Grow Write Guild #2: Arcadia

The second prompt for the Grow Write Guild is to describe my fantasy garden.

The prompt was intended to move us away from memory and into vision, but I am intrigued to realize that the garden of my dreams, however its details change in my imagination, must be connected in some way to my past experience of the natural world. For me, it cannot be otherwise. The gardens we make as adults, I think, are representations of things we long for, whether or not we articulate them or are even aware of them. The garden I make now, and the one I long to make if time and money were no objects, are points on a continuum stretching out from a specific point in my beginning. They are connected to memories of a place where I always felt safe, happy, independent, at ease, and fully present in the moment: my grandparents’ farm.

My maternal grandfather took up hobby farming Black Angus cattle sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and he and my grandmother (and my mom and uncle) moved “out to the country,” meaning a very rural part of an already-rural county in North Carolina.  It was only a 15-minute drive into town, but it seemed like a journey that must be planned as much as a family vacation. Forget to pick up something at the grocery store? You’ll live without it ’til next week. (I realize now that such discipline is borne out of patience, something our culture, and particularly my household, seems to lack. Why wait ’til next week when I could have it now? But such discipline–and it would be a discipline, nowadays–places things firmly in their proper perspective and context.)

My sister and I were very close to our maternal grandparents, and spent numerous happy weekends on their farm while my parents got some adult time. The house was far back from the main road (which was not terribly main), perhaps 500 yards.

long drive

The area immediately surrounding the house was short grass, surrounded by split-rail fence (with barbed wire) to keep the cattle out. There were two apple trees of an unknown variety–“just those little June apples,” my grandmother called them. A large, rugged tree, either pecan or hickory, stood just beside their circular driveway, and dropped nuts enough for my sister and me to throw until our arms wore out.

Another hickory in the corner of the fenced yard held a tire swing. Just beneath the breakfast room window was a damp garden with large rocks we could climb on, and spearmint growing as ground cover. We picked the mint and put it in our iced tea, or chewed on it whenever we wanted.

amy tire swing

In the center of the yard was a simple wooden swing hanging from a tree. The swing looked out into the east-facing pasture and onto a pond created by my grandfather who diverted a nearby creek. On one end of the pond was a weeping willow; on the other end, a small worn wooden dock, upon which always lay an overturned rowboat.

Water is enchanting to most people, and particularly to children. We never swam in the pond (snapping turtles), but I felt drawn to it nevertheless. When the cows were in another pasture, I walked down to the pond’s edge. Reeds and cattails grew near the willow. In late summer, cicadas buzzed and frogs croaked; water-skater bugs whizzed over the pond’s surface. The sounds of insects composed a concerto of soothing white noise and I breathed in the thick, humid air until I felt it fill the bottom of my lungs.  On the other side of the pond, away from the reeds, I could hear the creek rushing beyond the wild blackberry brambles. Time moved at my pace.

The garden of my dreams has a pond at the end of the meadow (pasture); I can see it down the hill from my kitchen. The pasture looks soft and inviting from the house, although when you walk through it (this is true of all pastures), it’s just mixed clumps of different grasses, timothy and clover and cornflowers and cosmos. This fact does not make it less beautiful; rather, its beauty comes from its lack of pretension. There is a small orchard off to one side, with June apples and bees (from my hives) buzzing around the fruit fallen at the base of the trunk. The orchard also has cherries, plums, and peaches, and maybe a nut tree or two (almond? hazelnut? pecan?).

Near the house is a somewhat more manicured garden, with beds of mixed perennials and flowering trees and shrubs. I can always cut fresh flowers for the house. There are a few large trees–maybe a white oak, or maybe an elm, maybe an American chestnut (this is a dream, after all), casting shade on the hottest summer days. The branches grow low enough that I can climb them. A wooden swing hangs in one of them.

A creek flows along the edge of the property, but it cannot be seen for the trees and suckering shrubs growing on its banks. But following a path through the grass worn down by the animals (maybe a cow or two, maybe a horse, some sheep? A goat?), I come to a sloping bank of mixed pebbles and silt and sand. Exposed roots form steps  down to the water’s edge. Ostrich ferns grow resplendent on the banks. The water is shallow–just ankle deep–but clear. Even in summer, the water feels cool.

A kitchen garden grows somewhere near the kitchen door, where I can sit to snap beans or shell peas. I grow lots and lots of heirloom tomatoes, the smell of them sticking to my hair and clothes after a day of pruning and picking.

Grass grows high and flops over into the gravel drive, but in my dream garden there aren’t any ticks to worry about. The scent of antique roses growing over a fence mixes with the sweet hay smell of the barn just beyond, where cows munch on grass and chickens scratch for bugs. The meadow on the front side of the house seems to stretch for ages; my children run until they are nearly too tired to come in for dinner. But despite the rural setting, we aren’t at all far from our neighbors and friends. They walk up the gravel drive through a small woodland that in spring is filled with crocus, then daffodils, then bluebells, to join us for dinner outside on the porch. No one has brought cell phones or i-Anything; there is no email to check. We listen to the summer sounds of cicadas and frogs and bobwhite quail, and children shouting as they catch fireflies in their cupped hands.


14 thoughts on “Grow Write Guild #2: Arcadia

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I wrote a fab ‘Garden of my Dreams’ in my head late last night when I was going to sleep – am now trying to remember it!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this and especially related to your memories of your grandparents’ farm. I’m familiar with the time that if you had a15-minute drive into town, it meant you really lived way out in the country. Your dream garden sounds like a wonderful place. susie

  3. I love your story! Memories and dreams all in one. I have a small sized dream and a large sized dream. My large sized dream is so similar, I think I could be your neighbor!

  4. I’m still working on my fantasy garden post, but you’ve really articulated one of the thoughts I’ve had, about the desire to return home to a childhood happy place. I’ve found myself returning in memory to the places where I wandered as a child and seeing their influence on what I want now. Thanks for a beautiful and well thought out post.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Isn’t it remarkable, the strength of childhood influences? It’s really making me think about the kind of environments I provide to my own children. Looking forward to reading your post.

  5. You included scent in your dream garden, which made me realize that my depiction of one didn’t really cover all of the sensory experiences. I will try to include fragrance in my plant selections this year.

    • I think planning for fragrance in a garden is so important. For me, fragrance is tightly connected to memories. It transports me instantly. Pipe tobacco makes me think of my grandfather. Growing up, my mother always smelled like Shalimar (Guerlain). When I smell diesel fumes, I think of London and the year I spent living there (I think I may be one of the very few people in the world who has positive associations with diesel fumes). As I create and re-create my garden, I hope to be able to mark the passing of months by what I can smell when I step outside. Winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, is brilliant for producing a wonderful, light scent in abysmal late winter months. Here, I am marking the weeks until my gardenias bloom.

  6. Pingback: A change that does me good | MissingHenryMitchell

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