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Archive for May, 2010


 

When I feel lack in my life, I take to the woods. All about me is abundance, especially at this time of year. I might give myself just a five foot square spot of forest and explore what’s there. When I worked with middle school students, I would take them outside and give them each a picture frame and ask them to place it in the playground or on the wooded hill behind the school. Sometimes they would hang the frame or lean it against a tree. My students, normally abuzz with hormones, sat in silent amazement of what they saw inside their rectangles—the variety of plant and insect life they trod on in their daily oblivion.

Sometimes, the scarcity and deprivation I feel in various aspects of my life create a void inside, and I go into the woods with voracity trying drink in and name everything I see. Sometimes, to quiet my mind and forget myself, I forage for and focus on only the smallest, most specific things:  insects, webs, moss, or wild flowers. For a time, I forget about war, oil spills, the fact that I am a mother or that I need to pay the bills. This morning I stepped outside myself and sought only the shadows of leaves.

I was reminded of the transience of all things and this brought peace.

Transience

put down pen and page

search for beauty’s unseen stage

hidden underneath

 secrets  dormant on the leaf

 shadow fossils gone in time

 

Tanka ~ a five-line Japanese verse form in which the first and third lines have five syllables each and the other lines have seven syllables each.

 

                                                         

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Of course the cultivated garden sustained not only the imagination, but also the body. It was a place to commune with real people—my family—not just my friends the wildflowers and woodland animals. And since flesh and blood people frequented the vegetable garden, the peace and refuge I found in my secret gardens were not always present.

Only my father could make a garden a place of contention. He’d been germinating for months…dreaming his way through seed catalogues, scratching lists on the backs of envelopes, plotting the rotation of crops, coaxing seedlings on the windowsill under plastic wrap or in front of the house under a cold frame, ceremoniously sprinkling wood ash over the gardens. My father’s spade hitting the ground in April with an alto note cued our immediate appearance at his side in the garden.

In my mind I am the first to arrive, as always.  There are still patches of snow on the ground, but the garden’s rich organic matter has thrown back its snowy blanket like a menopausal woman.

“Where the hell’s your mother?” I hear my father’s usual opening line. He wears a torn flannel shirt. He smears his forehead with dirt as he wipes sweat from his brow and nods across the road. “And you can go tell your grandmother that anyone who doesn’t work in the garden doesn’t eat from the garden.”

Like a dutiful cottontail, I bound across the dirt road, up the lawn and arrive like Easter at my grandparents’ door. The camp is cold and damp and smells thinly of wood smoke; a fire barely takes hold in the black box stove. My grandparents, the nomads, are unpacking paper bags and getting settled in for another summer on the hill.

One hand on the doorknob, one hand on my hip, I deliver my message. “Dad says to tell you that anyone who doesn’t work in the garden…”

“Well, you can tell your father that it’s going to be a damn poor summer for your old grandmother!” She claims she said darn, but I can see her clearly, both fists firmly planted on the kitchen table, her grimacing face jutting toward mine above the red vinyl tablecloth. I think to myself that she would make a very good scarecrow, if nothing else.    

Though my grandmother was a wizard with houseplants, she had “no interest in growing things out of doors.” After her father H. A.’s death, my grandfather Clayton had tried to maintain his father-in-law’s notorious gardens, but battling my grandmother’s protests and forecasting the weather with his arthritic joints became a full time occupation. The garden was reduced to a mere potato patch in the corner of the field. “Elizabeth,” he said to my grandmother one day, “I just as soon have a well educated hen as you to work with in the garden.” With that he gave up entirely. 

I, on the other hand, like my father, loved to work in the garden. I reveled in the smell of peat and manure, the maiden plunge of fingers into the ground still cold and splintered with ice. At times, my father made the garden sound like a necessary evil, a burden like chopping firewood, a tic mark in a long list of tasks.  But in actuality, gardening was another form of creation at which he excelled. Perhaps what ruined gardening for my father was that he had to share his gift with my maternal grandfather, Sam.

Each year after, or sometimes before, we got our garden in on Grover Hill, we went to the coast to help plant the Crosby garden. My father bitched and stewed the entire two-hour drive. He guessed at the means of Aunt Sarah malingering to escape planting the garden—he claimed she’d have a stomachache or have to tend the booth at Reid State Park. “I’ll tell you what,” he said angry as a hawk, “Sarah better be there to help since she’s the one eating from the f—— garden all summer long.”

