Policy of Containment

How we can make sense of this crazy world through our backyards

Spring was well under way and the enemy had begun to appear. Little umbrellas of tender bamboo shoots dotted the lawn that swept up the hill of our back yard; like tiny parasols belonging to invisible geishas, the fluttering plumes tilted and turned, feigning innocence.

In the background, mighty ancestors stood proud, clacking their canes and rustling their approval in the crisp April breeze.

They were back.


It was 2003, and we had tried a number of methods for removing the persistent bamboo infestation in our Myers Park yard, but despite escalating strengths of Roundup—from weed killer to brush-killer concentrate—nothing worked. During the previous summer we discovered that a shoot could appear between mowings, leaping to frightening heights in a matter of days. A pickax, machete, loppers, and sharpened lawnmower blades cut renegade shoots down to size. Sightings from the family room windows brought swift action. We thought we were winning. But over the winter, the bamboo had plotted a comeback.

When the parasols appeared, we resolved that this year would be different. After checking with Mecklenburg County’s cooperative extension agent and various nurseries, we decided that the best way to win this battle was to sever the underground runners from the parents. My husband, Phil, like a good Alpha Male, took this challenge personally. He began digging. It took two years, a heavy-duty Ditch Witch that dug extra deep trenches, plastic, and rubber. We considered cement. If it could hold down Jimmy Hoffa, then surely it could barricade a cartel of bamboo runners.

As the war in Iraq lumbered through 2003 and 2004, my husband began to see the bamboo as an allegory. He liked the granddaddy bamboo forest in the upper corner of the yard; this was acceptable. Providing a year-round screen, it held a respected place in the world history of our plot. The problem wasn’t with where it was, but with where it wanted to go and how it planned to get there. Sending out horizontal stems underground, known as rhizomes, these land-hungry invaders were growing large masses of roots that were invisible from view. While we thought every little shoot that got clipped off was our triumph, its few days in the sun had fed and strengthened a burgeoning, life-giving mass beneath the surface.

Like a radical minority, it was not content to stay underground. It wanted to take over the world.

Phil launched a counter-attack, seeking a goal of containment.   

The back door of our kitchen became the set for an unfolding drama that held potential for an indie film. Covered in sweat, Phil would appear to show off his victims. Referring to a knotty nest of roots as a shrunken head, he would hold out a decapitation for viewing, then toss it on a swelling pile of yard waste. My sister thought we were becoming bad neighbors and offered to loan us her Yukon and trailer to haul off the spoils of war. But we were far from finished. The higher our victory pile got, the more inspired we became to push for total surrender.

It took two summers of digging before Phil had cleared the yard of what he started calling the Al-Qaeda cells. Persistent and crafty, these networks knew how to spread under cover of darkness. By the time we got a glimpse of trouble, they had established a threat much bigger and deeper than the charming parasols in the spring grass. We learned that immediate action was required, that even a few days of delay signaled trouble for the future. While President Bush got us deeper into the conflict in Iraq, we got deeper into the destruction of our own backyard.

A day came when Phil was confident every cell had been identified and destroyed. It was time to barricade the Old Guard to prevent future invasions. The rustling stand of mature bamboo in the corner could not help its intentions to infiltrate. Its nature was to enter a beautiful green lawn and to start destroying it. The bamboo’s vision of what rightfully belonged there was in direct conflict with ours. We believed a lovely green lawn should be cultivated, sloping down from a hilltop crested by ivy, cryptomeria, and tea olives. Order, space, and restraint were required to bring about our vision. But for our rowdy bamboo in the corner, chaos, overpopulation, and a disregard for boundaries and rights of others characterized its vision. It wasn’t going to change; rather, we had to become realistic about its design on our lawn. We needed to establish a barrier that allowed space for its unique forest while restraining it from neighboring territories.

Gee, I know how the president feels. It’s one thing to respect a religion or culture that is different, but it’s another when that culture begins actively trying to destroy your own backyard. Maybe it was our way of trying to make sense of the strange war our country had gotten into.

During those years of trench warfare, I came to accept the fact that the bamboo was here to stay—albeit quarantined—and slowly, my hatred of it started to subside. Through my husband’s eyes, I began to see it with a little more respect. That was a major transformation, for in the beginning, when we first learned it was in the yard, I had begged him to annihilate it. “I’ve had to deal with this stuff before,” I told him. “It’s like kudzu. It will overtake everything. Let’s get rid of it while we still can.” But in his gentle fashion, he held his ground. “I really like it,” he observed. “It makes a nice screen.” I shared my war stories from other yards. He listened, patiently. I had experience and prejudice; he had neither. After seeing I was not making progress, I yielded, deciding to let him deal with it in his own way.

I figured he’d come around to my way of thinking. Yet as the seasons rolled by, a subtle shift began to occur. Friends—an artist and a wood worker—asked for canes to use in their projects. As I began to cut pieces for others, I could not help but study the bamboo through their eyes. It was so straight, so clean, so well formed. A trace of respect began to erode my disdain. After awhile, stalks began appearing in our house. The brilliant green canes, glossy and hard with wide rings marking the segments, were fascinating in a simple flower arrangement. Brought into a different environment, my home, they lost their bully pulpit as a gardener’s nightmare.

Another change began to take place. I noticed bamboo in other places—intentional places, places where people had planted it and nurtured it by choice. In the parking lot at Wing Haven, a once-private garden that is now open to the public, tall canes of bamboo stood by the back gate. What a surprise to discover my enemy outside of a place of such elegance and grace, one distinguished by boxwood-lined brick paths and arbors of roses. Yet there it stood, tall and graceful, waving goodbye at the back door like a playful child. It was a touch of nonsense, like a cartoon in the midst of a Seymour Hersh article in The New Yorker. In the midst of a very serious garden, someone at Wing Haven saved space for a little humor. 

I can’t say I’ve become fond of bamboo. But I’ve learned to live with it, out of respect for my husband’s vision for our landscape. I’ve also learned a little about its remarkable place in the history of the world, thriving through drought and flood, from high altitudes to low. It has been used by human beings in more ways than can be handily summarized, although David Farrelly made a good attempt at it in his comprehensive work, The Book of Bamboo. From baskets and bikes to record needles and cable bridges, this troublesome grass has served mankind well. Farrelly invokes an anthropomorphic tribute to the plant when he quotes Jose Valdez, a Mexican farmhand: “Plants are people, just like us. You see them, they see you. The earth isn’t blind and the mountains aren’t foolish.”

The bamboo in the back corner of our yard now stands securely behind a three-foot deep trench lined with an impenetrable material. Green in winter, it also adds a lightness to the summer border. We’ve learned to control it, and although our differences are a bit maddening, we peacefully co-exist. We keep a watch for border crossings—so far, so good. Yet Valdez’s words have troubled us: “You see them, they see you.” We’re praying for our neighbors—the ones with the pretty new lawn.

Categories: Life Lines, Opinion, The Buzz