I have been pruning our guava tree at the end of guava season each year, and this time it turned into a neighborhood-wide drama. 

Listen while you read to “Trying Over and Over Again”, an unpublished track that we have plans to put on an EP of dance pieces whenever we get around to it.

Halloween weekend, 2011


The duplex in Chinatown we have lived in for the past three years came with a very productive White Indian guava tree in the tiny front yard.  Each year at the end of guava season I have been pruning it back, learning a little more each season about how it grows.

The White Indian guava tree that was here when we moved in.

The neighbors apparently have a long-running tradition of helping themselves to its bounty each fall, which has wrought devastation on the potager garden I have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and money to grow in the front, as they apparently come traipsing in and trample all over my other plants, damaging and/or killing them, while compacting the massively heavy clay soil I have spent hundreds of sweaty, back-breaking hours trying to dig and amend into a soft, fluffy condition.  In that light, my pruning strategy has been two-fold: train the tree to grow upward to keep the fruit out of reach from the ground, and also to allow more sunlight to reach the ground where most of my other plants are.

damage to my garden from neighbors coming in to take my stuff

Last year my pruning job was an abysmal failure.  Let’s be clear: I have no experience with this sort of thing at all, and have no clue what I am doing.  My father’s fruit trees were different varieties that required different techniques for managing them (citrus, pear, stone fruit), and his yard was much bigger than mine, so there was no need to train the trees in any particular way.  From my observation, guava trees have a fairly wide, spreading canopy of branches growing every which way and lush green leaves that shed prolifically, making a big mess to have to keep sweeping up.  I guess I could use the fallen leaves as a leaf mulch if I can ever get things to time out right.  Two years ago I hired a landscaper to trim the guava tree.  He gave it a snazzy traditional cut: flat and kind of swirly on top.  That’s a cinnamon sun sunflower in the foreground.

White Indian Guava Tree, trimmed

The guava tree with a nice, professional hairstyle

Anyway, last October I gave the tree a sort of crew cut that over the ensuing months the branches grew straight up as planned, except that it looked kind of silly – like a person with mid-back length hair all standing on end.  It also resulted in an especially dense canopy that let even less light in than the swirly flat top the professional landscaper had given it the year prior.  Worse still, the long, upright branches bent down under the weight of the extra-abundant guava crop this year, and got all tangled up in the banana trees and the eaves of the house, totally obstructing the front walkway and even the sidewalk outside, and indeed did not keep the guavas out of reach as hoped.  My plants below the tree nearest the entrance to the yard were looking more and more battered, and in fact, now it looks like only one of my Alpine strawberry plants has survived the frequent incursions by the neighbors.

Guava tree with a bad cut

the guava tree with a bad cut

all tangled up in the banana trees

obstructing the front walk

Anyway, on Sunday I put on the Navy jumpsuit I use for seriously dirty, nasty jobs, heavy work gloves, safety glasses, got the ladder and the tree saw and heavy-duty clippers, and went out to give the guava tree its annual weed whacking.  Throughout the growing season, I had been observing the tree and deciding which big branches to cut, as I planned on taking decisive action to thin out the canopy this year, which meant giving it a more dramatic coiffure.  I stood on the veranda determinedly sawing away, detangling big, heavy, guava-laden branches from whatever they fell onto, and dragging them down to the front walk where I would harvest the guavas and chop the remaining branches up into pieces small enough to fit readily into the yard trash bin.  After a considerable pile of branches had accumulated, Chi came out to help me take off the guavas and put the branches I cut up in the trash.

As we were working away at this, one of our neighbors came by.  He lives in one of the row houses next door, and when we first moved here, was very complimentary of my efforts to transform the tiny plot of ground covered in waist-high weeds into a culinary garden, and said that his sister used to live in our unit and had originally put the guava tree in.  From the mail addressed to former tenants that often appears in our mailbox, they appear to be southeast Asian. He asked if I was cutting it down.  I said no, and explained that I was simply pruning it back now that guava season is winding down, and it will re-grow with a vengeance next spring and produce another mother-lode of guavas in the fall.  Chi filled a bag of guavas for him to take home.  I went back to cutting down branches while Chi kept cleaning, and a short while later the Chinese woman a couple doors up came by and asked presumably the same thing, although I don’t know for sure since she doesn’t speak a word of English.  Chi gave her some guavas and she went on her way.

