Guest Rants, Real Gardens

Learning my Place from Nature’s Graveyard

by Dr. Amanda Morris

Splintered fence. Shattered shrubs. Shredded trunks. And pine needles.

Everywhere, pine needles.

Destruction with the scent of Christmas.

As I made my way into the barely accessible remains of yard, gingerly pulling back heavy pine branches to expose anything left visible, I touched a ripped crape myrtle trunk and my eyes welled with tears. For the first time in my life, I felt a heart-level emotional connection to the land; my land.

The night before, Hurricane Sandy roared over South Mountain and howled through the Lehigh Valley at over 80 miles per hour, a sustained force that my neighbor’s 100-year-old pine trees could not withstand. During the night, over they fell, one atop the other in criss-cross pattern, burying my yard.

What I heard in the morning as I surveyed the space from the deck was the thick silence of death: Nature had transformed my personal landscape into a graveyard.

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A transient woman by necessity and choice for over 25 years, I purchased this property in March 2012. After settling into a comfortable routine with my professorial career at a nearby university, I chose this place-based commitment as a sound financial investment but saw nothing more than a building and land that I was now responsible for maintaining. The lush lawn and well-established azalea, weigela, evergreen, japonica, and crape myrtle were planted by the previous owner. When I moved in, I weeded the mature beds, thinned the pachysandra and periwinkle, trimmed the shrubs, re-shaped the dogwood and cherry tree, and mowed the lawn.

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My only foray into annual flowers were some magenta and red petunias in large pots and marigold seeds planted along the driveway fenceline. My practical approach yielded a pedestrian view that felt foreign to me, disconnected from my personality and creativity. The responsibility that I felt toward the building extended to the yard, which I thought should be maintained in its current state. After all, who rips out healthy, mature, established shrubs and groundcover to make way for a wilder, more vibrant, and less tame garden? In a weird way, I felt I would be disrespecting the former owner, an older gentleman who died in the midst of settlement, four days after signing our agreement of sale. His presence, his choices, his personality and preferences dominated my landscape. Until Sandy.

My education in rootedness was planted by the wind and the hurricane’s awful finality. Trees that had stood a century fell without fanfare. A yard that had been carefully planted and plucked into submission lay dying beneath a shroud of pine boughs and needles, the ground pierced by four-inch thick branches in dozens of places; so deep that they will never be removed. A weathered gray wood fence and beige Rubbermaid shed that had appeared sturdy and resilient crunched and crumbled into useless shards and remnants.

Never had I experienced such destruction, having only seen natural disasters from the comfort of my living room on television. On one hand, I was thankful that my home wasn’t destroyed, as so many were during that storm. On the other hand, my gratefulness did not soften the sadness reverberating within; I mourned the beautiful yard I had once possessed. Most of us understand on an intellectual level that all things in the natural world die and change, but suddenly this knowledge bombarded my heart center and I felt.

I felt angry. Of all the yards in my neighborhood, why ours? My neighbors on both sides suffered similar levels of devastation, albeit not as complete as mine.

I felt confused. Living 90 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean on the side of a mountain should provide some protection, shouldn’t it?

I felt sad. All of those beautiful plants. So tall and lush and healthy. Crushed. As if they were never there.

Homeowners with more experience know how naive these thoughts are, but on that morning, I felt gut-punched. For the first time in my life, I felt despair.

Never one to wallow long, I set about the business of clearing the trees, hiring the necessary people for the work, arguing with my insurance company, and crying in frustration at regular intervals. The learning curve was steep and I did not go quietly or gently into the dawning knowledge that in death resides opportunity.

The day this idea sprouted was the day the tree removal service took away and ground up the last of the trees, leaving an ugly, barren, and shattered landscape.

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As I looked over the scene from the deck, my imagination took over and helped my eyes to see differently. A vision emerged and I began to feel something new: excitement.

The graveyard transformed into a blank canvas upon which I could grow my own creative garden vision. I saw a tall green screen on the right side fenceline, high enough to block some of the view of my neighbor’s perpetually unused pool. A new sage green wooden shed with cream trim stood on the concrete pad. A long, bean-shaped planting bed traced itself in the center of my yard before my brightening eyes. I saw grass paths encircling this new center bed that was filled with blackberries, black-eyed susans, blanket flower, Russian sage, milkweed for monarch butterflies, and zinnias. Tall, wild, honey bee-covered zinnias in pink, red, orange, yellow, and white.

