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Well, at Least Now He Knows He's Being Bamboozled

June 01, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Sunday night here in Suburbia, the weekend at an end, and I'm sore, bone sore.

But the pain has been honestly won. I've comported myself with honor in backyard battle. My fearsome foe's onslaught has been turned back, its advancing armies thwarted.

Though I savor victory now, I know it won't last. Come next Saturday, my enemy will once again have me on the defensive, its scouts sprouting 5 feet tall in the yard.

What manner of evil is this?

My compatriots who wield the spade and hoe and mattock in defense of smooth lawns and an intact foundation know well the name of the enemy:

Bamboo.

Those of ye who have yet to run afoul of this multi-limbed malevolence, this fibrous monster from the depths, this ruinous force of nature, steer wide. You may relish the fight and think you can win. But there can be only one winner. And it won't be you.

Just when you think it's tamed, it will make a fool of you, lifting tons of concrete, opening yawning cracks in the Earth into which you will peer, abject with fear of several thousand dollars in repairs.

OK, I admit it. I get carried away. I haven't gone as far as Herman Melville and named the beast. But let's recognize reality when its sharp nub trips us while playing catch with the kids. This is a question of survival, if not our own, then that of our lawns and sidewalks, our tomatoes, our tender lettuce leaves, our pole beans, our patios, our foundation, our. . . .

When my wife and I bought this house, one of the things we found attractive about it was the thick stand of 20-foot-tall yellowish-green bamboo along the property line. It gave us privacy and, in the afternoon, shaded the concrete patio.

Its scientific name is Phyllostachys aurea, and it is one of 40 types of bamboo listed in the Sunset Western Garden Book. According to Sunset, "Phil" is a type known as a "runner," as opposed to a "clump" type. Runner bamboo sends out rhizomes under the ground from which "culms," or canes, poke out of the ground. The rhizomes are knobby, gnarled root-like lengths as tough as steel.

Soon, it became apparent that the bamboo was anything but innocuous. Its bony fingers began reaching up through the asphalt between our house and the neighbors'. I'd cut them off. But days later, they'd be back, bigger, stronger, mocking my efforts.

Drastic action was needed. Given that the area was too narrow for a backhoe--and the strategic use of nuclear weapons has come to be thought of as politically incorrect--I thought I'd just pull up the runners that the main stand sends out like search parties, looking for water and new territory to conquer.

Big mistake. The runners were tougher than the asphalt. They came up when I pulled. But they tore right through the asphalt, leaving the area looking bombed out. I'd gotten rid of them, yes. In days, though, they were back, taunting me, teasing me about the $2,500 it would cost me for repaving. (My neighbor was willing to pay half since I hadn't resorted to large explosives, but he wasn't terribly pleased.)

Once the fresh, white, hard, unblemished concrete was poured, I was filled with triumph. Victory was mine, and it was sweet.

And short-lived.

Since then, we've settled into a rhythm, becoming old foes who regard each other well. Every fall, before I replant the vegetable garden, I spend an entire weekend chopping, pulling and digging up bamboo runners. I entertain my children, 4 and 7, by holding the "monsters" high and chasing them around the yard.

I do the same thing in the spring. And all year long, I cut down the stray spears.

This spring, though, the cold war has become more heated. The bamboo is more aggressive. What could I have done to make it angry? The runners have traveled beneath the patio and lifted up its slabs, opening up a long crack between them, enabling light green shoots to sprout up overnight. One slab has been lifted at least 4 inches and is pressing on the bottom of a wooden fence, which will soon buckle from the pressure.

But that's not all. This year, for the first time, spears are shooting up from the middle of the lawn, 25 feet away from the main stand. I cut them down, but a week later they're taller than I am. Earlier this spring, I pulled up a root in a flower bed and, in so doing, yanked a beautiful gray-green lavender plant right out of the ground. Friendly fire.

Expert gardeners say the way to corral bamboo is to plant it in a buried barrel or dig a ditch several feet deep and then fill it with concrete. Since the bamboo is already in the ground, I'm considering the latter suggestion. Where the garden fronts the bamboo, I've already dug the trench. But I'm sure the runners have simply dived deeper into the ground and will emerge somewhere else. So I'm not sure how deep the trench would have to be to be effective. Four feet? Six feet?

Were I to do that, I'd have to also dig up the concrete patio. And that doesn't sound like a fun way to spend the summer. Eventually, it will be necessary. But I'm trying to put it off.

Though it pains me to admit it, what I'm considering is an accommodation. Instead of a sledgehammer to break up the patio and a trench and several square yards of concrete, maybe what I need is a change in philosophy. Maybe I need merely to see the battle as a noble struggle, a metaphor for man's uneasy relationship with nature. Maybe then I would see that the bamboo is only doing what it needs to do to survive: seek water and space to grow. And then, I could come to understand that humans, too, are only seeking their space on Earth and that we can never own the Earth or tame it. We can only figure out how to live on it lightly and carefully, never taking more than our fair share. I might even come to admire the bamboo for its resilience, its ability to bend in the wind, to persist despite my constant vigilance.

That's one possibility.

The other would be to hire reinforcements and call in air strikes.

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