“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden…But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
—Thomas Jefferson to Charles W. Peale, August 20, 1811. *
Twenty-six years ago, with that tendril of green hope that sprouts in the young, I set out to change the world. Signing up to be a “Volunteer in Mission,” I said I’d go anywhere on earth. I was nursing a broken heart and was confident the best cure was to get the heck out of Dodge, get a new stamp in my passport, and have a foreign address to call home. I nearly went to Cairo, Egypt or Chaing Mai, Thailand, but the U.S. bombed Libya, so suddenly, I was a candidate for a new position, one never tried before, in the UK, in the Time for God program. I ended up getting the position, ended up moving to Walsall, England, in the West Midlands.
Since this occurred pre-internet, I had to go to the library to find a map that listed “Walsall.” I learned one fact about the town: it was where the Queen of England had her saddles made. Walsall happened to be ten miles from where my great, great grandparents came from, before moving to America in the mid-1800’s.
I arrived in Walsall on September 5th, to live with a family of four. That first Sunday was sunny and bright, not like I’d imagined England would be. I relaxed in the garden with the family: Mike, Nora, and their kids. The kids rollicked around on the soft warm grass. Looking out the window of my room there, I was incredulous at the gardens along the road where I lived. A bridle path ran nearby, and at night, I could see a red fox running down the path.
As I got acclimated to work in Walsall, and made friends, when I’d say, “Oh, what a beautiful yard,” they’d simply smile, like they smiled at my loudness, my bright red coat, my ineptitude with counting out British coins.
When I’d say to Mike and Nora, “The kids are out playing in the yard,” Nora corrected me, “We think of a yard, like Scotland Yard. Here we’d say the kids are in the garden.”
Their garden was full of flowers, lush grass, trees with green mossy trunks. The gardens were small, by Illinois standards, but they were meticulous and beloved. Plus, I couldn’t believe the silence: no crickets, locusts, frogs, toads filling up the night air, and no screens on the windows to keep bugs out.
Gardens are such a place for the soul, a place of contemplation, a place of delight, hearkening back to Eden. Like Jefferson, our spirits can feel revitalized and young in the garden. I began to see how crass we Americans are, and how we are perceived. In Illinois, we have large expanses of grass we call yards, into which we plant a few tulips here, a daffodil over there, and we call it good. Maybe a hosta or two grows for good measure, left from the person who lived in the house before us. More often than not, our yards are not the cultivated creations seen in England. It’s part of our ethos, “More is more,” and the more we talk about is grass, lots and lots of it.
Having had a grandfather who was a farmer, whose hands, skin tone, and green thumb I inherited, I decided that when I returned to the U.S., I would cultivate a garden, wherever I lived. I ended up marrying an American in a Walsall Church, before I left England. Our wedding photos were taken in torrential rain at the Walsall Arboretum, an old Victorian park, which had once been a forest and royal hunting grounds. Standing in that deluge, sinking in the mud, maybe is what love is, afterall, keeping one another upright in whatever downpour comes along?
We move into my husband’s grandparent’s home in Illinois, south of Chicago. It has a large back yard we slowly convert into a garden. When Mike, Nora, and the kids come to see us one August, they ask what machine is going, constantly, creating a sickening hum.
“Is it something from the hospital nearby?”they ask, “Some kind of machine?” Finally I realize what they mean, because I don’t hear anything. I realize they are referring to the locusts in the maple trees in our yard.
“That sound’s from bugs,” I say casually, since this sound has been part of my life most of my life.
“Bugs?” Nora asks grimmacing, “What kind of bugs? How many are there? How big are they?”
“Well, here, there must be millions, and they are BIG,” I say, not realizing how shocking this news might be, “but you’ll never see them, you’ll only hear them.”
Cue the large locust to fall out of the tree. Usually I just find the empty casing, the locust’s brown crusty shell, clinging to tree bark. But here, for one of the first times in my life, upside down on the pavement, falls a fleshy locust.
“Here’s one!” I say, picking it up for my British family to see. Quickly we go inside, out of our yard, out of the vibrating, hot August air.
Now we live further out. One year, my husband uses a tractor and my brother-in-law to plant over 1,000 naturalizing daffodil bulbs. He plants vast kidney-shaped beds of praire forbs, which turn into seas of yellow by August. We contend with herds of deer that munch most things, especially roses and hybrid daylilies. I plant perennials by our front walk.
Our kids’ favorite experience of spending time with Mike and Nora’s kids is playing American football with one of their sons.
And, as two members of our British “family” came to visit last spring, . I bought tea, but they preferred coffee, which was funny, since coffee was considered something so American, when I lived with them long ago. I showed them our efforts to tame this wild yard into a “proper” garden.
Last summer, a British woman new to our community stopped by our house. She took one look at our walkway and said, “This looks like a proper English garden.”
“Really?” I ask, “Really?” eager to believe it was true, eager to believe our yard was beginning to transform.
*Lipscomb, Andrew A. and Albert Ellery Bergh, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 13. Washington D.C.: Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903-04, p. 79
*Time for God is a charitable organization based in the UK. It recruits “high calibre and dedicated volunteers matching them to full-time, long-term placements.” Time for God aims “to enable people to grow professionally, personally, and spiritually through full-time voluntary service.”