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  • Writer's pictureJ. Darris Mitchell

The Magic Hedge

ON Desk

March was quite a busy month for me! I spent every moment of free time noodling away at a new world for the setting of a new podcast that I am writing. What emerged from this brain-stew was a town in a world blighted by the lack of a magnetosphere, kept safe by a pair of rival inventors and an amateur naturalist with an unusually powerful cow for a best friend. It’s gonna be fun, y’all!

This was the first project I’ve worked on in a while in which I had to create an entire setting from scratch, so it was back to the basics with world-building! I love the early stages of the writing process. This time I dug through my old notebooks and pinched orphaned seeds of ideas from the fertile imagination of my younger self. I then laid these seeds out to see which could be grown together as companions, which might give a pleasantly contrasting pop of color, and which simply have no place in this season’s garden. To this mix of geography, history, economics, and unthinkable calamities, I searched for the characters whose stake in the world would be most interesting. I think I found them, though it took weeks (especially for Odessa!)

Once I knew who the main characters would be, writing the pilot episode was fairly straightforward. I managed to finish it just before my March 31st deadline, and have already sent it off to Flavio! We’re sending it around to actresses and actors and will be auditioning soon. We want to have a few episodes ready for release before we start the slow drip of sharing with the world, so it will be some time before you can listen, but I’ll keep you posted on the process!

If you would be interested in reading the script, let me know, and I’ll find a way to share it with you!

Writing for audio dramas is fascinating because the final product is never identical to the script. Lines are cut if actors can evoke more with fewer words, sound effects are changed and changed again, and sometimes entire scenes are added to the final product. Thanks for coming along with me on this journey of discovery!

Personal Note

My backyard has a magic hedge.

Or it did.

The Big Freeze killed every branch and leaf.

While spring came to Austin and much of my yard started to thrive, my magic hedge did not recover. Though birds still visited it (that’s what makes it magic) the thick cover it provided became sparser by the day, until I could see through it straight into my neighbor’s backyard. A close inspection revealed that the hedge did not in fact die, it just died back. Like all the way to the ground.

What to do? I could leave the dead brush in place. The birds liked this option, as the thick tangle of branches still provides a great place for them to escape the grasping talons of hawks or cats. But to leave the dead branches in place basically guarantees the long-term death of the hedge, as little sunlight would be able to reach the flush of fresh growth coming back from the roots. This means that come winter, a thin screen of ugly, dead brush would be the only thing separating me from my neighbor’s five (5!) dogs. No good.

To solve the dog problem, I could build a fence, but I don’t like this idea for two reasons:

#1, To build the fence on my side of the chain-link four-footer where the hedge grows, would be to kill the hedge. Digging holes, filling them with concrete, then tramping all over the new growth while I work would be a death sentence. Not an option for me, because, as I said, this hedge is magic for the birds.

I could build the fence on the neighbor’s side of the property line, but well, er… I guess I’m just not that generous.

I’d rather spend that time helping the hedge itself.

Which is what I decided to do after an awkward conversation with the neighbor in which I told them my plans and they made no offers to build a fence.

So I got to work. I needed to remove as many of these branches as possible, water extensively, spread some mulch and some sort of organic fertilizer, and try to grow it back before I throw myself a birthday party (I GET TO HAVE A BIRTHDAY PARTY AGAIN Y'ALL!). These disadvantages to this are major: the hedge is eight feet tall of tangled snurls of branches. Poison ivy grows inside of it. There are five (5!) dogs barking at me while I expose my yard to them, bit by bit, inch by inch.

I’ve been at it for hours already, and my arms have the scrapes and scratches to prove it. I’ve managed to get it trimmed back and fertilized with dillo dirt, but I’ve barely made any progress on the massive pile of brush that the hedge transformed into.

That’s not even true. I’ve filled yard bags, trimmed out sticks, packed the city compost bucket. I’ve had multiple fires (one with my son, in our tiny chiminea) and another with two grown fellas that love burning stuff, and still, the pile persists.

I think it’s only possible to do this work because I can see the past and future of the hedge in my mind’s eye. I remember what it was, and know what I can be. If I was stuck with just the present, I would surely be disheartened. This is something that working with plants gives me, the ability to see the future. I know I’m not alone in this gift either. My best friend is a gardener and he loves to give me spring tours of his three-inch tall seedlings and trees not yet budding out for spring. Because for him, he doesn’t just see what’s there, but what was there before he started working his garden, and what will come in the future.

This gift of being able to see the future is surely worth a few scratches on my hands. Now if only I could make the dogs see it the way I do.

Bird of the Week

I saw a white-tailed kite this week, which was the 299th bird I’ve seen in Travis County. While I’m eager to see one more species and join the three-hundo club, it was another moment amongst the birds I wish to share with you this month.

I was sitting in my backyard, enjoying a moment of calm after another 15-hour day of non-stop childcare, ghostwriting, cooking, cleaning, and trying to stay in contact with the outside world, when the birds began to sing.

The house sparrows, perhaps forty of them, started the symphony from deep in their (dead) hedge with a mad jumble of chirps.

Blue jays joined, screeching from above.

A cardinal sat on the low branch of a neighbor’s hackberry, singing a song reminiscent of the gentle pew of laser guns.

A mockingbird chattered incessantly from the top of a nearby tree, its song identifiable only because no other bird can make such a wide variety of sounds.

Purple martins—only recently returned from South America—congratulated each other on another successful migration as they soared just above the tops of the trees.

While the sun set, the sky turned purple and clouds red and pink, a Carolina wren emerged. Silhouetted black against the garish sunset, I recognized the bird’s identity because he’s a regular. I know the twitchy way he flicks his tail back and forth, the curve of his bill, the scruff of feathers at his chin. No stranger to my backyard, I’m familiar with his haunts and his movements. He moved out onto the end of a recently hacked-off stump of a branch (a relatively high point for a wren, despite still being far beneath the canopy) threw his head back, and called loudly into the evening for all of us to hear.

With the tiny wren’s loud call, nothing could be heard for a moment but the sound of birds. No roar of IH-35. No lawnmowers. No jets overhead. Nothing but the songs of the birds of my backyard. And then the moment was done. The sparrows stopped chirping. The jays shut up. The mockingbird ran out of stolen melodies. The wren flew to his nest on my porch, and bedded down for the night with his mate, who is currently sitting on a clutch of five eggs, each brown and speckled and smaller than a marble.

A few days later (Easter morning, in fact!) those eggs hatched. That made that evening even more special, perhaps because I know that—and this is speaking as a father myself—he’s about to have a lot less energy to spend staying up late shooting the shit with his homies.

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