My neighbour hates my front yard.

He’s got the standard yard. Neatly trimmed grass, the requisite boxed hedges, the feature plant by the front window.

As you can see above, my front yard hasn’t been mown in about two years. There is mess of plants about. Our hedge is a tangled wreck. I tried to plant some interesting varieties of small hedging bushes on the street-facing side of our collapsing fence, but the neighbour likes to “help” by mowing over our property line and has twice mowed down the fledgling plants.

I can see his point of view. Our neighbourhood is a ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. It’s beautiful, a tiny wooded joy. Surrounded on all sides by warehouses and businesses, it’s only a matter of time until it’s all bought up and turned into something else. So the neighbour is thinking about property value and appearance.

I’m thinking that the Fraser River is two blocks away. I think about it’s ecosystem, and what sort of transients it’s bringing into my yard. About how the rail line that runs next to it is sometimes a freeway for wildlife to move into the city. About how close to the ocean we are, and the life that mingles in the border between the river and the ocean.

Before Courtney and I moved here, we lived in a more mainstream neighbourhood, more in the center of the living space of the city…not high-rises, but block after block of “Vancouver Specials”, houses that are designed with the sole purpose of using up the maximum allowed portion of their lot. Giant ugly boxed rectangles…but with a token front and back yard because bylaws were written to require them.

The one we lived in had a half-dozen roses out front, and out back a small block of grass next to a driveway and sidewalk, with a single apple tree. I had spent a year as a landscaper, so I was keen to put some plant love into this area, as best I could.

What a fucking disaster.

The first sign was the aphids. I jumped on the roses, gave them a proper and long overdue pruning, but as they bloomed…they did not. I had never seen such a horrible infestation. The buds withered, sucked dry before they got a chance to open. We tried all the usual remedies, from ladybugs to just mass crushing the little green bastards whenever we saw them.

The real root of the problem became apparent when I started to try and restore the apple tree into giving serviceable apples again. Aphids again, but when I looked at the trunk of the tree, there was a thick black constant river of aphid farmers, ants, running up and down the tree. We’d know the house had an ant problem, but it turned out to be much bigger than expected. The whole yard was an interconnected series of nests.

Over the years we lived there, we were in a constant battle with singular waves of insect infestations. Inside, we had carpet beetles, then book and pantry beetles. Weevils. Fruit flies. Outside, we tore up some of the grass to install a proper bed for growing raspberries, blueberries, and some veg. All destroyed by beetles.

I don’t recall seeing a single bee the entire time I lived there, but the hornets were so bad that you could walk around and stomp them somedays.

I eventually realized that was the problem. No bees. No real birds, aside from the odd crow. No spiders, no animals aside from a brief mouse issue. The variety of animals and insects in the area at a given time felt like it could be counted on one hand. We tried to grow a garden, but we were in a desert of concrete and herbicides. Any time one form of life found a niche in the area it exploded from the lack of competition, until it burned itself out.

When we moved to the new place, it had a passable garden. Pretty little setup. Good soil. Lots of birds, squirrels, rats, coyotes, raccoons. I sat out front one day, and I counted eleven different kinds of bees alone. So many different wasps and hornets, and robber flies. Hummingbirds! Spiders and beetles of all kinds. Nothing dominated, and in a few moments of sitting anywhere in the garden, you could see all kinds of activity taking place.

We planted for this, for the ecosystem we saw. The front hedge is hosting a climbing rose that grows every year, and blooms with a tremendous scent that covers the block. In a few years it will be a gigantic centerpiece. The unmown lawn is home and resting place for flocks of birds and bees, and we’ve seeded it every year with more and more wildflowers. This year the rosemary and sage are rooting in, and the spanish and french lavender is making itself known. Right now, in the heat, our front yard may look a mess but to wander a few feet in any new direction is to walk into a new pocket of scent.

To sit in or around it is the deepest, most peaceful place I can imagine being in this city. It’s a nexus of life.

Over a lifetime, this is what training in martial arts teaches you. It’s not a process of learning an art, or excelling at a physical skill, but rather of learning to see yourself as an ecosystem, connected to other systems. If we care for ourselves and work to keep the balance, then nearby sources of diversity become vital sources of growth and re-birth for us. If we instead work to tear down what feels wrong or out of place within us, we become that concrete desert prone to ant infestation.

I was reading an article last week on how to keep up strength as an aging athlete, and much of the work was spent talking about healing from injury, and learning to not do too much with your training as you age, but rather to learn to change how you train.

As an aging martial artist, my body is a bit of a wreck from early decision to specialize. There is a constant desire to find the one true technique, or at least the one technique that is true for you. When you are competing, this can become an obsession, to do the one thing, the rules or structure of tactics tied to rules that lets you win. Every thing I ever focussed on winning with lives on in me now in a constant series of aches and annoyances.

And those aches teach you to limit your life. Getting older is a process of gradually optimizing yourself, of becoming more efficient at everything, of reducing excess of motion. For older martial artists, this often results in us being formidable fighters with surprising speed…and also with more than a few extra pounds. But this drive for efficiency, for effortless power or speed, is the real killer of a martial life.

We learn to reduce, and as a result, we are reduced. Optimization becomes a narrowing of function, and gradual but steady reduction of range of motion. We begin to move less. We begin to become still. And in doing this, we invite the infestations of opportunism and shorten not just the length of our lives, but the value of them. We begin our own fading into death as the ultimate efficiency of motion.

But all we need to do is start paying attention to our ecosystem. Groom variety, find the neglected corners of our body. Look into the things you despised early in your training as being useless. Or find something useless to add to your training.

As a swordfighter, there was never once a single solo practice drill that look liked the pattern training I see from other arts, or from people who train with swords but don’t fight, that was ever of any use for fighting. Nor did I ever run across anyone who trained that way who had any useable skill in a bout. But now I do wish that my training had included those actions…they would not have won me one more bout, but they would have given me valuable tools to keep my own ecosystem alive and nurturing to me now. And now I am forced to create those skills from scratch for myself.

And I love it. Because I have learned over the years, slowly and painfully, that I am more than just my skills. I have value beyond my ability to win a fight, or even to teach the skill to win to another. I have value because I am part of a larger ecosystem, and my own variety serves to nurture those around me, even if all they see is an unmown lawn.

I have the time now to grow myself into a pretty damned good little garden, and I’m looking forward to that process. If you are the kind of martial artist who hit thirty, and felt it hit back? I can recommend some excellent climbing roses. Kiftsgate is a great start, if you have the patience.