“Yes Douglas,” my mother said filing her mental teeth to pitchfork tines. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Jessica and I will go by ourselves.”

Heck ya we were going. I was anxious to see what my little glistening peat pods had sprouted. Besides, a trip to my mother’s family in Georgetown might as well have been a trip to Disney for me. I lay supine in the back seat staring upside-down out the window trying to guess where we were en route. I looked for landmarks—the Molly Ockette Motel, Screwogger Falls where great fountains of ice froze into tongues, blue green gobs and bubbles in the winter, through Norway with its McDonalds and Oxford with its speedway. Eventually I spied the sign for Mechanics Falls where we turned left and headed due southeast. Then I looked out for the mills, the green bridge and the wall of graffiti in Lewiston and Auburn. Finally, the Bath Ironworks, the double drawbridge, and the Dairy Queen, and we skittered across the salt marshes of Arundel like a skipping stone. Once we crossed the rumbling bridge over the Sheepscott and I spied the Smokey the Bear fire danger sign and the giant rock painted like a green lizard with one huge yellow eye that followed cars as they passed, I closed my eyes. Beyond the potters and the fire station, our car turned onto West Georgetown Road. Then I could count the seconds as I held my breath. Inevitably, we would meet Aunt Sarah as she sped past beeping the horn of her metallic-gold VW Bug, on her way to the beach with the dog.

“Son of bitch! What’d I tell ya.” My father would say.  

Nothing could steal my sunshine; I could smell the hothouse from the road.  Months earlier, I spent a weekend with my grandparents shaking seed packets like tambourines, spreading potting soil like brownie batter in old baking sheets and poking sheaths of dry matter into mini pots of soil and humming with the hope of green sprouts. There is no better feeling than standing in a greenhouse with air so warm and moist you can barely breathe in…while outside, snow flies.

My grandfather Sam, unlike my father, allowed me to help dream the garden into a reality. He took time to educate me and encouraged me to tend to garden tasks on my own. The Crosby gardens were more than twice the size of ours, though a football field sized parcel contained the rutabaga patch that I would later sit in all summer to pluck stones at a wage of ten cents a full five-gallon bucket. Who ate rutabagas anyway? Apparently plenty of people around Georgetown Island. I made deliveries with my grandfather who loved to show off his granddaughter along with his produce. “She’s a hard worker—filled three five-gallon buckets with stones from the garden this morning.”

I can hear my father now, “Sam likes to be a big deal passing out his vegetables all over the island, and here we are planting and weeding for him.” My grandfather did not share with us as I recall, but why would he, we had our own garden.

The truth is my grandfather could also make the garden a place of contention just as well as my father could. Not only did he share his abundant crop of vegetables with everyone but family, he pilfered my grandmother’s prized iris, peonies and roses. He lumbered gracefully as a gorilla in his burgling stance as he filled five-gallon buckets (a man’s best friend) with flowers. Once the buckets were secure in the car, he washed up, put on a crisp dress shirt and tucked his billfold into his pocket. Next thing I knew, I was stealthily ushered into the station wagon with the dogs for a trip to town.

“See you mother,” he waved in haste to Gramma Rainey. She waved back, suspecting, in her dirty apron, as off we went to Bath to deliver her flowers to pretty bank tellers.

By the time we finished our banking, the tellers at the Savings and Loan looked more like runners-up at the Miss America pageant.  They discreetly battled bees, ants, and earwigs that had been roused from their plush pollen beds while smiling at my grandfather and me with teeth shiny as new dimes. 

When we got back to Georgetown my grandfather would snake his arms around my grandmother, hoisting her breast from behind like prized buttercup squash, and rub his scruff on the nape, cool with sweat, of her neck. She’d motion to the dogs and me and we’d bunch around her creating our own bouquet. All was forgiven. The rose society meeting waited. The gardeners’ association newsletter had to be written. Later, I’d sit with my grandmother pressing the faces of pansies and the delicate bodies of lobelia between Kleenexes.

