Sacred Ground: Memories of Cow Creek

an excerpt from The Daily Muse / Soul of the Garden

August 14 - morning

Last night I was out in the back yard setting a trap for some racoons who have decided to call our attic home, and as I turned to go back in the house, I saw the rising moon perfectly framed by the trees of our neighbor's yard. (Don't worry it was a capture and release trap!) The moon was full, or nearly so, and had a beautiful golden glow. The moon for me, and for many of us, exists in several different realities. It is a cold and brutally scarred rock orbiting our planet, yet it is so much more- it is a source of wonder and a projection of both our dreams and delusions. Instead of going directly back inside, I wandered over to our bird bath, wanting to see the light reflected in the only water feature available. As I stood by the little pool, I purposely stirred the water, sending waves across the surface that scattered the moon's reflection. For a moment I was transported back to the banks of a stream in the Texas Big Thicket, the place where I first encountered the natural beauty of this state.

Big Cow Creek, in Newton County, doesn't have the resonant name one might hope for, but it remains a very meaningful place for me. I learned a lot about myself, about friendship, and of course, about the environment there . My love for the native plants of Texas was born of canoe trips down the creek and rambles through the woods along its banks. River birch, bald cypress, catalpa, tupelo, sweet bay, red bay, magnolia, yaupon, dogwood, and great white oaks... these were my companions, along with the highschool buddies who introduced me to the place. And even though I have only been back to Cow Creek once in the past eighteen years, I still count it as a touchstone, an internal landscape that I reach for instinctively. Last night, for a brief moment, I stood on one of the white sand bars that line the creek- I breathed in the damp scent of decay that lingers along that riparian edge where the creek meets the forest floor, and glanced down to see a fish scatter the moon's reflection.

Water and the moon, two features all gardeners should take into account.

I read a quote recently that said something to the effect that all truly great garden paths lead to water. Then, while attending a lecture yesterday, I was reminded that water is often used as a symbol of our unconcious depths. Those few steps across the lawn last night, that brief moment, reminded me of those truths.

The following comes from an old journal, dated October, 28, 1978:

A fish surfaces in the creek

scattering the moon's reflection-

silver echoes embrace the shore

and then disappear.

I fall silent, and the laughter settles-

my friends wonder what it is

that I have just seen.

August 17 - morning

My experience in the back yard a few nights ago has continued to tug at my heart. It is funny the way those things happen, a few ripples in a bird bath and your life changes for days on end.

I have been thinking about what our gardens mean to us in ways that are beyond our day-to-day understanding. Ask most anyone about why he or she gardens, and they may respond by talking about the connection to nature one experiences when working the soil, the joy of creation, or simply, the pleasure taken in the fruits of their labors. There is much to be said for all of those responses, they are all valid, even profound. However, in the past few years I have grown to realize that there is something else, some internal need that fuels my passion for gardening. It is the need to recreate the magical or sacred spaces that have shaped my experience of the divine. In a sense, I am trying to open portals or windows to those experiences by shaping the land in a purposeful way.

Two days ago I was writing about the stream in the Big Thicket that served as my introduction to the natural world of Texas. For me it was a formative place, a place where the bonds of friendship were forged and sometimes stretched nearly to the breaking point. It was a place where I first dared to walk in my own footsteps, to feel the freedom and terror of being exactly who I am. Still, there was something very tentative about those times, I was just a teenager and lived in both fear and anticipation of the future as well as the truth about myself, as so many young people do. The times that I shared with my friends along the banks of Cow Creek are now bound up in a kind of primal dream where landscape, friendship, discovery, love, and inevitably, pain and loss, are united.

I think that most of us carry landscapes of memory and emotion within. Often, we shape our gardens in an unconcious effort to recreate those landscapes. Julie Moir Messervy, a superb gardening author, has written a book that encourages us to intentionally create landscapes of meaning and memory. It is called "The Inward Garden", and it I count it as my favorite book about garden design. Messervy uses key symbolic elements as the organizing principles of garden design and suggests ways for us to weave them into our own landscapes.

In the garden that I am currently designing for myself, a critical focal point will be an allee of bald cypress trees. This feature will have tremendous symbolic importance for me. An allee is simply a double line of trees planted in such a way that they create a covered passage or walkway. The streams of the Texas Hill Country have many natural cypress allees where the trees line the water's edges. Echoing the banks of streams like the Frio, Guadalupe, or Sabinal would be reason enough for me to create my own cypress allee. However, the form of the allee has even deeper associations for me. When I was a kid visiting Cow Creek in the Big Thicket, I used to rise very early in the morning to watch the mist rising off the water. Often, I would make my way down to one of the sand bars along the bends in the creek. In those places, river birch trees would also form natural allees. I would crouch down under their glistening, dewy branches and experience the forest waking for the day. The cries of the barred owls would recede deeper into the sloughs and woods, and kingfishers would take up their positions in branches over-hanging the stream. Sheltered between the peeling trunks of the river birch I really felt as if I was on sacred ground.

Sacred ground. We know it when we stand, or crouch, upon it. It is waiting for us in our memories and waiting to be created in our gardens.

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Excerpted from the August 2000 Edition of  The Daily Muse

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