The tendril

In 1979, an elderly woman, whose name I do not know, passed away in her house overlooking the Ohio River just north of Pittsburgh. Behind her she left, in uncertain hands, a blue divan, a 1951 Frigidaire, and out in the yard a garden to rival the hanging gardens of Babylon. The garden was filled with daffodils, peonies, tiger lilies, dahlias, and ferns that looked like stately fans in the cool, musky twilight.

A short time later the place was bought and converted into apartments, and I happened to be one of the first tenants. For a year the garden flourished in a wild, uncultivated abandon as if its beauty, after years of close supervision, had been unshackled and set free upon the world. But gradually, as one year followed the next, it began to be obvious that a garden could not survive forever unattended. Weeds - another tenacious form of life - were assuming control.

This does not mean that order gave up the fight. Flowers continued to bloom - besieged though they were - with a tenacity of their own. Even so the garden was on the decline and was, day by day, becoming reminiscent of Miss Havisham's decayed wedding cake. It was becoming a dream that once had been, that could still have been, had someone cared.

It never occurred to me, or to anyone else in our free-spirited dwelling, to do anything to stem this disastrous tide. After all, it wasn't our responsibility; it was the landlord's. It was his investment. I, like the other tenants, played my tenant role masterfully - grumbling about the landlord's indifference while never noticing the same trait in myself. All I could do, as I saw it, was salvage a few struggling peonies from the tangle and, when they withered, empty my vase and mourn.

One evening, during one of my rescue forays into this Heart of Darkness, I paused to consider the deteriorating situation there. I could see that the problem was primarily Calystegia sepium in character.

A member of the morning glory family, the bindweed is closely related to other strangling vines such as creeping jenny, though with one difference: bindweed can climb.

Now there is little doubt in my mind that this formidable foe, given a week and a little rain, could bring down a battleship if it wanted. A northern version of kudzu, that scourge of the South, Calystegia sepium slithers along at an incredible rate, spreading its lethal blanket as it flows. No amount of hoeing or weeding will stop it. By summer's end this blanket, in a perverse moment of glory, produces a delicate, white bloom as if hoping this pale flower will somehow replace all that it has strangled. It does not.

Looking closer at the patch - the fading peonies, the tiger lilies about to be murdered - I studied a single bindweed tendril poised atop a bud. It seemed, at the very tip, to be scanning the horizon. Tomorrow it would be six inches longer, or six feet. Everyone would shake his head, including me, and blame it on the lethargic landlord. Annoyed, I plucked the tendril and felt it give. Holding a six-inch length of bindweed in my hand, I realized it was that easy.

But the roots . . . I tugged again and to my surprise felt the root give way. The entire length came free. Now, W. C. Muenscher's ''Weeds'' suggests cultivating ground ridden with bindweed every six days for two years, allowing no new shoots to appear. With its roots deprived of nourishment the bindweed will disappear. Allowing for this genuine wisdom on the subject, I nevertheless found it impractical.

But what, within our constraints, can we do?

I vowed (a vow I have thus far kept) to weed at least one day a week for an hour. Clearly this will not exterminate the foe, but it will keep it from exterminating the flowers, which is my modest goal.

A clear reward was received the other day when the lilies bloomed, lighting the yard with gold, adding their bit of fragrance. Their beauty, though ephemeral, has been preserved and, for the time being at least, I have attained my goal. For an elderly lady whose name I do not know, it is the least I can do.

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