* * *

Gardening at my grandparents on the coast of Maine presented its own set of challenges. Just far enough off the ocean and Kenebec River, little beneficial breeze graced their land. Besides the Mayflies, the mosquitoes were a super-hybrid often mistaken for seagulls that drank a pint of blood in one sitting. Not only were you bombarded by deerflies, but the greenheads came for their stab as well. My mother looked like a prizefighter after ten minutes. My grandfather like a swamp monster splashed in a tea he made of tobacco and God-only-knows-what. We were a sorry looking crew in the battlefield of the spring garden slicked in dirt, blood, tobacco juices, and Avon’s Skin-So-Soft—a seaside gardener’s best means of survival. While I received relatively few nibbles, I collected flies in the round blue traps of my eyes. I would come in from the garden and stand in front of the bathroom mirror pulling out my lower eyelids with the thumb and pointer finger of one hand and fishing out specks of black flies with the pinky of the other.

Gardening is not glamorous work. Moons of dirt hang on under your fingernails for the remainder of the growing season. Bug bites leave some looking like they have an extended case of the mumps. But the virtues and satisfaction of growing one’s own crop makes it all worthwhile. Wendell Berry writes, “One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use is the gardener’s own body. The garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support.”

Not only does the food taste better because you have co-created and cared for it, but having to walk down the long drive or out into the field to harvest it, works up an appetite. Plucking your own crops from the garden is obviously nothing like reaching into the crisper of the fridge. Instead you must make the trek to the garden, peruse the rows searching for the just right head of cabbage, the yearning crowns of broccoli. Then you must cleave them neatly from their stalks with a freshly sharpened, deer-handled knife, which hopefully you have remembered to bring to the garden. While you’re down with your knees against the board or stone of the raised bed, you spy weeds poking through the mulch. Ten or fifteen minutes of weeding later, across the bed, you swear you see the white Vs and yellow spots that flank an enormous green horn worm as it samples your early-girl tomato. You leap to the plant’s defense—hurtling the alien eyes of brussel sprouts as they cower beneath you and your sharp knife—and dispose of the invasive creature in whatever humane or inhumane manner (depending on your blood sugar level) you choose. And damn it—you just picked the green beans yesterday, but they sure look ready for another harvesting. Your stomach grumbles something fierce. The beans could wait until tomorrow, but you know that if you pick them now, the yield will ultimately be greater. But tonight you were going to pick the snow peas for the stir-fry, and so you must. Half way back to the house, you realize you forgot to pick the lettuce and cherry tomatoes for the salad that you’ve been hankering for all day. And so you return to the garden on a recognizance mission, watchful of ambushing pests like slugs and cucumber beetles, making a mental list of what needs to be tackled tomorrow for survival in the garden. By the time you get to the kitchen to wash chop and cook your bounty, nothing has ever tasted better…until the following afternoon, when you do it all over again.  

* * *

Back on Grove Hill, my mother appeared, robust with purpose, next to my father in the garden. She stood by her man in an effort to be a self-sufficient off-the-lander. When the crops came in my mother toiled over the blaze of the wood stove on many summer days canning tomatoes and beans, making pickles, jams and jellies. There was the matter of filling the wood boxes and stoking the fire, hauling dusty, cobwebbed bags full of mason jars from the cellar into the 100-degree kitchen, and then preparing them in boiling pots of water before blanching the vegetables, knocking them out for their winter slumber in glass, paraffin-sealed coffins. Inside the belly of the wood cook stove, blueberry pies bubbled. Her specialty—raspberry glaze—a layer of cream cheese slicked with a gelatinous raspberry red coat. Such delicacies were not for us. In an effort to make money, my mother baked for local restaurants.  We salivated and sweated in the kitchen all day just to see the pies go off to town in a basket.

The summer kitchen smelled tantalizing, but felt like the winter sauna. I stayed outside and milled around the garden. What I adored best about these times was the rare unity with my father.  I could see the garden’s meditative effects take him over. It was in the garden, I best liked to be with him. I’m sure I was never the help I imagined myself to be. I too became absorbed in contemplation and fell prey to the puppet strings of my imagination. While the cat peered from the tall grass like a lioness, I snuffed around with the dog in the manure and hay covering the garden paths. We nibbled at nasturtiums that protected the summer squash as we visited the inhabitants of the garden, each with their own personality. There was a hierarchy of vegetables that most likely had to do with my taste buds. Carrots were kings and queens, waving their filigreed tops like monarchs. I felt like the imperial magician pulling up their colorful bodies from under ground. Under ground! Sometimes there was the delight of a deformity—where perhaps a stone had interfered with growth, resulting in a twist of the body or an added appendage. You don’t find carrots with legs or peppers with bulbous noses in the grocery store! Special vegetables were treated like dolls, staged in plays on the knoll in front of the beehive for a captive and approving audience.

