Watch yer backs, gardeners, I'm on to youse

On the surface Bytown's a friendly, peaceful, normal kind of place. The sort of burg where you'd settle down, raise a couple of taxes, keep your dog away from the water and license your cat. But behind the facade of white picket fences, language squabbles and carefully maintained balls of red tape there's a dark underside of corruption and decay, where self-indulgence is a way of life, respect for the law a bad joke, and the smell of mulch all too familiar. That's my world. I'm Leif Branch, twig detective. I work for the Surface Operations branch, or SOP. Most folks don't give us a second thought as they go about their business. But without us their placid suburban lives would become a hell of dandelion stalks, loose branches and grass clippings. Especially grass clippings.

Yeah, grass is bigger in this town than at Woodstock. And not just hippies. You see these suburbanites gathered round their barbecues picking grubs out of their pesticide-free lawns while discussing LeBreton Flats and you'd never in a million years guess, but half the time they're reeling from the sensuous fumes of newly-mown grass. They're hauling sacks of the stuff around in their Volvo station wagons.

Like the other night I'm on a stakeout with my partner Chip. Real tough guy: MBA and a degree in urban planning. A Brit who used to work for Scotland Yardwaste. Now he's down here on transfer from Collection Operations, Solid Waste Services Branch, PWS (Public Works and Services). We're in a war here and everyone pitches in.

So we see this perp cruising along, middle aged, balding, looks like a regular Joe. He's got one of them flashy SUVs that was never closer to nature than a cul-de-sac with no curb in Tanaka. Most folks probably wouldn't give him a second look. But down here in the SOP you get a sixth sense. You have to. Otherwise you wind up with your feet sticking out of a pile of fresh wood chips. And the thing is, he's going exactly the speed limit and it just don't seem right. He's acting super-casual. But out of the corner of his eye he's watching the speedometer real close. He doesn't want to attract attention. And that's what gives him away.

So we let him pass then we ease out onto Clunt Hub, real casual ourselves. And sure enough, about 10 klicks later he turns off into Fred Pit. We cruise on by, just round the bend, then I pull over and Chip's already out of the car and working his way back along the fringe of trees. I catch up with him and we see the guy standing by his car, gazing around like nothing's going on, like maybe he's a bird watcher who forgot his binoculars. But once he thinks the coast is clear, suddenly he's round at the back and got it open and out come two big sacks.

We're on him right away and there's this panicky look in his eyes cuz he knows we can smell that unmistakable sharp odour. "Guess you're into it pretty heavy, huh, pal? Got a pretty big load to dump here." And he was. About forty-four pounds (sorry, 20 kilos). And not just grass. Thorns, goldenrod. He's into the hard stuff. Gotta feel sorry for his wife and kids, though. Bet they never noticed a thing.

See, lots of folks think it can't happen to them. Their neighbours are straight. They raised their kids right. It's all somebody else's problem. Maybe some place with an accent in its name. Not Barbecuehaven, right? Nope. Believe me. Folks start small, think they can control it. Pull up one weed, drop it in the gutter. Then it's a dandelion stalk here, a twig there, a handful of ragweed stems.

Next thing you know, they're hanging around in parks, stinking of cheap overseed, hauling their stash in a paper bag. The lucky ones, we bust 'em early. The real sad cases fall into the hands of the mulch mafia. Like you got a neighbour, seems kinda normal, a bit of a slob, house nicer than you figure he could afford. Then one day you're looking at his fancy car and you suddenly think, "Just how many wood chips has he got on that driveway?" Yup. He's laundering it for the big boys.

So do yourselves and us a favour, friend. If the guy next door is always out there mowing but his garage isn't full of slimy decaying grass waiting for fall (they're not idiots at City Hall, they know hauling it off during the growing season would just encourage shameless public gardening), remember: It's not a victimless crime. He's dumping plant material in a park where kids play, or sneaking it into the regular trash so it ends up contaminating a landfill and ruining the fish heads, old newspapers and stray rubber boots. Don't let it happen. Be a good Stalinist citizen. Call our snitch line.

Call Leif Branch, twig detective. Before the wood chips get you.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson