Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mrs. Mcdonald's Apple Tree

I have been working since I got here to uncover the bones, the structure, of the various gardens around the house. Every garden has a skeleton--something that gives it a structure around which all the other elements revolve.
The skeleton provides both physical as well as spiritual-psychological-aesthetic support. The physical aspect of an abandoned garden is quickly apparent: walls are no longer straight, upright flowers such as delphinium instead sprawl untidily on the ground, weeds tumble over and obscure the edges of beds, the hardy flowers have overrun the more timid, and the showy hybrids have reverted to their native color or size. The harmony has been lost.
Although it may be daunting to pull weeds and trim hedges and repair fences and mend walls, nonetheless, the work is straightforward and the effects are quickly apparent. Grass, which had been so long neglected that it had reached its full height and fallen over on itself so that walking over it was more like walking through deep snow than the lawn it had been, has now been tamed to a semblance of lawn with cropped grass and low lying daisies. The Bishop's weed and the nettles that crowded nearly everything else out of the beds have been subdued in an uneasy truce. I anticipate a rebellion in the spring, but for now they are at bay.

The fruit trees have been trimmed, the currant bushes, although again in need of pruning, are more civilized than when I first made their acquaintance. The hard work has revealed the physical structure--fruit trees and bushes along two sides of the walled garden; flower beds and a shade tree behind the clothes line, and trees and a shade garden on the fourth wall. At one time there was a framed surround of chicken wire protecting the younger quartet of the fruit trees. One apple tree, which I have dubbed Mrs. McDonald's apple tree, has been in the house as long as the now deserted cistern beside it.

The graveled path that surrounded the grass in the centre has not yet been reclaimed, but it is at least apparent. Lupins have colonized it and are faring better in the gravel than in their original beds. I am collecting their seeds and replanting the little ones. In time, even the lupins will be tamed, and the gravel path will become a walkway again. For now, I welcome the lupin's colorful, fragrant flower spikes wherever they appear.

The physical aspect of an abandoned garden is both more apparent and more easily remedied than the loss of narrative in a garden. Now that I have unearthed this skeleton, I need to learn the stories that it wants to tell me before I can become a part of the intimate conversation of a garden. The first clue is in the name. This garden is known as the tennis lawn because the grass once provided a tennis court. The posts remain; the net is in the attic. I have seen photos of a young family on the tennis lawn in its earlier days. Knowing those parts of the story of this garden makes it easier to join in conversation with it.

Having met Mrs. Mcdonald's apple tree and made first acquaintance with the tennis lawn, the perfunctory interrogation: "What were you?" What was beneath these nettles?" can become more familiar. I know the damp spots in the bed where the nettles once reigned. I know the sun moves slowly over the peak of the wall where the vines house a secret city of tiny birds whose warrens can nonetheless be navigated from one garden to the next for sturdy, acrobatic cats.

Now, instead of a young family at play on the lawn, a photo would catch an older woman and four reclaimed cats. The trees in the far end and I are both senescing. Mrs. McDonald's apple tree looks over us all, but has not told me any stories of the time before a tennis lawn. Trees can keep secrets.

I have inserted myself into the periphery of this garden: wherever a weed came out; something went in. The smallest bed is now a symphony of pinks and purples tucked around the red currant that defined that part of the garden: a tiny fragrant corner respite from a hard working, hands on world. Sitting on the reclaimed curbing and breathing in the fragrance and soft colours of that now familiar part of the garden, I reclaim parts of myself that all too often seem in danger of disappearing.

"You'll miss your garden more than your house," my friends had said as I prepared to leave behind everything. I just nodded and tried not to think about it, but each plant in the garden told a story of my life there. I had collected plants in exchange for working with the county cooperative extension service so that I had native plants and knew how to look after them. I had used a pick axe to open up the clay soil for trees, including the serviceberry that I planted for wildlife and wondered why it never got taller until the day I woke early and saw the deer in the back yard nibbling gingerly at the tender shoots of new growth. Dozens of last year's varieties of day lilies, available at a reduced price from the nearby doctor who grew them as a hobby turned into a business, were planted on the slope where my yard edged into the remnant wetlands for which I attended countless neighborhood association meetings to keep it a wetlands rather than a dirt bike track.

I still dream of clear summer evenings walking out on my deck and watching the red-winged blackbird in the locust tree singing and scolding and surveying his domain as the sun set or of the crab apple in bloom outside my dining room window. Not long before I left, my daughter sent me an azalea as a graduation present. I hope it still blooms by the front door where I planted it. I carefully tended the two small azaleas that I thought might have been Mother's Day presents to the previous owner. Although they had not been planted as part of my story in the garden, they were nonetheless part of the story now.

As part of a training program with the county cooperative extension I joined other volunteers in creating and maintaining a vest pocket park and an heirloom garden in the little town that used to be home. There is a plaque in the Westfield Town Hall with my name on it, but I prefer to think that the better story is in the plants outside. And so it will be in this new-to-me garden where the plants, the cats, and I will share our conversations and in time we'll leave behind only bones for some other gardener to work into their chapter of the story.


At 3:21 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Oh, wow! I am moved, especially by the photo of your old house. I will show this post to your former neighbor when I visit her... When I drive past our old house, I do so to look at my old gardens. I'm much more interested in what has been done to them (almost nothing!) than to the house.... In the mid 90s when I put up the trellis next to the concrete block garage, I got all sad thinking about how in 100 years, I hope at least the trellis is there for people to notice when walking by the house--something of me left there.....Here at our new house there was a single rose bush close to the grandmother's room (sun room) that I like to think was planted for her or in her memory. I moved it to the front to get more sun, and it survived the move. Then I moved it to the back again because it wasn't in the new grand design, and it survived again....So many garden thoughts and stories.

At 8:03 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Ampiggy I remember spending some time in your garden and enjoying it very much. You are so right--so many garden stories.


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