There were obvious friends in the garden like broccoli and cabbage, who at their beginnings looked so much alike.  Though dill resembled the carrots, they didn’t like each other, but the carrots did like parsley. In fact, parsley protected them against carrot flies and stimulated their growth. Tomatoes didn’t like the meddlesome manner of the squash. Potatoes didn’t like ostentatious tomatoes. I suspected that the potato envied most every vegetable that got to grow above ground. Even the beets would rather live next to the lettuce than be near the remote potatoes. So the negative starch remained cloistered in a patch away from the garden. Meanwhile, beans and peas were humble and got along with everyone. Just like people, vegetables were born into families. Some got along some didn’t. I made all this up, or perhaps I absorbed some of this knowledge from my father and Grampy Sam.  There are many books written on the subject of companion planting such as Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte. I am no expert, and rely on my imagination still.

* * *

As I write this, I realize I have lived on a city plot for almost two decades. I remember what attracted me to our house. My neighbor’s garden, a whole house lot, which cascaded from the woods down to the street, where flowers and vegetables thrived harmoniously, and hummingbirds, goldfinches and butterflies, performed a dazzling ballet. Our adjacent yard consisted of an obituary-sized plot of yellowing green. Or so I thought. Closer inspection revealed a stone fireplace ensconced by saplings, and beneath the encroaching young woods, the terraced earth of forgotten gardens waited for us.

My husband Luke and I hacked at the trees, dug out the stumps, and tried to recover the garden’s faded glory. Many city friends and Luke’s family members praised our efforts. One even said, “It looks like a nursery around here.”  While one sister-in-law asked why we bothered, the other said, “I love your yard; I don’t feel like I’m in Worcester.” (She’s the sister-in-law who always knows the right thing to say.) But I knew our garden would impress none of my relatives.

My father scolded saying there were far too many shrubs and flowers and not enough practical plants—vegetables and herbs. He was right of course, but what could I grow? A couple of tomato and pepper plants? What was the point?

“It’s just as easy to go to the farmers market down the street.” I shrugged, “It’s good to support them.”

“What about the money?” my father asked.

“You could hang your clothes on a clothesline,” my mother added.

I had become citified. Why cover what little lawn we had with vegetables when it was just as easy to go to the store? And I liked perfumey, soft clothes out of the dryer. Did I need to apologize for this?  My parents shook their heads filled with disappointment and disbelief. I had lost touch with my history.

I knew it too. What made it worse was my brother-in-law, after having read Micheal Pollan, lectured on the evils of fast food and joined an organic garden co-op with our friend Jim. Jim wrote to the Worcester Magazine announcing his love affair with his clothesline. The Bobsy Twins of going green. How fashionable, I thought.  Who did they think they were talking to anyway? I grew up in Maine. Maine! We grew everything. Saved everything. Wasted nothing. Wanted nothing.

What had happened to me?

            My husband Luke and I put away the kiddy pool, he exhumed the gigantic bridal’s mantle bush and we created two vegetable gardens in their places. Luke strung a V of clothesline from the Mulberry tree to each corner of the house. I planted seeds from packets for the first time in two decades—little bits of potential poured from their sleeves of sleep—and I began to dream again, lose myself in the wordless oblivion of the earth. 

 * * *

I remembered another favored friend from the garden—the gallant cabbage. Rosettes of leaves tightly folded around each other forming beautiful spheres like rows of the beheaded. As a child I wanted so much to hold one of those heads as large as my own—a smooth, powdered, purple ball—that I wheedled it from its nest of reverie in the sun.

“Jessica!  That isn’t ready to be picked!” My father lurched and screeched.

My plaything dropped with a thud. I felt my lip begin to quiver. Across the road, up the lawn, I locked myself in the stockade of bamboo.

No matter. The humming bird’s whirr would distract. Tomorrow I would return to the garden where a glistening spider web would span from the grass to the tip of an apple tree like the Eiffel Tower, where squadrons of bees and flies would shoot by like stars with a metallic buzz, where dragon flies would glitter in the safe harbors of squash flowers, where maneuvers of Jays would shriek across the sky as if in a ceremonial flyover. Celebration. Abundance. Promise. So much potential from a seemingly dead thing—a seed, a brown patch of earth. Hope. Connection. Resurrection.

