Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Might I have a bit of earth?

Disclaimer: after waking up to a social justice perspective, every previously-loved book and movie now prompts an essential question: would it now pass the social justice test, or would I find it offensive? I will address this question further along in the post.

“Might I have a bit of earth?”

A favorite book when I was a child was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My take-away was that a spoiled, sullen, sickly girl was transformed by putting her hands in the soil and bringing a forgotten garden back to life. The story also had tantalizing features like large castles with locked rooms, hidden gardens and cabins in the woods, and lots of secrets.

I discovered those hidden places along with Mary, uncovered their secrets, and tended them with curiosity and a growing love. It was an amazing work of fantasy and escapism, and I must have read the book at least a dozen times.

There are many things from my childhood that nurtured an appreciation for nature: family backpacking trips, a big brother who dabbled in scavenging edibles like dandelion leaves, and even a year spent in Scotland where we got to live in a gigantic castle-like house complete with locked doors and a huge backyard with hidden places (although in truth, I was often scared in that house and many nights would run from my bedroom into my parents’ for safety).

For many years as an adult I brought what nature I could into my environment. As a young adult and new mom living in a bleak apartment, I had dozens of house plants, growing ever more by taking cuttings from the existing plants (philodendrons were my favorite). As my son got older, I made sure to find apartments that had at least a small yard. And in these I grew what I could, even if only bold colored impatiens and a couple tomato plants. In colder weather I found protected areas to sit outside, and would bundle up with a book so that I didn’t have to be inside where it was so dreary. When my ex-girlfriend and I became home owners, I slowly and lovingly created my first real garden. Every hour spent in it was therapeutic and soothing, and after three years I was delighted with the results. 

Living in the South Bay, also known as Silicon Valley, California, we had an abundance of sunshine and warmth. I filled my small garden with lavender, rosemary, lobelia and alyssum. Wildly blooming jasmine greeting us home one time from vacation with a blurry of color and an intoxicating scent. I dabbled in medicinal herbs such as chamomile and borage. We had a dwarf Meyer lemon tree that gave us lemons year-round.

I never once had a garden during the years I was a park ranger. Quite simply, I was very busy not only doing my job, but doing all the training in my personal time that it took to do my job well. But more than that, I lived in a fish bowl. It was a common occurrence for campers and other park visitors to knock on the door of my home with a real concern or with simple curiosity, rather than go to the park office or look for the ranger on duty. The expectation was that I would assist them. I always found it very disruptive, and would often be derailed from whatever project I was working on, particularly if the interruptions were frivolous.

To be outside invited interruption. People couldn’t resist the friendly ranger, whether in uniform or not. Everyone likes to imagine park rangering as their dream career, and they can’t wait to ask all kinds of questions. Some folks are just plain lonely; or bored without their TV and Internet. And then too, being outside meant I was more likely to see rule violations: a car speeding by, a dog running off-leash, or a camper breaking branches off a live tree for their campfire. And again, expectations (and my sense of responsibility) dictated that I would intervene.

Living in park housing meant that I never got away from the job. It meant that home was not a refuge from work. And it meant that my yard was not a place to relax and create a garden. Instead I hiked and jogged on forest trails, and immersed myself in nature as much as I could. Still, I missed having that bit of earth for myself.

Before buying this trailer and moving to the California coast, I spent three years in an apartment outside of Portland, Oregon. I had a very small yard, facing a stand of tall fir trees, which I enclosed so that both my dog and cat could spend time outside but safely contained to the yard. My yard rarely got direct sunlight, and during the most favorable weather the trees dripped these disgusting little worms; while I spent time outside, my yard was more the big litter box for my animals than a comfortable place to relax or garden.

The one redeeming feature of this suburban city was its use of green spaces. Tucked in alongside creeks and bordered by apartments and houses were miles of paved walking and biking trails. It was “urban nature,” but I’ll take what I can get, and a side benefit was seeing some really lovely creative gardening in the yards butting up against the trail.

It’s been almost a year since I moved to the rural California coast in my trailer. I live in a trailer park, packed in among my neighbors like sardines. There is very little privacy, only made up for with an extraordinary zeal for gossip. Add to this some tension with the park owner around me creating a safe outside enclosure for me and my animals: my efforts to create a tasteful and well-build enclosed space were met with disapproval, delivered with condescension and antagonism. On too many of our extraordinarily beautiful and sunny days I was sequestered inside. I looked longingly through my window at a sliver of sequoias until finally I came up with a plan that I thought would meet their approval, typed up a letter to the owners with my plans, and went outside with my screw driver and screws.

Within short order I had an area around my picnic table defined with lattice: not secure enough to keep in the cat, but enough for my dog and to create a sense of privacy. Spontaneously one day I felt compelled to go to a nursery and buy some planter boxes and flowering plants. Next thing I knew, I was unpacking my yard decorations: a beautiful garden globe, and some sweet mini lanterns on a string.

I started moving the gravel that covers the ground to create a walkway with a border. Later I started lining it with small rocks.

Gardening is an excuse for adults to play outside. I started small, and found every addition motivated me even more to create a nice space, in the space that I have. My plans bring me outside. The pleasant space that I have created keeps me outside. My yard beckons me.

It is ironic that I am spending far more time outside now that I’m living in a trailer park. Every day I come outside and catch up on Facebook while having a cup of coffee. Some days I do my writing outside, on occasion staring out into the trees behind my yard. I come outside to water my plans, or tidy up my gravel-lined pathways. Most nights I do yoga under the stars, then lay back and stargaze before heading in to bed.

The healing power of spending time outside, soaking up sunshine (or liquid sunshine, here in the Pacific Northwest), and breathing in fresh, tree-oxygenated air is profound and cannot be understated.

My message to you? Find a way to get outside. If you like to hike, explore natural areas near you. Urban areas often have wildlife preserves, botanical gardens, or paths along greenways. Bring growing things into your home, no matter how humble. I don’t bother with house plants anymore, because I don’t need more things to keep me busy indoors. But outside you can grow many vegetables in pots, not to mention gorgeous flowers and herbs. Put your hands in the dirt. Cut some fresh basil into your salad. Or create spaces with what you’ve got: use rocks and wood to define pathways and entrances. Everything you do gives you more time in the healing outdoors, and will create a pleasing space that is all yours. Creating your own refuge is an act of empowerment.

Oh, and the book The Secret Garden? Turns out it’s really racist. http://www.cracked.com/article_19610_the-6-most-secretly-racist-classic-childrens-books.html.

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