Mulch Envy

In honor of May Day and in celebration of all of the springtime gardening happening around town, I offer up one my of favorite essays from college:

Mulch Envy, originally written for Creative Non-Fiction at Ball State University

My mom called and told me that she thought Tom Cruise was in Toledo visiting the Holmeses. I asked her why. She said it was because they had recently laid down some mulch. She asked me, “Why else would they do that?”

I told her I just didn’t know.

Mulch, to my mother, has always been a source of envy, the beautiful icing on a suburban cake. When driving through the more cookie-cutter neighborhoods, you can always smell its pungent scent on the breeze: crisp, deep, and familiar. It’s a sign to others that you care about your lawn, that you are willing to pamper it, like gourmet meat for an overindulged pet. Mulch is beautiful not only in the superficial way it patches over weak topsoil, but in the life that it gives to roots below, as if the tree that its wood chips came from were some sort of an organ donation: dying so that another plant could live off of its remains.

The mulch of my mother is not often the expensive aged vintage of the Holmeses or the Stepford-esque neighborhoods, but it comes with the spring, in the form of the athletic department’s fundraiser. Dropped off by a few cheerleaders and a football player, the mulch never seems to make it to the appropriate part of the lawn, no matter how many maps or diagrams my mother puts in with her order. So my mom ends up dragging it around: two bags for the front bed by the street, one for the garden between the house and the garage, one for the garden on the side of the house, and two for the garden in the back yard. She then carefully places it around the trees, scatters it among the flowerbeds, and tucks it gently around the bushes. And, if she’s feeling extravagant, she’ll pay a neighborhood boy to do the job for her.

On some sunny afternoon my mom decided that I should have a garden of my own, nestled into hers, in the large space between our house and garage. She had just gotten a special load of mulch, this time with peat moss mixed in. She offered me gloves, but after a few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, and my fingers were plunging into the mulch mixture on their own. The mulch was cool to the touch. Soft. Inviting. Like a book so old you can smell its history without reading a page. Just a whiff of mulch and you can sense some oak, a little pine, and perhaps some birch to lighten the texture. We sprinkled the mulch over the earth, instantly giving the dull plot life, texture, and personality. As the weeks passed and the flowers sprung to life in that garden, I swear that they were just a little bit brighter than those in the other gardens perhaps knowing that they were planted with love.

I was walking across the campus of Ball State with some friends just the other day, when I caught a smell of old wood, topsoil, and soft earth. I knew in an instant that some extravagant gardener had just iced one of the largest flowerbeds on campus with a frosting of soft oak mulch. I smiled to myself thinking of warm days, cheerleaders, and Tom Cruise, when one of my friends said, “That smells terrible! What is that?”

I was crushed. How could this person simply not understand the glory of that scent? I wondered who his mother was. Why she never let him take the gloves off and sift his fingers through dark earth. I couldn’t help but silently pity him.

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