A garden.   

I think it was Gandhi who said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” I realize now, that in restoring my great-grandfather’s garden, my father was doing more than being a self-reliant Mainer, he was renewing a connection with his childhood on Grover Hill, he was healing the place, and himself.  He pealed back the scab of clover from the garden and returned colorful bounty, forgotten scents, the textures and flavors of the earth. And despite his sometimes seeming dismay, this act of creation showed love and promise for us all.

p.s. For you Worcesterites there’s a good piece in Worcester Living Magazine entitled “Gardening Smarts” by Margaret LeRoux. She interviews Dawn Davies from Tower Hill who also mentions the book Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riott.

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While I have many ideas and starts of blog entries floating around on various bits of loose paper, what is really on my mind today is the garden. The perennials are in full swing and I’m trying to plan our small vegetable garden to get the most bang for the buck. Last year we gave up the 12 foot, self-inflating kiddy pool and replaced it with a vegetable garden. Admittedly, last summer was not the best summer to start gardening in earnest. In past years, with the exception of a few tomato and pepper plants, I have resigned myself to the farm stand and believed it wasn’t worth our while to grow vegetables on our city lot. The gardens of my childhood were football field sized plots.  However, a couple of summers ago, my brother and sister-in-law reminded me what just a couple of containers or raised beds could produce. They grew enough cucumbers to supply the city of Worcester.

I started this piece on gardening last year. My thanks to Mike, Jim, Sue and Ed, my first readers. Hope you enjoy the essay. I’d love to hear about your gardens and gardening adventures past and present.

All the World’s a Garden, Part I

“One tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.”

                                                                                                ~John Muir

My first garden was a woodland bed of bones—a patch surrounded by ferns and wildflowers—that belonged to me alone.  I dug with brittle sticks of pine and curved stones and planted broken winged birds, bits of fleshy babies fallen from the nest. Even as I set their downy bodies, pulled taut by death, into the ground, I closed my eyes and imagined my touch could broadcast them back into the sky. A fern’s finger against my arm became the brush of a gray jay’s wing as it took to the sky.

I was a cultivator of dead things. What grew were bones turned into the waxy, ghost-like figures of Indian Pipes bent and mourning over my crosses of bracken and vine. Planted white feathers became white wood anemone and white starflowers fallen from the sky. Chipmunk eyes that lost their earthly luster turned into the sunny faces of wood sorrel.  The pink-purple wild geranium sprung from the cheerful jumping field mice I had sown in the fall. I suppose I learned this vocation at four years old when I played in the Riverside Cemetery as my father dug graves. A living breathing person here today, would be grass tomorrow—or a vole tunneling around the tombstone, or a cloud of dandelion set on a breeze.

While I toiled at tiny graves in my woodland garden, sunlight dropped around me dappling the trees and ground. I was too young to mourn using the names of the creatures I had planted; I didn’t know them, or the names of the woodland flowers that sprouted from their graves. Names were not important, but I learned that all living things were connected, made of the same substance, which I also could not name. But, what touched the sky, touched the earth, what touched the earth, touched the sky. 

***

My Graveyard Garden was only one of many sacred plots on Grover Hill, Bethel, Maine in which I cultivated time, space, and infinite room in which to dream.  There was also the Stream Garden, best to visit at the end of April. Quickly crusts of snow and ice became a well of life pouring forth from the earth. The banks of the brook burgeoned with skunk cabbage unfurling royal robes in front of courtiers of trillium: purple, yellow, and painted, waving in triplicates.  I searched for Jacks stretching awake inside their pulpits and for little trout lilies with their smooth, mottled arms and yellow petals curling back like manes of sun from their brown faces. Delicate and cheerful, they smiled just for me as I pealed off winter layers and joined them in the frigid stream. To my delight, orange jewelweed occasionally erupted in mini orchid-like volcanoes.      

