This issue presents the remaining finalists in our annual writing contest. For the grand prize winner and other two finalists, see our September edition.
It Came from the Agave!
When the agave started to bloom — and tip over —
the battle began.
by Tara Straubinger
We moved to Silver City in the summer of 2005, and bought a house on a hill. Mom liked the view; our old house had been in a canyon, surrounded by trees and hills and other homes, and imagine our excitement to find that here we could actually see the sky! From our new house, we could see all around: the town and (on a clear day) Mexico to the south, the Gila to the north, the Kneeling Nun to the east. We didn't bother to look west because that was where we came from, and at the risk of sounding like a bad song, I'll say that we had no desire to look back the way we came.
Next to our driveway grew three huge agave plants. Here I must stress that these plants were truly massive; I am not exaggerating for emphasis. We had never encountered agave before. All we knew is that they never got any bigger and didn't need any water. My sister and I also soon discovered another neat little fact about agave that should (to smart children) seem obvious by looking at them: They are sharp. The memory of our wounds served as effective motivation to keep away, and for years the agaves sat there and blended into the view. They were a pleasant addition to the "southwestern" atmosphere of the house. Some people hung a large Kokopelli on the side of their house; we had our three agave plants.
They were comical, really. I suppose someone at some time decided that the perfectly fine open space next to the driveway just needed something and planted them there. The problem was that they were perfectly placed to get in the way of anyone needing to back out of the driveway. Over the course of our first few months in the house (and several close calls), we learned how to back out without hitting one of them. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones to use the driveway. UPS, FedEx, plumbers, PNM, Jehovah's Witnesses, traveling salesmen and any other unfortunate souls visiting the house had to run the gauntlet of agave to get out. There was also the added bonus of large rocks arranged decoratively on each side of the driveway, as the delivery man from the florist had the pleasure of discovering one day last winter.
Perhaps the difficulty of navigating our driveway was one of the reasons no one ever came to visit. Or maybe it was the "out of order" sign we hung over our doorbell. Perhaps it was the doormat that said "Go Away." Regardless, we came to appreciate our privacy, and our house on the hill became our Fortress of Solitude, with the three agave plants standing sentry to keep out undesirables (which was, to say, everybody).
Then, one summer, it happened. Or I should say It happened. Like a flesh-eating alien growing an extra tentacle, a stalk began to sprout from the largest of the three agave. It was a mystery to us all. We watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as, in a matter of days, the stalk grew... and grew... and grew. Taller than the surrounding trees it grew, and it was about as thick around as a small coffee can. Having had no experience with plants of this ilk before, we didn't quite know what to expect from the stalk. When would it stop growing? And perhaps the better question was: What would happen when it did? I wondered if it would open up and emit body-snatching spores. Maybe I would wake up one morning and find that my mom and sister had been replaced. It Came from the Agave!
A quick trip to Wikipedia informed me that we were not, in fact, in any danger of an alien invasion. Large agave plants like ours apparently live for 15 to 25 years before they sprout a stalk, bloom and promptly die. My mother, sensitive to life and living things, thought that was awful. She was slightly mollified when I told her that usually a "baby" agave will start to grow from the roots of the dying one.
We enjoyed the agave when it bloomed; it brought hummingbirds, woodpeckers and all kinds of other little critters. It was like an oasis in our yard, a source of food and shelter for them. Mom was still upset knowing that it was going to die, but I strongly disagreed with this sentiment. "It's beautiful," I told her. "It's the circle of life."
Which shows how little I knew. Sure, it was beautiful — until it started to die. The stalk and leaves hardened and turned a kind of sickly purple color, there was no baby agave growing up underneath, and worse yet, it began to lean. We were afraid it was going to fall on the house, dead certain that one day we would wake up to find an agave stalk sticking out of our master bathroom. That is, until one day when a huge wind storm pushed it over to lean towards the front yard instead. After that we didn't have to worry about an agave monster smashing our house. All we had to do was find a way to ignore the leaning tower of agave smack in the middle of our yard.
And find a way we did, at least until the following year. Mom just happened to casually ask the guys cutting our weeds if they thought they would be able to cut it down. And so began the great battle: Man vs. Agave!
They spent several hours cutting off the leaves, getting the stalk cut down and separated into more manageable pieces and loaded into the truck, after which they took them away. Then they came back and started on the stump. It took nearly an hour for them to get the thing out of the ground, after which I assume they tried to get it into the truck. All I know is that I went outside a little later to find them all standing around, looking from the stump (which was easily around 250 pounds) to the truck bed and back. "We have to get to another job, ma'am," they told my mother. But before leaving us with a huge naked agave stump in our driveway, they assured us that they would call when they had "figured out how to get it to the dump," which I can tell you was extremely reassuring.
After about a week of harrowing attempts to back our car out of the driveway without hitting a 250-pound hunk of agave, the men returned with two boards, which they laid out like a ramp going to the ground. They then rolled the stump up onto the truck bed. Pretty brilliant, actually.
When they had finally gone, and taken the stump with them, we all stood around looking at the bare empty spot where our largest protector had once stood proudly. We all agreed that it had been quite an experience: a lesson in life and death taught to us by Mother Nature herself. We had never had to deal with anything like this before we moved to New Mexico. Before, "Nature" had been an abstract concept, something that was to be enjoyed from a distance. The agave was only one of many inconveniences that taught us how little attention nature pays to our schedule.
"Even though it was a big mess," Mom said, "I'm glad we were able to see it bloom."
I agreed that there had indeed been something sacred about it. We were pleased to have seen it in its glory, and we were saddened to see it go. But mostly, we were just glad that it was out of the driveway and wouldn't crash into the house. We washed our hands of it and that was that.
The next summer, the second-largest agave started to sprout a tall stalk....
Tara Straubinger lives in Silver City, where she attends Western New Mexico University
and battles with sentient plant life.