By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Almost a year ago now, my husband and I settled down into our latest ‘new place’. We’ve lived quite the nomadic lifestyle over the last 20 years, moving to another house, state, or even country every few years. In every case where it was physically possible, the first thing we did after unpacking our bags was to dig a garden. We have hand dug and landscaped more acres of land than my back will allow me to remember, but each and every one of those gardens were lovingly created, tended and enjoyed by us for as long as we had to enjoy them. And while it was always difficult to say goodbye, we never regretted a single one of them.
Those who don’t have gardening in their blood might be tempted to think that we would eventually get smart and stop doing all that work for just a few ears of corn or a melon here and there. Some people even told us we should just buy our lettuce and tomatoes at the grocery store like everyone else. But, that’s not who we are. Because, as passionate as we were about travelling around the world and exploring new places, we have always been gardeners at heart. Digging the earth and sowing the seed was never a question or a conundrum or even a discussion in our family. Gardening was like breathing – something we could not stop ourselves from doing even if we wanted to.
After 20 years of gardening and travelling around the world, I have met and known thousands and thousands of gardeners, all of whom share a passion that drives people like us to the edge of distraction and makes us do crazy things, like digging a brand new garden for someone else every two years or so. Every single gardener I have ever known pours their heart into each inch of cultivated earth and every single seed sown or plant planted. And like me, many of them take that passion beyond the cultivated bits into the wilder areas of the places they call home.
Of our many gardens, some were more special than others. Whether it was the place itself, the plants that grew there, or the memories that seeped into the soil with our sweat, I do not know. But I do know that in each case, the work felt just as hard and the reward just as great. I didn’t do all that work for some glorified ideal, I did it for food and beauty and for my soul. And while we definitely didn’t dig all those gardens just so that someone else could enjoy the fruits of our labor, I always felt good about leaving something so valuable and beautiful behind as I passed through.
On a few occasions, we knew that the people moving into our place enjoyed gardening and appreciated what we had done there. But for the most part, we never really knew how much our work did or didn’t mean to them. My gardener’s heart hoped and prayed that our gardens would be loved and well-cared for. I liked to think that even if the new owners weren’t gardeners when they bought the place, that our gardens would be the spark that ignited in them a life-long passion for gardening. That is a part of this gardener’s dream.
Even nomadic people long for home and the places they have spent a lot of time in, so whenever the opportunity to drive by one of our previous homes would come up, we’d take it. Sometimes we would find the garden gone; buried under a manicured lawn or a new garage, or just gone back to the wild. But sometimes we found our old garden alive and well and thriving many years after we first turned the earth with a shovel and our bare hands. Those moments are like a revelation: it fills my heart in ways that I cannot express in words.
Of course, we will never know what has become of all of our former gardens, but I have a sneaky feeling that even if the original garden is unrecognizable, bits of it will live on, slowly etching its way into the natural landscape and becoming self-perpetuating and gleefully wild. Like daffodils blooming in the woods where no house can be seen or an apple tree in the middle of a big field. Sights like that are a lovely and lonely testament to a garden – and a gardener – long past. Will the daffodils I planted at the edge of the driveway someday be but wisps of color along a silent woodland path? Will the fronds of my asparagus bend and sway in a grassy meadow amidst wildflowers? I hope so.
As a gardener who knows a lot about leaving, I also know that I am not the first to ever do so. For, at almost every new place I have ever lived – including this current one – I have rejoiced in some wonderful garden find. A lovely ornamental tree, a mature asparagus bed, a patch of irises or an old-fashioned rose lost in a tangle of weeds. Each plant cries out for room and light and the hands of a caring gardener like me to bring them back to their former glory – or at least, try.
As I care for those plants and the land all around them, I imagine the one who planted them. I wonder how long it has been since they were here last and what has become of them. I wonder what the garden might have looked like then and if they might someday drive by to see if I’ve cared for it the way they did. I even wonder if they aren’t still here, tending a garden that I can’t quite see through the layers of years gone by.
It was during one of my most recent plant finds at my new and promisingly permanent home, that it dawned on me: I might become, or perhaps already had become, a mystery gardener like the one who just made my day. Today her joy became my joy. One day, my joy will undoubtedly belong to another. I can see it in my mind: A young couple buys an old house to fix up. They walk hand in hand around the overgrown yard imaging what it would look like with a little bit of work… And somewhere along the edge of the woods or hidden beneath the mature fruit trees that once were but my dream, a bright patch of flowers catches her eye and she knows in her heart I that I was once there.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2012 Jill Henderson – reprints with permission.