The sun made easy passage through barely budding trees lighting the lava of jewelweed. Already it was hard to remember the frozen brooks, and the mounds of snow, sometimes ten feet high, by the roadside. In May the roadside produced clumps of illusive pink, aptly named mayflowers that I sought with my grandmother. Beneath our feet vines snaked along the sandy bank promising the sweet wild strawberries of June that we would harvest in tiny tin cups for hours at a time with our knees soaked in dew.  The strawberries would leave way for loosestrife and mullein, who in turn would bow to the treasure of amethyst asters and goldenrod before the snow returned completing nature’s 360 by Grover Hill Road. 

Mullein, a relation to the snapdragon, also grew by the driveway and our back door—giant specimens with fuzzy, gray-green basal leaves and one great spire spotted with diminutive, yellow fists of flowers, like desperate Rupusels locked up in a tower. My father harvested the large oblong leaves, washed and dried them. In the winter, he made a tea for me when I had a cough or the beginnings of pneumonia. Mullein, a “lung plant,” is sometimes smoked as an alterative to tobacco. Though I don’t think my father ever enjoyed any, its smoke is said to have euphoric properties and to actually be good for the lungs.

Across from the Roadside Garden was another uncultivated swath of land dotted in wild flowers and ever in flux. Some of the tall roadside inhabitants could be seen visiting, but the primary patrons of the field were the clovers, red and white hosting honeybees, and the wandering vetches, cow and crown.  The clover and the vetches seemed like close cousins to me and the bees, though according to botanists they are not—the vetch is a member of the legume family. We sat for hours plucking the course hair from the heads of clovers and sucking out the sweet nectar.  We tramped through the field frequently to see what new guests had arrived over night:  burdock, buttercup, hollyhock and Queen Anne with her parasols of lace. My favorite:  Indian or Devil’s paintbrush.  By either name, this wild flower, reminded me of my father for both the heritage he proclaimed and his profession. Their random orange spark could ignite a summer field like my father’s temperament often ignited our atmosphere. How dull when they were not near; I was left is to chain daisies or press them between the pages of the dictionary, daisies common and plentiful as classmates at school. 

In fact, Milkweed was the first field flower I remember witnessing on its journey from spring to fall.  Before we moved to onto Grover Hill, we lived on lower Main Street across from my good friend Chipper Gasser. Chip and I frequented the meadow by the railroad tracks. My grandmother called this area of Bethel “the old pasture”. Little did I know as a child that my great-grandfather had kept his cow here, and that my grandmother tended her own graveyard for birds and bugs with her childhood friend. I imagine they held buttercups under each other’s chins to see if they were in love, or plucked petals from daisies, he loves me, he loves me not. Generations later, in this very same grassy expanse, Chip and I noted that the previously pink bunches of flowers that stood behind the S.A.D. #44 bus depot, had been replaced by dry paisley-like, warty pods on brittle stocks.

One late afternoon, my friend and I sat braking open the Milkweed to find the white summer juice of the plant disappeared. Suddenly, above us, came the dull hum of an engine like a swarm of bees, then a dozen strangers falling from the sky. “Let’s get outta here,” Chip suggested, tugging at my elbow. But I had frozen at the spectacle of figures growing larger and larger above us. They looked like the miniature army men you could buy at Brown’s variety store that had wax paper parachutes tied to their backs. As I sat contemplating the toy, a long narrow shadow of a man fell between Chip and me.

My father appeared, backlit by the setting sun. “Green Berets,” he said, answering the silent question intimated by our open jaws. Before we turned to go home, Chip and I peeled open the milkweed pods and liberated hundreds of seeds with our stubby fingers. We watched them drift away on silky threads until, like the men, they disappeared into the tall grass.

At four and five years old, Chip and I were townies.  He lived in the historic Sudbury Inn across the street.  His back yard was a parking lot for guests’ vehicles, but all the world’s a garden to kids. We’d find a place to get our fingers in the dirt. Overlooking the field by the tracks, at the dead end of Back Street (officially named Clark Street), sat Harlan Hutchinson’s house and yard.  Here Chip and I had our first experience as cultivators of the earth, which led to my first brush, if you can call it that, with the law. 

I blame it on the sun, that after a biblical amount of rain, made an appearance. Eager to escape the confines of our homes, we met in the street.  Soaked in the smell of wet tar, Chip and I searched each puddle. Any worms that didn’t look like inner tubes, we returned to their earthy homes. (It was one of nature’s great mysteries that rendered the happy, blind dirt dwellers drown in an asphalt pool.)  Eventually, we reached the end of the street. In between the last two houses, a stream had materialized where once only green grass had been. I don’t have to tell you about the thrill that running water brings a child. Chip and I grabbed acorn caps, bits of bark, and small white pebbles to race down this virgin waterway. 

