D@$n Thistles

Until the age of about 7, I had never really known the meaning of “work.”  I lived with my grandparents in upstate New York for the first six years of my life. There, I remember my grandfather mowing his yard and tending to a small garden in the summer. I can also recall him (as I stood looking out the picture window of the cozy living room) shoveling FEET of snow in the frigid upstate winters. In 1979, I moved to Virginia for a period of about eight months to live with my parents in a small apartment. I didn’t have any chores there; instead I dealt with navigating a life with two people who were unfit to be parents. After being adopted in March of 1980, my life was transformed in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was me learning the value of work.

A year or two before I came into their picture, my adopted parents had purchased almost 50 acres of land in the western part of Augusta County, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The land had been badly neglected, but had incredible potential (I think my parents had a gift for seeing the potential in the neglected). The property consisted of rolling hills, two ponds, wooded areas with majestic oaks, and was literally a young boy’s dream playground. But before it could become the gem that it is today, there was a lot of work to be done.

Shortly after my adoption, my new father, who worked in Washington, DC as an ironworker, would come home on weekends. Most Saturdays, he and I would make the 20- to 25-minute drive to the property. Windows down, sun shining, I can still hear him singing “Going up the Country” by Canned Heat. I also remember him letting me sit on his lap to steer for the last mile or so (these were very backcountry roads, so there was no danger). The property, as I mentioned earlier, needed a great deal of TLC. There were huge areas of prickly wild rose bushes, thorny blackberry bushes and brambles, and thousands of a plant that would become my ultimate nemesis—the thistle. Now, according to my (new) old man, this was not something you wanted to see in your fields.  It was a sign of neglect, and laziness, a lack of pride, and…I think you get the picture. In other words, thistles were bad and they must be eradicated! So, how do we do that? My father reached into the back of the International Scout and pulled out a rather rudimentary tool called a hoe. I was about to learn how to destroy thistles. My excitement was short-lived when I found out how it was done. Every thistle had to be completely dug up, root and all and left to die in the sun. Now, if you’ve never had personal experience with thistles, there are a couple things to know. From a distance, they are quite a pretty plant (weed, actually). Each plant consists of a dark green stalk that can grow two to three feet tall. When in bloom, the flowers are fluffy and dark pink in color (those flowers turn into seeds, as with dandelions). Harmless, right? Wrong. Up close, upon further inspection, the thistle has sharp pointy leaves and is entirely covered with tiny needle-like nettles.   In other words, it’s a demonic plant. Accidentally brushing up against one will almost always lead to some sort of expletive-filled rant.

Like some young Greek hero, sword in hand or, in my case, an old hoe, I set off to slay as many of these demon weeds as possible. With the warm sun overhead, I began the daunting task of ridding the property of these horrible invaders. One by one, I attacked them, bringing the hoe down into the dirt over and over again. I was digging up thistles. One by one, I would watch them fall over. If I couldn’t see the root attached, I dug down further.  Thistle after thistle after thistle. Every now and then, the back of my hand or wrist would come into contact with the weed, sending a burning sensation through my nervous system to my brain.

My hands began to turn red. My arms were sore. I stopped and looked around. I hadn’t made quite the dent I thought I had.  Actually, I felt like I was getting nowhere. Hundreds, no, make that thousands, of thistles still stood all around me. I knew they were laughing at me with that evil thistle laugh. What seemed like hours later (it probably wasn’t that long), my father walked over, told me that was good enough for the day, and praised me for my work.   He looked at my hands. For the first time in my life, I had blisters. He assured me from his own experiences that the blisters would turn into things called calluses. And I knew what he meant from the times my small hands had been in his rough, strong hands.

With time, my hands did become tough (never as tough as his) and the work became easier. Weekend after weekend we repeated our trips out to the property. Over many years and with countless hours of labor, the thistles, rosebushes, blackberry bushes, and brambles that once covered the landscape disappeared. I often think back to those days of going from one thistle to another, like a bee flitting from flower to flower. I think about life and the sometimes painful thistles that can arise. Those thistles can easily multiply and spread, if we allow them to. Thistles that cause heartache, pain, strife, and suffering. But with hard work, determination, and the support of loved ones, we can tackle those thistles one by one.   It can be a long, arduous process that will leave you exhausted at times.   But when that final thistle falls over, you can step back and look at what you’ve overcome. And it makes it that much easier when inevitably, future thistles pop up.

Forty years later, my parents are living on that same property where I slayed all those Dragons…I mean thistles. I try to visit them at least once a month.  As I make my way up the gravel driveway, I smile as I admire the beauty of the fields—the lush green grass blowing gently in the breeze. I smile knowing it was my hard work that helped to contribute to this majestic landscape. I smile as I think about all those thistles that had once taken over, and now?  Now there isn’t a single d@$n one of those things in sight! 


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