Topiary salamanders, slumpy frogs, and other frivolous pursuits

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Across the country, the trials of winter are many and varied. But nowhere do I see anyone complaining about the dreaded Frog Slumpage. 

I am a fan of amphibians. As one does, I decided to celebrate them in my garden by constructing them out of boxwood shrubs. In the case of my fat frog, it’s possible I am asking more from boxwood than it’s prepared to give: The occasional heavy snow here in Portland, Oregon, flattens it. The salamander in the front yard fares much better..

Why We Wrote This

Even a frivolous pursuit can be worthy of praise. Our essayist turned amateur topiarist fusses over her 12-foot-long boxwood salamander because of the delight it brings – to herself and others.

I make these things to please myself, but of course they are meant to delight passersby as well. In reality, however, 9 out of 10 people who stand next to my salamander, which is 12 feet long, fail to notice it. 

Still, I continue to scurry out with a broom if it snows, all for what would seem to be a frivolous occupation. But let us not underestimate frivolity. All flower gardening is frivolous. A Taj Mahal painstakingly constructed in beach sand will be gone at high tide. We know this, and we do it anyway. A song lasts only as long as it takes to sing it. And yet we sing.

It’s winter. What it’s liable to throw at you depends on where you live. But there will be challenges. Here in Portland, Oregon, we’ll see days where the temperature toggles between 31 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, producing a sort of ice lasagna that nobody can drive in. Nobody. New arrivals from colder climes fiercely believe they can, and now we know what their cars look like upside-down. 

Rather than hoping for a visit from one of the four municipal snowplows, we deal with ice and snow here by canceling everything and flapping our hands at our neighbors and saying “Isn’t this something?” until it goes away.

But we can go a winter without such an event. We’ll have rivers in our basements and moss on our automobiles. We’ll accumulate other people’s umbrellas, and they’ll have custody of ours. It’s a mild climate, and doesn’t require much of us but emotional stamina in the face of gloom.

Why We Wrote This

Even a frivolous pursuit can be worthy of praise. Our essayist turned amateur topiarist fusses over her 12-foot-long boxwood salamander because of the delight it brings – to herself and others.

Not so in other places, where the snow might not even go away until July. Our New England friends struggle to save their roofs from ice dams. Our friends in Alaska take photos of themselves with face icicles and complain about being stuck at home because there are too many moose on the airstrip. In Florida, people stand ready to put emergency sweaters on their oranges. At least, I think that’s what they do in Florida.

The trials of winter are many and varied. But nowhere do I see anyone complaining about the dreaded Frog Slumpage. That is what can occur when a rare snowfall puts a burden on your boxwood topiary frog and it keels over into a much wider frog with a hole in its back. OK, maybe it’s just my boxwood topiary frog. But it’s horrible.

I am a fan of amphibians. As one does, I decided long ago to celebrate them in my garden by constructing them out of boxwood shrubs. In the case of my fat frog, it’s possible I was asking more from the boxwood than the plant was prepared to give. The salamander in the front yard fares much better. It’s slender and sturdy, and except for the year the house painters elected to protect it by putting a slab of plywood on it, it looks tremendous all the time.

I make these things to please myself – and express my amphibian aesthetic – but of course they are meant to delight passersby as well. At least in theory. In reality, 9 out of 10 people who stand next to my salamander, which is 12 feet long, with eyes and identifiable parotoid glands, fail to notice it at all. Somehow, it registers in the periphery of their vision as a short hedge, unworthy of examination. They walk right past it.

I used to think this indicated some kind of moral failing, but I have no standing here. I can’t find what I’m looking for in the refrigerator, even if it’s front and center, if a thought gets in the way.

Still, I continue to clip my boxwood creations once a year by hand, scurry out with a broom if it snows, and mutter about house painters, all for what would seem to be a frivolous occupation. But let us not underestimate frivolous occupations. That’s what all flower gardening is. A neglected salamander will burgeon into formless shrubbery in a matter of years. A neglected garden will go feral, a wild, bird-filled tangle, with a doughty clump of day lilies and a gnarled fruit tree the only tethers to gardeners long gone. A Taj Mahal painstakingly constructed in beach sand will be gone at high tide. We know this, and we do it anyway.

A song lasts only as long as it takes to sing it. And yet we sing.



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