Every Garden Tells a Story: Listen to Yours

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

We all tell stories; it is how we make sense of the world. My garden is a story that I read and write. There are chapters that I know by heart and recite for visitors, the paths worn smooth by the telling. There are also twists in the plot that surprise even me, opening my eyes to different possibilities and new meanings. Sometimes, I stumble over the clichés I have planted, other times my heart beats in time with the lyrics.

Listen, here is a story: I was preparing for a busy day of work last September when my partner’s digital pager informed us of the “breaking news” about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. At first, I resisted the pager’s “command” to snap to attention, imagining a small Cessna packed with explosives and pathetic madmen careening into one of the towers. But, then a second alert came and, well, you have your own story about this, don’t you? Occasionally, I would tear myself away from the unfolding drama to walk through my garden, the center of my little world. Outside, the flowers were still blooming; the birds singing- but my world felt strange. The distant sirens of the city no longer seemed like background noise. My world, our world, seemed to be spinning out of control.

The next day, after watching a news report about the countless flyers with images of the missing appearing all over lower Manhattan, I was reminded of the Tibetan prayer flags that hang in my garden. Frayed from their time out in the weather, the flags lift their prayers to the wind, an old Buddhist tradition. Paper flyers, cloth flags- my heart and my little spinning world demanded something more solid, an anchor to hold on to. I envisioned a standing stone, my own small memorial, and immediately sought one out. In the cemetery near my home there is a refuse pile of stone and soil dug from the earth. I searched until I found a stone that resembled a small obelisk and brought it back to the garden. I planted it to remember, it has become a part of my garden’s story. It is not a chapter that I choose to read and re-read everyday- sometimes the stone is just a stone. But there are other times when it reminds me to be thankful for memory itself.

Here is another story: When I was very young, I remember that I was very open to the enchantment of place. And the places I was drawn to as a child, have shaped my garden today. For example, I loved the terraces my father had created for our hillside yard. From the highest terrace I could look out across a great sweep of landscape- of fields, forests, homes, and, in the distance- the orchard covered hills on the other side of the Hudson River with their neat lines of trees. Looking out over that scene lifted not only my eyes, but my spirits. I imagined adventures I would take and the places that lay beyond. I think that is why my current garden is designed around a series of long views connected by paths. The metaphor of the garden, and life, being a journey is a crucial part of my garden’s story.

I loved our hillside home, but, I was also drawn to the hidden places where I could be alone with my enchantment. In one of my neighbor’s yards there was a weeping willow with branches that swept down to the ground. It sat beside a small stream that was a good source of entertainment since it was filled with tadpoles, frogs, and little fish. I spent many hours under the tree’s sheltering branches, enjoying myself in my little room “out of view.” Today, I have “interpreted” that part of my story by creating a similar space – a circle of possumhaw hollies planted around a sitting area in the garden. Eventually, these shrubby little trees will completely enclose the bench and ornaments I have placed inside their circle, creating a garden room hidden away from the long views of the rest of the garden.

The central feature of our new garden tells a different kind of story- one about finding a new home and a new place to be enchanted by. After moving from New York to Texas when I was in high school, I felt as if my roots had been severed. Although I liked Texans, I could never get completely comfortable with Texas. I always imagined moving back to the Northeast and a landscape that felt like home. All of that changed during my first weekend in Austin. A friend took me on a day trip to Hamilton’s Pool and I immediately fell in love with the Hill Country. In particular, I loved the trail that followed the creek from the pool or grotto to the Pedernales River. The creek has etched a steep canyon through the Texas limestone that tumbles down to a cypress lined stream strewn with boulders and bordered by waving grasses and ferns. It was love at first sight. I could stay in Texas! I decided right then and there that Austin would be my home.

Today, a double line, or allee, of cypress trees dominates the design of our garden. It serves as a reminder of the small Hill Country stream where my story changed forever. Sometimes, trees are just trees, and when I walk between their branches my mind may be elsewhere. Sometimes, however, I get caught up in their story and I am lost in enchantment all over again.

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