Can’t Get No Satisfaction?

Sometimes I can’t, either. But today was satisfying.

A couple of weeks ago my partner sliced a pretty big branch off our mesquite tree. I mean, held upright it made a nice young shade tree on its own. Where he cut it—the diameter of its pretty little tree-ringed circle—was a full five inches. So you can imagine the size of the pile of branches it made.

Two weeks later, these branches were all but bare, having dropped all their tiny, pale-green leaves on the ground. I had purposely waited those two weeks for the leaf-drop. The dead leaves had formed a puddle almost three inches high in places. Very satisfying. I’d have a use for those leaves, later.

Right now it was time to focus on the trampling of the bare branches. I was wearing my heaviest-soled boots, because I’d be stepping on some gigantic, sturdy thorns as I trampled the pile. It’s no exaggeration to say some of them were four inches long and sharper than nails. In fact they made me think of the “crown of thorns” supposedly pressed into the head of Jesus before his crucifixion. My brother and his family were very into Jesus, and at one point I thought they’d be interested to see what that crown of thorns might have been like. So I put on some heavy gloves and fashioned a head-sized wreath, to send to them as an Easter present. A couple friends warned me against it—they said it might be received as a hostile act rather than a gift—but I’m sure I would have found it instructive and enlightening, even spiritually moving to see, if I lived where they lived, in Minnesota, where they didn’t have such spectacular thorns. So I sent it off. And didn’t hear from them for years afterward, until my nephew announced his wedding.

My boots could handle the punctures—I’d done this before—so it was pure pleasure hearing the branches crack underfoot, and seeing the pile get smaller as I worked it. The largest sections didn’t break from being stomped on, of course, and a few of the smaller ones were supple enough that they just bent. But for the most part this act was productive, and when I quit, the stack was maybe a quarter of its original size. This corner of the back yard couldn’t be used until I disposed of the pile, so to see it reduced so much already was gratifying. Plus, the endorphins and sunlight cheered me.

And now it was time to get out my favorite tool: the monstrous two-foot-plus lopper. I’d gone the first ten years of my homeownership without it. Looking back, I just hadn’t lived, until finally I shelled out the cash for one, almost a hundred bucks. Its super-sharp blades cut through three-inch-diameter branches like buttah. Its active end looked exactly like a bird head, complete with eye (the bolt) and smiling beak. I’d never seen an angry parrot bite through a finger, but I knew it happened sometimes, and this lopper action was exactly how I imagined such an event. Minus the blood.

The tool wasn’t quite as good as when I bought it, even though I did my best to sharpen it regularly. Still, there was nothing like it. The task here was to use this lopper to sever the larger bases of the branches from their spindlier, twiggier ends. I held the lopper vertically over the pile, bird-beak pointed down, and snipped…snipped…snipped. I’d save the larger pieces for our fires. We had a small fireplace (I live in the Southwest desert, where winter hardly makes an appearance any more), one that would never accept a Yule log or those plastic-wrapped quarter-rounds from the convenience store. So I chopped off pieces of branch as short as ten inches and an inch or so in diameter. Behind me was a bare spot of ground under a lawn chair, and there I began to stack up both the heavier chunks and the twigs, in the style of a winter-fuel woodpile on the farm. With all the snap-crackling of these mesquite branches they were still “green,” and would have to age a few months before they’d burn well. In the meantime, they could sit in this adorable little pile. I stacked them cut-ends facing out, looking like they made up a real woodpile in miniature, like some elf had been stockpiling fuel for the winter. All of it in a space under a normal-sized chair.

After about a billion cuts I could grab all the broken-off twigs that were suitable for kindling. Kindling is necessary to build a fire, but not in the amounts a branch this big produces—especially since waste paper works just as well. So after creating a small pile of these twigs I started pulling out the long, spindly end-branches from the shrinking pile. These would be time-consuming to cut up. But luckily I didn’t have to. Twice a year the city takes care of this kind of awkward brush with its Brush and Bulky pickup. They grind it into woodchips for mulch: a worthy cause. Can I be sure it doesn’t end up the landfill, where our recyclables sometimes do? I called the city once; they assured me it would get chopped up. Years later I called again, and they assured me again. So I’m satisfied that they really do make mulch out of it. I pull out all the spindly branches I don’t want to deal with, and set them aside for the next Brush and Bulky, eight weeks away.

That done, I’m looking at a small, sage-green sea of leaves. I love this mass of almost-final product. I want to run my fingers through it, but I can’t. Bits of thorny branch still hide within, like stinging cephalopods on the tide, so I make sure to wear gloves for this step: loading the leaves onto a big-holed screen over the large, square container I use for catching sifted stuff. I rub each handful into the screen, picking off the wood that’s left behind, and tossing it into a compost bin. When the container is full I lift off the screen and take off the gloves. This is it. I scoop up handfuls of pure, satiny leaves, and let them run between my fingers like waterfalls. Each leaf is the size and shape of a desert marigold’s buttery petals. Clay, on a micro scale, is supposed to have molecules like this, flat and slippery, creating the feel of silk in the hands.

I value this mass of fine mesquite leaves because it’s a fabulous covering for compost of all sorts: sloppy kitchen scraps, slimy chopped-up aloe prunings, kitty upchuck, even turds. Underneath it, smelly things stop smelling. Below this layer of sweetness, my compost will brew happily—moist and rich and complex. It’s essential to the plants I’ll grow and eat. It will give me food that will never see pesticides. or be enclosed in plastic. Food that will never lack the nutrients I need because it grew in impoverished soil. It will never be drenched in too much sugar. Never hide away in ever-shrinking amounts while its box and price tag stay the same. It will never pose enticingly in a TV ad, sending me to spend my cash at the chain junk-joint. Never require slave labor. Never require fossil fuel. Never enrich the already obscenely rich. Never support the insanity that is our modern industrial food system.

I cop one more feel of mesquite-leaf sensuality, then pour rightsized amounts into the containers I keep by my compost bins.

Maybe this whole approach to finding satisfaction in a day’s “chores” seems weird given the new religion of ones and zeros, but it makes sense on many levels. Anyway, it satisfies me.