The yard at the back of the house was a desert when we first moved here; or maybe I mean semi-desert - our own private Trans-Pecos to the tune of about half a football pitch, lacking only groups of wandering Coahuiltecs to complete the picture. The soil was fine black dust with some plant life dried blonde by the Texas summer and a generous smattering of bottle caps - mostly Bud Lite and related children's drinks. The bottle caps were at their greatest concentration around the dead trunk of a pecan tree, just a jagged pole left jutting upwards into the sky, no branches to speak of. A gas-burning barbecue grill had come to die against the trunk of the tree, rusted and with one shitty plastic wheel broken at an awkward angle.
The idiot who first showed us around the house tried to suggest it was some sort of feature, that maybe we could get the thing fired up and have parties out there once we were settled. A few minutes earlier he'd pointed to the crappy tubular plastic frame of a circular garden table, or what would have been a table if there had been any glass in it.
'You could probably get some glass cut for that,' he told us.
This was a full size table, albeit one of a kind I'd seen on sale at Walmart or one of those places for about fifteen dollars, which I correlate with it costing me a little more than that to have a square foot of glass specially cut at a Thad Ziegler outlet, therefore concluding that the guy who first showed us around the house was a massive competition-level knob.
We moved the broken barbecue grill around the side of the garage, unsure as to whether or not it was really supposed to be a feature, but reluctant to give it to one of those Mexican guys who drives around looking for scrap in case it was. I suppose it at least reinforces the impression I'm trying to foster of our having nothing worth taking in the event of burglary, in case it isn't obvious from the blinds at all angles and half-eaten by cats.
The house had been empty for a while, and before us there had been young guys whose main interests were apparently partying and drinking beer - possibly also pouring said beer over each other's heads whilst yelling awesome. The yard had not been watered in some time, thus leaving only seasonal rainfall and the local water table to tend the prehistory of my garden.
First I dug the entire thing over to a depth of about a foot, turning the earth and getting out the larger rocks, which I used to make a drystone border. This took a little over six months, bringing me around to spring. I tried Bermuda grass seed in some areas with mixed results, but kept on watering as I noticed a few patches of the naturally growing grass - seemingly a variation on Bermuda grass - making a return. I worked at this for a couple of hours a day and it still took two years to get it looking like something which had come about by means of human agency.
I started the Bermuda grass off from seed sown beneath a protective netting which retained moisture. The grass did well and came up quite thick using this method, but unfortunately so did a specific kind of broad-leaf weed which I will term arsehole daisy because I am yet to achieve formal identification. The problem got worse as I began to seed the northern side of the garden, the part which gets the most sun. Just three days after laying down the grass seed, the netting, pinned down at the edges, would be puffed up and stretched taut across great cabbage-like blooms of arsehole daisy. I felt like the monkey in the child's joke vainly attempting to return the cork to the pig's bottom, and even without the arsehole daisies, my established patches of bermuda grass were beginning to thin and fail.
I took an arsehole daisy to the local hardware store, but they didn't know what it was either. I bought a sack of supergrass to cheer myself up. It wasn't called supergrass, but it was some name like that, and it was cheap and absolutely guaranteed to be the most amazing grass you've ever seen, and it would definitely grow and everything, and you would be so happy with how fanfuckingtastic this grass was going to turn out that you'd probably shit yourself. Nevertheless it struck me as odd that the packaging made no reference to what actual species of seed I was about to chuck all across my yard.
The supergrass grew quickly into huge clumps of a tough, fat bladed plant which clogged our newly purchased lawnmower, and it was October and the weather was cooling again, too cool for Bermuda grass. I had the entire yard neatly defined by borders marked out with rows of stone, which helped somehow, but it still felt like I wasn't really getting anywhere. I switched to rye grass on the grounds that it reputedly does well in the winter. Local lore seemed to recommend a mix of Bermuda - which grows during the hot part of the year and then goes dormant as winter approaches - and rye, which will grow when the Bermuda is beginning to turn brown.
So I carried on, just doing what I could and trying not to get too pissed off with any of it. I'd read plenty of science-fiction novels wherein plucky colonists attempt to scrape a living from the harsh Martian soil, and I knew I had at least one advantage over those guys in so much as that I was still on Earth. I kept on watering, and between the Bermuda and the rye and whatever the wild stuff was that looked a lot like Bermuda, the yard at the back eventually developed a lawn, albeit a lawn with a couple of patches depending on the time of year. It became a garden.
It was a conscious act of claiming my territory whilst engaging directly with the physical substance of the land - which seemed important given that I'm new to these parts. Additionally I would suggest that gardening is good for the soul, or at least for the intellect, as D.H. Lawrence almost certainly observed at some point or other. In claiming my territory, I've taken it back from the previous resident morons with their shitty knackered barbecue grill; and tellingly this seems to have had an actual physical effect on the house itself, specifically the kitchen door which once had a tendency to stick during damp weather, and to stick so tight that on bad days it could only be opened by a hefty run taken at it with one shoulder to the fore. Yet after that first year the problem just went away. My theory is that the ground beneath the house had become so desiccated that the entire structure had begun to split in half, as suggested by a crack running across the living room ceiling and down the wall; so my keeping the garden watered seems to have at least fixed one aspect of the problem. We've had no trouble with the kitchen door since.
These days it's mostly just weeding and mowing, although there are still not quite enough hours in the day to keep on top of such an expanse, and I have to mow by hand with a reel mower, having apparently bust the electric mower on a particularly tough clump of supergrass. I've divided the entire patch up into six parts - two out front, four at the back - and I mow one each day so that it never becomes too gargantuan a task. So for two days out of every six I get to mow and nod or exchange grunting noises with passing neighbours. There's a hillbilly woman who lives down the road who always grins and shares some incomprehensible observation, for one example. I only know her because of Gary, her cat.
Gary has been spending a lot of time at our house, joining in when I feed the local strays. He's enormous, and we initially mistook him for our own Fluffy. At one point he turned up wearing a green collar with a little bell, which I found abandoned a couple of days later. I walked down the road and knocked on the door where I thought I'd seen him hanging around. The hillbilly woman looked momentarily terrified, then understood when I explained that her cat had taken to hanging around in my garden and I was just returning his collar.
'You mean Fat Cat,' she chuckled and yee-hawed toothlessly.
I can't bring myself to call him Fat Cat. It seems rude, and in any case he reminds me of Gary, my former similarly big-boned neighbour who always seemed to be there just hanging around whenever I went out into the back garden.
If it isn't the Hillbilly woman, it's Dee Dee or Angela or John, sometimes Frasier or Donna, and occasionally Shooty the drug dealer - which probably isn't his actual name. I smile and nod and look quickly away because he's rumoured to have certain mental health issues, and he's been inside the stripey hole, and there was something in the papers about a firearm which may or may not have been discharged into somebody. I'm not even certain that it's him, but he lives in that house, and I'm not going to ask, 'are you that crack dealer who shot his buddy a few months back?' He seems polite enough, whoever he is. His presence on our street means that I get to watch young men in basketball gear drinking their forties from brown paper bags, just like in the films.
Last week I was mowing the lawn and Shooty walked across.
'Hey, you want your lawn mowed?' he asked.
It took me a moment to confirm for the sake of my own peace of mind that yes, here I was mowing my lawn whilst a neighbour asked me if I would like my lawn mowed. Logically I suppose he wanted to know whether I would like him to mow it for ten dollars, or twenty or whatever the going rate was.
'I'm fine,' I said.
I had established my territory.
This is my lawn, I thought to myself as he walked back to his stoop in defeat.