January/February 2016


7 Lessons Bindweed Is Trying to Teach Me

1. Beauty will save you. When we noticed the elegant tendrils twining across a patch of grass, we were delighted. “Look,” we said. “Morning glory!” The arrowhead leaves were a healthy green; the pale pink flowers were tissue-paper trumpets. Tiny little fools that we were, we actually planned to get rid of the stupid grass and allow this delicate wanderer to flourish in its stead. Which was all it took for an intruder to acquire a foothold in the yard.

2. Be humble. Convolvulus arvensis, or field bindweed, is what’s known as a prostrate plant. No big-headed sunflowery grandstanding here! Like a supplicant before a king, bindweed lies on the ground and keeps its nose in the dirt. It creeps along, limbless, blind, and when it finally bumps into something and starts climbing, it does so apologetically, unobtrusively, begging your pardon as it goes. I, on the other hand, Google myself with appalling frequency.

3. But remain ambitious. Bindweed grows in all directions. Its vertical roots can go ten, twenty feet underground. Not far from the main plant, lateral rhizomes will turn vertically and essentially begin another creature, sending out new roots and new lateral growth. These rhizomes mean that a single plant can grow ten feet radially in a season. If you will recall junior high math, that’s 314 square feet of bindweed-covered ground. From a single plant. In a summer. My big event of the summer was a camping trip. Oh, and I cleaned out the basement.

4. Learn to thrive in poor soil. I built cedar beds for the butter lettuce. I transplanted the sad lilacs. I pruned the peach tree and mulched the hell out of the flower beds. I bought them all a truckload of dirt so black and wet it looked like a mountain of coffee grounds. I have never so much as spit for the benefit of the bindweed, yet it almost glows with good health. Perversely, bindweed seems to love parched, friable, nitrogen-starved, totally crappy soil.

5. Ask for help. A partial list of things that bindweed is happy to climb: short grasses, tall grasses, wildflowers, sunflowers, weeds, raspberry canes, trees, faucets, swing sets, wire fencing, wooden fencing, brick walls, houses, mounds of dirt. I feel pretty confident that if I died in the backyard after breakfast, green arms would cover my body by sunset.

6. Patience is a virtue. Once, when I didn’t get a job I wanted, I went to bed for two days. But bindweed knows no such anxiety. Bindweed plays the long game: it will allow you to pull as many tendrils as you like, knowing that its root system in a single acre of soil can weigh up to five tons. That’s four Honda Civics’ worth of bindweed, buried in the backyard, waiting for its chance to multiply.

7. Let happiness creep in. Dusk, the backyard, a cold beer. My wife’s pretty face in the shade of a wide-brimmed hat. Our daughters and the little neighbor boys dart back and forth from our yard to theirs, unsupervised and wild. We kneel in the dirt and take old kitchen knives to the bindweed, chatting about dinner and weather and gossip and work. We fill a tub with the damnable tendrils, then another, and another, and while I hate the bindweed — while I despise the bindweed — the truth is I’ve never been happier in my life.

Nico Alvarado is a writer and teacher in Colorado. His poetry and prose have appeared in Best New Voices, Boston Review, and jubilat.