Henry Huntington once bought a whole garden simply to preserve wisteria,

The leaves start to turn

The late Henry Huntington once bought a whole garden simply to preserve a superb specimen of wisteria, a vine believed to be the oldest Wisteria floribunda in America.
  • The late Henry Huntington once bought a whole garden simply to preserve a superb specimen of wisteria, a vine believed to be the oldest Wisteria floribunda in America.

When I was six or seven years old, I wanted to be translated. On Sunday mornings in the Mormon church I'd heard about holy men who were so close to heaven they couldn't stay on earth anymore. God changed them "in the twinkling of an eye." In my mind, they were always walking down a dirt road at the time. The dirt road was in a green country. They disappeared with a little "poof." They were translated.

I knew, even then, that it wasn't going to happen to me. I wasn't a holy man or even a holy girl. No one in my family wore robes and sandals. Weeden Drive, where we lived, was paved. I turned my attention to the paradise of the Fisher-Price house on the floor of my room. I tried to enter it in the twinkling of an eye. I wanted to live there because the Fisher-Price family had rose vines on a trellis. The roses were pink. The trellis was white. The rose trellis and the vines on the house confirmed what I'd already learned from "Sleeping Beauty," whose castle was vine-covered: enchanted people owned vines. Vines could cover the doors and windows and keep you safe while you slept off a curse, or you could climb one and enter the giant's house. People built houses and castles, but vines built themselves and embraced the building or trellis so hard that you could never, ever cut them off. This is precisely what bugged my father about vines, so I was vineless in my youth.

My husband, too, is a temperate, practical man, so the walls of our house are barren, but certain members of the vine family are making their greedy way. We planted two wisteria by the front porch, bolted a training wire to the white beam, and waited. They began to clamber and spin. They made a rope of themselves and the wire disappeared. They tried to braid more of themselves into the lattice above the beam. The white lattice is thin and delicate, so my husband snapped off the scouts every day. In the night, they grew back and rubbed against the lattice the way a cat rubs against your legs. The trunks of the vines had been trained around wooden stakes, not the front posts of the porch, and the vine gathered the stake into itself. The places where wood met vine began to resemble skin grafts. The stake tilted sideways under its lover's weight.

By August, the wisteria vine had laced the pickets and was headed for the front door. It found another white post and began to curl. It circled the post seven times, and by the hot dry morning when I applied a tape measure to its skin the vine was 180 inches long. If I had cut it down and stretched it taut, the shoot would have been more than twice my height. Three days later, it had added another foot and a half. It was moving at the speed of five inches a day.

During the week that it was shooting itself forward and clinging to the still glossy, still virgin white porch, the water was artificial. The days were hot and the air was dry. When I started to measure, the moon was full, rising like a new planet at twilight, and then, a few days later, it was invisible. Wind hit flammable hills. Ashes turned the noon sky brown and fell in white bits on the leaves of the hurtling wisteria. On the last Saturday in August, 22,000 firefighters were working in eight burning states, including Oregon, and the Camp Pendleton Marines went north to join them.

In this dangerous weather, the wisteria vine had velvet nap. The young end of the vine was thin and supple, the tail of a small animal. Leaves folded in against the new vine like hands curled inside the womb, and then, as the vine thickened, the leaves unfurled. The leaves opened in sets -- furry broods of 9 or 11. They were copper at birth, 5 millimeters long in the bud but soon to be 330. By the time the frond got that long, the leaves were green but much bitten and brown at the tip, almost thorny. Even the supple vines dried as they aged, but they retained, in their searching tips, the appearance of fecundity. They were Age at one end and Youth at the other. The brown September grasshoppers waited on the spiral staircase of the old trunk, and leaping insects folded their wings on the new green bracelets of the inner porch.

Now and then, in the buzzing heat, the wisteria unleashed a flower. Just one lavender cone would hang down, all alone and unflappable. The flowers were pale purple, but they had yellow hearts and smelled like honeysuckle if you got close enough to see the eyes of the brown, exploding grasshoppers.

In the fall, the wisteria stopped growing. I petted a growing tail too hard and snapped it off in my hand. That was the end of its progress. The tip healed, but the number of bracelets stayed at nine. The rains started to fall in December and the porch was cold.

Some wisteria is deciduous. The leaves turn yellow and fall down. For a long time it seemed that our wisteria was the wrong type, or we had the wrong weather to make it change. It was evergreen like the Green Goddess boxwood. It was a form of permanent summer, a cascade overhead that would, like a stained glass window by Tiffany, be green forever. Since it was the frame through which I saw everything in the front yard, if it was summer in the wisteria, it was summer in the world. The wisteria and I had been suspended somehow, put to sleep, and we might never wake up.

I can't pinpoint the moment the leaves started to turn. It was the end of December or the beginning of January. The arms of the English roses had been cut. The stalks that had shed petals and leaves for eight months stuck out of the ground like clean, naked roots. The birdbath was full of rain that shuddered in the wind. Worms had fallen into the stone-lipped pool. They were white at the bottom as if they had frozen on the way down. The pink azaleas flared, and the sun, when it shone, shone on hills so green that you wanted to sin for them.

In this season, leaves started to fall on the porch. They crumpled on the steps and blew into the corner by the broom. They caught in the cobwebs under the rocking chair. I didn't recognize them at first because they didn't fall in fronds of 11. They fell one by one. It was only when the shape of the old vine became visible, when the trunk became a skeleton by the porch, that the leaves overhead turned gold. They became the color of sunlight in the darkest, chilliest days of California winter, that painful, rain-soaked yellow in a suddenly blue and verdant world. First they were clear yellow, then they caramelized. Brown spots appeared. The wisteria leaves, as they fell, were having winter all by themselves while the English lavender had its summer and the pink climbing roses on their trellises popped out their June-looking buds, and the worms drowned themselves in the cold center of the pool.

The late Henry Huntington once bought a whole garden simply to preserve a superb specimen of wisteria, a vine believed to be the oldest Wisteria floribunda in America. Perhaps he saw it in winter, when wisteria is bare like a man's arms. That's when its true capacity is revealed to you, its power to entwine, suffocate, merge, and topple. Wisteria can break concrete or strangle a tree. Even as the leaves on our wisteria vine are falling, the buds in the dry wood are pushing out, and they're less like the tails of a young mouse now than the antlers of an elk. Soon the wisteria will nudge itself against the next post. The roots will move deeper under the concrete porch. I sometimes think we've made a mistake planting a vine so near the foundation, but when the four o'clock sun turns the last leaves to flame, I remember those holy men walking down the dirt road in a green country, just seconds away from becoming pure spirit, and I wait for the vines to cover us, to lock us safely in.

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