Suddenly, out of death, I saw life and an opportunity to learn about the land, the value of place, and myself. My first purchases were neon pink spray paint, landscape fabric, and 1200 pounds of soil, compost, and manure. Sadness dissipated into hours of physical labor as I created the first new bed under the dogwood in April 2013. Turning the thin grass over and covering it with new soil and compost was my therapy. With each 40 pound bag I hauled from the driveway, down six steps, and across the yard to rip open and dump onto this new bed full of promise, I healed.

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Never had I worked so hard for so long with the land, but at the end of three days, my labor yielded a new garden bed encircled by a shallow rock wall, filled with transplanted hostas and bleeding hearts, newly purchased lobelia, petunias, begonias, golden corydalis, double fuschia, and Japanese hakone grass, plus some newly planted zinnia seeds.

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Over the next four months, my sweetheart helped me to build the green screen which I planted with cypress vine and two varieties of clematis;

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I laid out, built, and planted the central bean-shaped bed;

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and I watched in utter delight as new growth shot up from the base of the crape myrtle and weigela.

By summer’s end my yard was alive again, but this time, with my imprint. My choices, my personality, my preferences now inform my outdoor space and I feel joy, calmness, and connection as I meander through the gardens now.

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My experience with Sandy was fortuitous. Without that hurricane, I may not have learned the value of knowing my place. A wanderer no more, I have found my roots.

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Dr. Amanda Morris is an Assistant Professor of Multiethnic Rhetorics at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania who spends as much time as possible in her new gardens.

 

Posted by Amanda Morris on March 27, 2014 at 7:36 am, in the category Guest Rants, Real Gardens.
11 Comments

11 Responses to “Learning my Place from Nature’s Graveyard”

  1. Susan says:

    Wonderful post, Amanda! It’s good when we begin to see the possibilities in a situation that seems at first to have none. And it’s hard for a gardener to resist the lure of a blank canvas. I understand how you must have felt, though. We bought our house 22 years ago, and I’ve planted every blessed thing here. My life’s blood is in this place, and I’d feel sucker-punched too if a natural disaster like Sandy ever took out all my work. Hopefully I’d have the same spine that you did and pick myself up to start over.

  2. anne says:

    What a beautiful reflection on disaster changing into opportunity. Your years of transience appear to have prepared you well for this abrubt change. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Amanda Morris says:

    Thank you, ladies! I appreciate your kinds words and the opportunity to share my story. I’m looking forward to finally starting the shed build this weekend, and planting cool weather veggies! Best of luck with all of your gardening adventures this year! :)

  4. Jennifer says:

    Beautiful piece.

    Ten years ago, I purchased the house I grew up in from my parents. For two years, every change I made to the house and garden felt like an act of disloyalty. Now both feel so intrinsically mine that when I tell people the story, it almost feels false. My mom passed away 3 years ago after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s and I feel so grateful to be in a place that feels so comfortably hers as well as mine.

    I can almost hear her whisper “Jen, I love what you’ve done with the place…”

    • Amanda Morris says:

      Thank you for sharing! Yours is also a beautiful story – and it’s good to know that I’m not alone in feeling that guilt! :)

  5. Lena says:

    Lovely story, and it really shows the emotion and power in picking up the pieces and making new things with old and new. We lived through Sandy here in NJ too, but we had already lost 5 trees in the two years before from ice storms and hurricane Irene, so our big trees were already on the ground. So I can relate, indeed. That night was the worst howling wind I have ever sound. A white pine forest not far from us lost 90% of its trees. I think your design with the trellis and paths are great, whimsical and positive things that catches the eye and mind in the garden. Thanks for sharing.

  6. kimberlesk says:

    This is a beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you for sharing!

  7. kimberlesk says:

    I’m also impressed that you live in the Lehigh Valley and have a crepe myrtle! I live between King of Prussia and Reading and have not been able to sustain one. They are beautiful!

  8. Tanmay Roy says:

    This is a beautiful and inspiring post with beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing!

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