My little patch of front yard is a constant source of pain.  For twenty years I have done battle with it, and for twenty years, it has won.  That piece of ground refuses to grow anything.  I have planted grass, sod, monkey grass, monkey sod, azaleas, camellias, forsythias, boxwoods, and a large variety of annuals and perennials.  I have tried watering, fertilizing, aerating, mulching, composting, pollinating, and rotating, and it still looks like the Gobi desert out there.  All I need is a camel and a couple of nomads in furry hats pitching a tent.

I have sought many solutions over the years.  Thinking that maybe my problem was a radiation issue, I called the Air Force and asked them if they were missing any atomic warheads.  They denied the existence of atomic warheads, the Air Force, and my yard, so they were not much help.  Also, ever since I made that call, there has been a black sedan parked across the street, staffed by two guys with dark glasses and earpieces.  I took them some coffee and doughnuts a couple of weeks back, just to be neighborly.

“Are you guys from the Air Force?” I asked.

“We’re not even here,” said the man in the driver’s seat.  “Do you have any cream?”

Next I called the CDC in Atlanta and asked them if they had misplaced any biological pathogens, something that might be deadly to plants.  After a long silence, they told me to call the Air Force.  So they were even less help.

Then, thinking that maybe the ground was cursed, I hired a self-proclaimed nature healer.  Yeah, I know, but he also did light plumbing on the side, and I was going to get him to look at a leaky faucet while he was out.  Anyway, he was chanting while shaking his bag of chicken lips in the general direction of the ground when a tree branch fell on him and cut the ceremony short. I think I am on my own, and that faucet still leaks.

The problem has gotten so acute that they even know about my troubles at all of the landscape centers near my home.  These folks must have a newsletter, because I can walk into any plant store in the county and be greeted by name.

“That’ll be $138.50, Mr. Atkins,” the nice lady at the garden department of a local hardware store said to me the other day as I was buying my annual sacrifices to the yard.  I had never been there before.  “Shall I have the plants loaded into your car, or are you going to kill them here?”

And those warranties that they are supposed to give you that guarantee that the plants will live for an entire year or you get replacement plants?  I haven’t seen one of those in a while.  Apparently, I have returned so many dead plants in my time that I have hit my lifetime maximum, kind of like on a health insurance policy.  Now, the garden centers make me sign a waiver releasing them from liability for “everything, everywhere.”  Basically, if the plant dies anytime after it leaves the nursery, I am out of luck.

I have given it a good bit of thought, and I think that the problem may not be my ground at all.  For one thing, I have replaced every shovelful of dirt out there at least three times with nice, fresh store-bought dirt, and for all the good that did, I might just as well have spent the money on Astroturf.  So I have come to the conclusion that the problem must be my historical magnolia tree.

For those of you who don’t have a magnolia tree, congratulations.  You have chosen wisely.  A magnolia is the vampire of the tree world.  It sucks the life out of anything that has the misfortune to be under it.  I once watched a squirrel pause beneath the tree to scratch his ear.  Then he just keeled over.  I left him there for a week, because I was afraid to go get him.

Another characteristic of magnolias is that they are the only trees in the world that shed something every single day of the year, so you get that double-whammy effect of a dead yard that always looks like it needs to be raked.  It was the magnolia that wiped out my nature healer with that wayward branch, although most of the time it is leaves that fall, green, waxy-looking little devils that won’t burn, biodegrade, or blow away.

Sometimes, little oval-shaped objects that look like overcooked baked potatoes with bad cases of psoriasis drop out of the tree, as well.  I assume that these are seeds, but they also make nice handouts at Halloween if you paint them orange.  The rest of the time, the tree is raining sticks and branches like it is standing in a permanent high wind.  Once per year, a sickly white flower will appear for about seventeen minutes.  Then it turns brown and falls on the ground with the rest of the detritus.

I would rid myself of this nemesis if I could, but unfortunately, it is an historic magnolia tree.  No, nothing important happened there, although if George Washington had chopped it down instead of that cherry tree, or if William Tecumseh Sherman had shown the good sense to light it up as he was burning his way through Georgia, I wouldn’t be in this mess now.  The tree is historic because it sits next to my historic house in my historic neighborhood, and I am stuck with it.  Barring an accident or an act of God, it will be there long after I am gone, causing future generations of homeowners to pray for bag worms.

Maybe that lightning rod I tied to the top branches will help move things along.  The detour signs I borrowed from the city to route traffic into my tree certainly didn’t do any good, even though I stood out there in an orange vest and tried to look official.  Good Samaritans kept intervening.

“Whoa, Buddy, you want to be careful,” said the driver of a ton-and-a-half truck with an iron front bumper, a vehicle that would have done the job nicely.  “I almost hit your tree.”

“Boy.  Lucky thing you stopped in time.”

So I guess I am doomed to co-habitation with my magnolia tree, although it has been suggested that if I really want to get rid of it, all I have to do is tell the DOT that it is absolutely, positively not to be cut down under any circumstances.  But I think that only works if you actually want to keep the tree.  Still, it may be worth a try.  Does anyone have any yellow ribbon they can loan me?

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Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins resides in Rome, Georgia. His stories have been published in Christmas Stories from Georgia, The Lavender Mountain Anthology, The Blood and Fire Review, The Old Red Kimono, Long Island Woman, and Savannah Magazine. His humorous column —"South of the Etowah" — appears in The Rome News-Tribune. His industrial maintenance column — "The Fundamentals" — appears in Maintenance Technology Magazine. His humorous column — "And So It Goes" — appears in Memphis Downtowner Magazine. His first novel, "The Front Porch Prophet," was published by Medallion Press in June of 2008 to critical acclaim and earned the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. His second novel, "Sorrow Wood," was released in June 2009 by Medallion Press and has been nominated for the 2010 Georgia Author of the Year Award for Fiction. Both are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine booksellers. His third novel, "Camp Redemption," will be released in August, 2011.