Soon, we found the stream too sluggish and dug with sticks and our cupped fingers like backhoes until we had made a glistening brown gash in the grass.  Along the banks, we planted acorns, catkins, and leaves in the freshly excavated sod.  We loomed— wet, muddy and proud creators—and thought we’d made something like the Colorado flowing through the Grand Canyon. It must have looked like this to old Mr. Hutchinson too, for he flew at us from his front door with fists wildly beating the air. “You two kids get outta hea! I’m gonna to call the cops on you! Outta hea!”

The cops! Chip and I raced back down the street. He pealed right; I pealed left. I can only imagine he did exactly what I did—dove under the covers where I’d remain for the rest of the day trying to exorcise the image of Mr. Hutchinson’s flushed face from my memory.

When I surfaced for dinner my father rattled on about taxes and property and boundaries, yada-yada…bla-bla. What I understood was, I would have to find my very own place to dig. This land was not my land from California to the New York Island.

Not long after this incident my father began restoring and tilling my great-grandfather’s old vegetable plot on Grover Hill. Our cabin wasn’t in the works yet, to my knowledge, but our plan to move up under Sparrowhawk Mountain’s watchful eye was.  While my father limed and rotor tilled the garden, I found my own secret gardens of lilac and bamboo, which would be special places for years to come.

There were two patches of bamboo. One sheltered my grandparents’ log camp from the road. But five feet from the camp, the neat rectangle of bamboo covered the old threshold to the former Lyon homestead and had a carpet perfumed by Lilly’s of The Valley, my grandmother’s favorite flower for their sweet innocence. With its confines of tightly clustered stalks like bars, the bamboo was like a jail or a cage. I placed myself in the bamboo’s grip when I had been scolded on rare but unfortunate occasions. The solitude and natural air-conditioning properties provided by the ever green canopy weren’t too stiff a punishment. There was another lager patch of bamboo like a jungle that grew across the street on our land near the vegetable garden and the knoll. The bamboo here was not as dense, but shot up in a long narrow strip abutting the woods. I loved to run through as fast as I could, the bright green-yellow stalks rushing past in my peripheral vision, a high pitched swit-swit-swit of long, slick leaves against my sprinting body. I was transported to an exotic land, Asia perhaps, where a fierce white tiger pursued me. Sometimes I imagined that a stranger would bust out of a fat bamboo stick and we would run from the tiger together.

Not all days bred adventure, and that was okay. I held communion in the sanctity of the lilac bushes. The stand of lilacs on the southern slope of my grandparent’s lawn perched on a high bank overlooking the brook and the old spring where in the mid 1800’s a one-room schoolhouse stood. The hedge of lilacs spanned approximately forty feet long, twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. This cluster of bushes reminded me of a gathering of ancient wise women. Inside their filigreed ceiling and walls of lavender, existed a presence entirely hallowed and female. Through the years on Grover Hill, these bushes spoke in fables and allegories. I spent hours in the labyrinth of lilacs wending my way toward communion with infinity, listening to or making up stories.

There were other gardens still, like the Moss Garden at the base of the orchard, a veritable botanist’s buffet of mosses and lichen:  sphagnum, peat, haircap, reindeer and pyxie cups. There was the Pond Garden lit with lilies, etched at the edge in arrowroot, and surrounded by blankets of tiny bluets. On its brown surface, rested the sky transposed against clouds of frog’s eggs, seeds suspended in gelatinous matter. And on the lawn the most common yet wild and hardy flowers of the garden grew—the dandelions and the violets? Sensitive child that I was, I lamented the first mowing of my grandparent’s big lawn. It was a massacre of purple—a butchery of yellow dandelions that would never provide greens or produce wine. To this day I ask my husband to postpone the spring mowing of our city lawn. “Let the violets live,” I plea, until his embarrassment gets the better of him.

I name and label these sacred plots of land now to remember and honor them, but as a child the naming of flowers and spaces was not only unnecessary, but somehow erased some of nature’s unspeakable magic—natural spaces of security in which to dream. From the multitudes of childhood gardens sprang the fertile grounds of my imagination where I daydreamed, communed with the universe, and learned about the cycle of life and death and the connection between all things.