This happened a few more times, and then our next door neighbor (he is feeble-minded and in quite poor health in general) came out and started having an attack because he too apparently thought I was cutting the tree down.  I kept busy and out of sight working to free the enormous branch I had just cut from the middle of the tree while standing on the balcony that was now all tangled up inside the guava tree, the melon house, the huge winter squash plant climbing up the guava tree, and both mature Cuban banana plants off to the side, while Chi tried his best to figure out what he was going on about, sobbing, whimpering and pointing, muttering something unintelligible over and over.  He seemed very distraught by the fruit tree management operation in progress, and I just didn’t have the time or the moxie at that point to perform mental health triage.  I just resolutely kept cutting and detangling until Chi asked me to bring him some more branches to deal with, most likely so he could imitate my strategy of looking very busy and not have to deal with our raving neighbor.  (more about this neighbor here)

He eventually went back inside, and I finally got the huge branch detangled and dragged it down to Chi where we reduced it.  There was another big branch I had cut from the center of the tree that had fallen outward and got tangled up in the Rajapuri banana plants by the east wall facing the street, so I set the ladder on the sidewalk outside the wall to have a go at extricating it.

As I was up on the ladder struggling to find a position from where I could get some leverage to free the branch, another couple of neighbors came by, and in addition to asking why I was cutting the guava tree down, they started in about the banana flower that was still on the Cuban Red plant on the opposite side of the yard, going on and on about how you have to cut them in order to make the bananas bigger, etc., etc., and asking me all kinds of questions about my banana trees while I was in the middle of managing the guava tree.  So the neighbors are still obsessing over that damn banana flower!

I tried my best to stay focused on what I was doing and on not fall off the ladder onto the sidewalk some eight feet below and possibly cutting my arm off with the huge tree saw on my way down, thinking “JEEZUS, people!  Do you have any f***ing idea how distracting and annoying it is to have to deal with you crowding around pelting me with irrelevant questions while I’m way up on a ladder faced the wrong way on a slope, hanging on for dear life to a slender two-year-old banana tree trying to free a massively heavy guava branch and hold onto a large tool at the same time?!”

They eventually went on their way with a bag of guavas in hand, and as we were in the final stages of cutting up another big branch I had detangled and retrieved, yet another neighbor (a Bangladeshi woman from the apartment bloc on the other side of us) stopped to ask if we were cutting down the guava tree.  Jesus on skis!!  Don’t Asians ever prune their fruit trees?!  For about the ninth time that afternoon I repeated my explanation of what I was doing, and we gave her a bag of guavas too.

After sawing down a couple more really tall, heavy, guava-laden branches in the middle of the tree from my vantage point atop the ladder I had moved to the middle of the yard and it was precariously tilting with one foot landing in a soft patch, and reducing them to a size that could be placed in a trash bag since the bin had overflowed several branches ago, we terminated this insane operation and put the tools away.  I decided those remaining long branches in the middle had to go even though they weren’t particularly obstructing anything, or the tree would look incredibly strange.  As it was, it already looked like a victim of a horrible punk haircut, with one remaining long-ish branch on the north side I had kept to be sure that the tree would have enough green to continue to photosynthesize, and that made it look like the tree was giving the finger to the whole neighborhood.  I knew I would have to do a bit of tidying up, but not tonight.  The poor tree is probably mortified, and I’m sure it’s bizarrely-shorne state is doing precious little to reassure the distraught neighbors.

Indian White guava tree with terrible punk haircut

This is bad.

Indian White guava tree with terrible punk haircut

I mean, this is Really. Bad.

Three hours, four frigging trash bags, plus one large yard trash bin later….

My hands and fingers were so sore that evening I could hardly open the pistachios during appetizers immediately following three straight hours of sawing and chopping and hoisting, and indeed our nightly Panache rehearsal was rather painful.  I can only imagine how much the rest of me was going to hurt by tomorrow and the next day, and I already felt the bruises on my knees/legs developing.  It’s been one hell of a weekend…..