durior, the native pipevine of southeastern North America, its very weird little flowers are small and grow tucked in under the leaves, so if you want to see one, you have to go looking for it. But they are there, looking at first like wrinkly, greenish J-shaped balloons. Later the pipes turn red, and develop yellow polka dots, and puff up until their swollen sides pull open, making a little round hole in the center. Peer in, and down in the spotted throat of each flower you see a set of yellow stamens so brilliant they seem to glow.

It is a truly Seussian flower.

Perhaps I spent too much of my childhood in the world of books to believe that much of what I read could actually happen. I was an observer; it was for fictional characters, not me, to do real things – raise chickens; become a marine biologist; write a novel; have children; ride a horse; learn to dance; backpack; grow up. So when I planted my first tomato (beside a train track on Chicago’s near north side) I didn’t quite believe that what happens in gardens could really happen in mine. The first green seedling, popping out of long-neglected black soil in the shade of the El, seemed like a miracle! And that sense of the miraculous has never stopped. A bluebird actually moving into a nestbox I put up for it on my fence; little green berries turning blue on my own blueberry bushes; garbage rotting its astonishing way into compost inside the black plastic bin I set up for just that purpose!

Last summer, when my Dutchman’s pipevine began to grow, and pipe-shaped flowers appeared on my pipevine, and tiny black caterpillars followed as the night the day, it was a doubling, a tripling of pleasure. What happened next was, as they say, gravy.

Summer progressed, as it so often does. The ground was parched, certain leaves and blossoms were thin and cracked at the edges, the air was full of moisture that, frustratingly, couldn’t be wicked into the ground where roots could reach it. By August three sets of fledglings had spilled from the bluebird box, the lawn had surrendered to the heat and browned out everywhere except in shady corners, the tomatoes were redundant, the zucchini had succumbed to stem borers.

But the vine that had been defoliated by caterpillars in July was foliar again by the middle of August. And one afternoon – perhaps I was once again trying to tame the grasping, drought-proof bittersweet – I saw a butterfly fluttering (very decisively, for a butterfly) over the Dutchman’s pipe. As I watched, she lit upon a leaf and stood poised for a moment on six delicate legs. Then, before my very eyes, she curled her dainty rear end under and began to deposit, one by one, minuscule black dots along the underside of the leaf.

A Pipevine swallowtail butterfly had made her way through the woods and valleys and pastures and paved streets of Rockbridge County, past the oaks and sassafras, pines and red cedars, the alien English ivy and honeysuckles and multiflora roses of my neighbors' yards, to find the pipevine, Aristolochia durior, that I had planted for her four years earlier.

I insist often and early that I am not a religious person, but certainly planting a garden is close to being an exercise in faith. Into the earth you deposit weensy seedlings, confident that in a matter of weeks they will be man-sized stalks bearing ten-pound fruits dripping with juice. You poke a little brown bulb into the dirt in the belief that after six freezing months it will send up a heart-thrillingly fragrant Wedgewood-blue hyacinth. You plant a little naked stick in the faith that in twenty years the leaves of a red oak will protect whoever is having cocktails in your living room from the westering sun.

These days I am no longer obsessed with meaning. I don’t believe that there is always something hidden beneath the surface, or, if there is, that I need to know about it. A poem means what I understand. Mozart wrote beautiful music that lifts my heart. Hordes of furry beasts may tote their valises around the world, but the only ones I've seen are hurrying around the bowl of my grandfather’s pipe. The last time I saw my childhood hometown, every windowsill on the library’s second floor held a swallow’s nest, safe from predators behind rust-stained grillwork that was scheduled to be painted in the fall.

(Written in deep winter, the low grey sky presaging nothing but dull cold air, the Dutchman’s pipevine leafless and stark along the fence. Waiting for another endless progression, miracle after miracle. Winter easing up, spring on the way.
Posted on a rainy day in May, little spotted pipes in bloom.)

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