To be continued…

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 It is not enough to just “love nature” or want to “be in harmony with Gaia.” Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience. ~Gary Snyder

I’ve lived in Worcester more than half my life, yet I still have a hard time calling it home. A constant state of resistance has gripped me for twenty-four years as I longed for something left behind and remained unwilling to embrace the place before me. The conflict has left me tired and lost.  This blog attempts to once-and-for-all answer the question that’s preyed on my mind for a long while, “Where you at, girl?” The correct response to this doesn’t require my looking forward or looking back, but looking around and being fully present in the here and now. I apologize, friends and family, for not always having embraced your place with love and joy in my heart—but I’m here now. I apologize, Worcester, with your hills and history—but I’m now ready to embrace you.

You see, I had the good fortune of growing up in the breasts of Maine, in a mountain village called Bethel. My family owned hundreds of acres of land, much of which had been in the family since the mid 1700s. My parents, brother and I lived without electricity in a log cabin, built by my father where we tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. We grew most of our food through organic methods, processed deer meat on our kitchen table, and cut wood to heat our water and house.

A new friend of mine, hearing the story of my upbringing for the first time said, “This is fascinating.” I smiled with a small sense of pride. Then she continued, “Not that you lived this way,” she said wrinkling her nose, “but that anyone would do this to their children.” My smile deflated.

I must admit, there came a time when I questioned our lifestyle—demanded first cartoons on TV, then later a blow dryer. Ultimately, in my teenage years, I wanted to get as far away from Maine as possible. I was determined to see the distant places I’d only heard about on public radio. And so I left.

I made it as far as Worcester, Mass. Hardly Mozambique or Paris, or, or, or…

When I arrived here for college in the fall of 1986, I declared Worcester a mere stepping stone, a gateway out of Maine. I promised myself I would not stay. Then life intervened. I put myself through college, fell in love WITH SOMEONE FROM WORCESTER, landed my first job, married, and had two children. I was stuck in Wormtown. Who was I kidding anyway; someone who grew up with such a connection to a place could never be a world-traveler. My tap-root would fight to anchor itself in the soil. I just never imagined the soil would be that of an old mill city.

Three years ago, after earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I started teaching at Clark University. My boss in the Writing department asked me to design a new course. Instantly, a phrase came to mind: SENSE of PLACE. (Upon researching, I found that some colleges already offered whole departments dedicated to Place Studies.)  As I created my syllabus, I tried to resurrect the memories of my childhood home with its sweet smell of apple orchards and lullaby of wind though pine trees, yet surrounding me were college students tuned out to their environment and tune into their iPods, laptops and cell phones. Who gives a shit about a sense of place anymore?  What the hell do I know about it anyway?

I must admit that while I’ve been teaching my Sense of Place class at Clark, preaching “stay awake” and “be attentive”, my head has been buried in the past. I started to write a memoir about my experience in the woods of Maine, I suppose, in part, to bridge the gap between the woods of my childhood and the city of Worcester. While I selfishly thought that teaching this class would help me reconnect with my childhood place, I ignored the fact that I currently lived in another place. A place where I had married, worked, raised my children, fostered friendships and community—all the while aching for pieces of my broken history and desperately clinging to old dreams of future adventure. I had been dancing around this great void that was Worcester—just trying to survive in a world that I continually rejected as my own. I kept busy raising children, starting a small business, attending play groups and hosting bring your checkbook parties for bored, frazzled ladies like myself. I’d been gaining weight, losing sleep, festering in disappointment, frustration and resentment. I wondered if I had lost the girl nurtured by the peace of the natural world and the life lessons she had learned.

Slowly but surely, I’m rediscovering my authentic self, my voice, that is not just of the woods or the city. I am examining the place where I reside—my own back yard—West Side, Worcester, Massachusetts.  In reference to the wisdom of Lao Tzu , all journeys begin with a single step. I invite you to travel with me on this place blog and to share your experiences and insights from your own backyards. I know you Worcesterites love your town: heart of the Commonwealth, home to Harvey Ball’s smiley face, the valentine, birth control…I know you’ve told me all before.  Tell me AGAIN how you know this place because to know it, is to love it; to love it, is to appreciate your place and the earth more deeply. That’s what this blog is about—no matter where your back yard happens to be.

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