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George Mendonca

With a pair of simple shears, years of gardening experience, and an unmistakable memory, a topiary gardener can create a whole new world of green animals. Labor is intensive, work is slow, and patience is of utmost importance, but you create a form of recognizable masterpiece as a wondrous feast for the eyes.

Ask George Mendonca, the topiary gardener of Green Animals in Rhode Island.

"Usually, if you're going to build something, you have that in mind and you start working on it that way. Some people come there and they go, 'Oh I have a great big plant there. Could I carve a bear out of it?' No, you can't carve anything out of a living plant like that. You would end up with just a lot of dry wood there because once you cut back to the right proportion and leave the arms out there, you'd have these two branches sticking out there, and the rest would be all naked. You can't do that. It's got to be as they grow. From infancy, you see the hidden potential of the shrub. Through years and years of planning and effort, you nurture it until it grow and blossoms into this thing, whether a giraffe, or a camel or an elephant or a rider on a horse back or an armchair (all of which are in Green Animals). It's constant work. You have to be on the ball all the time. It's not something that says, well, uh, I should do this, but I'll do it next week. It's got to be what needs to be done today should be done today, or you begin to run into problems."

This meticulous attention paid to carving out these animals allows Mendonca to truly carve out his own family of topiary pets. What better way is there to bid for control of our world than creating your own world populated with green animals, and then maintaining and caring for them as if they are your own children?

"There was a lot of detail. We were rated so highly because there was detail in everything. We had a lot of schoolchildren that would come here usually in early June before they registered to leave school. And they'd bring the sheets of paper with a lot of names of animals on them. Part of their work was to identify the animal. And they weren't having much trouble. Everything looked so well done that they didn't have to guess at anything."

The process begins with what you can remember of the animal.

"All of these things are built from memory. You know what an animal looks like so you just start making an animal. Like the bear, for instance. I just selected a plant that had branches approximately where I wanted them, and then begin to cut away. I keep them cut and let them extend the legs, the arms; then, of course, the head is most always the easiest part to do because all these things want to do is grow straight up. Then, you have to tie the arms down so they'll stay down. It took me fifteen years to build a bear."

The irony of the situation is this world is completely ephemeral. There are hurricanes, insects, diseases, wrong equipment, and even Mendonca's own mortality, things that can easily destroy what takes him fifteen, twenty years to build.

"We had a couple of hurricanes that did some damage. There were at least four of them that devastated the whole place, broken branches everywhere. The trees at the end of the garden all came down by the one in '54, and half of the garden was completely destroyed so I had to rebuild that half of the garden plus repairing all of the other animals. That means, in the spring, rebuilding the whole thing, and then you've got a lot of broken wood in there. You've got to cut away all the broken wood, say maybe that came out and started from the hind leg but ended up in the nose. So you cut that there, and what you've done is lose half of the horse's nose. It's a battle."

Even without hurricanes, maintaining the animals, itself, is a big issue.

"A lot of the wood in the animals begins to get heavy. And then in order to hold the shapes you've got to find new wood to fill in where the old wood is. You cut away the old wood. And if you don't do that then they will get out of proportion. They constantly need repairing all the time. You either have to keep cutting back or replacing. It's a battle. You're fighting the weather. You're fighting the winters, the dry summer, and even a dry spring like this year. They're not growing as fast as they should so that slows you down on your repair work. You're fighting the elements all the time to try to get them to grow where you want them to grow, get them to do what you want them to do."

When the topiary animals have become an integral part of Mendonca's existence, there's a bond that refuses to be broken.

"I was seventy-five when I retired and uh, well, after I retired I guess the animals kind of, kind of missed me. And uh, they misbehaved, and now they asked me to come back and retrain them. They're like ordinary pets, a dog or cat. When you're taking care of it, they'll do anything you want. But if somebody else takes them for a while, they can't do anything with it. Well, this is what happened. They missed me, and they just wouldn't do what anybody wanted them to do. So I'm getting 'em and I'm taming them again. Let's put it that way. I'm taming them so that they'll be back to normal, and then when somebody else takes them over they'll be better trained."

Mendonca's lifetime of continual labor in harvesting these topiary creatures has resulted in worldwide interest in Green Animals, attracting the Eisenhowers, the Kennedys, and even Princess Briganza of Portugal. Yet, there may not be a successor to him.

"I tried several understudies but they lose interest in it. See, they have an idea that you just come there and you trim them and then just sit back and that's it. But it's not that easy. The first year or so, it may look like it's not too bad, but the minute you start adding growth, a little this time, and next time you trim, you add a little more. After about a year's time, you see it starts losing its shape. That's the one thing that worries me about the topiary --not just anybody can go and start trimming."

In the meantime, he returns to them. It's a constant battle.

"I never worry about getting old. Because I loved what I was doing, and Miss Brayton was so nice to me, that I figured we'd just continue on and on and on, and that's it. One of the last things that I ever though of was that she was going to die. It never entered my mind. But it happens. Yeah well, it's like they say, 'nothing is forever' (chuckles). As long as I live, I'll take care of it. I don't know what happens after that, but I'll try."