I should possibly note that the assignment was to write a critical essay exploring what it was that made us who we were as a writer. The essay would then serve as an introduction to our final body of work. In part one, I looked at the influence of music. Here, in part two, I look at the influence of gardens on my life.
‘There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.’
- Elizabeth Lawrence
I have always been surrounded by beautiful gardens. My maternal great-grandmothers were gardeners, my maternal grandmother was a gardener, and my mother inherited their green thumbs. Our yard in Folsom was always beautiful, despite that tendency of the California climate to reach out and crisp everything it sees. My mother grew roses—I particularly remember a tiny mauve bush, and the climbing rose that wound its tendrils around the trellis around the back fence. The side hill was covered in shrubs, and I used to run up along the top, to a particular low-hanging tree with a hollow beneath it, covered vinca vines with their little purple flowers, the kind we used to pick and suck on because they tasted sweet. I used to hide under that tree and play pretend, bury treasures under the vinca and come back later to rediscover them.
There were two trees in the left back corner of the yard, separated by a shrub that I think we planted over the grave of my dad’s dog. We buried all of our goldfish in that corner of the yard. There were a lot of dead goldfish. We made them little gravestones out of pieces of wood—probably my idea. I was very small, after all.
I always wanted a tree house. Daddy promised me he’d build one in the left-hand of the two trees in the grave-corner of the yard, that in another year it would be strong enough to bear the weight of a tree house. And then the next year we moved, and I never did get my tree house. That was the side of the yard lined with fruit trees (so many fruit trees). The play-structure Daddy built hunched on the other side of the yard, at the foot of the hill, sitting in a bed of gravel with bees constantly buzzing about. Mum’s raised beds filled up the space between the structure and the hill and the house. There were blueberries under the kitchen window, and around the other side of the house were raspberries. We’ve always had fruit trees and berry bushes and raised beds everywhere we’ve lived—it’s one of the best things about my mother’s gardens.
Daddy built a deck in the back yard, so that when we walked out the kitchen door or out my parents’ sliding door we walked onto the deck. There were two of those trees at the end of it, the kind with those heavy grape-like blossoms—locust trees—and by the time we moved they loomed over the house. Between the deck and the trees and the play-structure and the back fence was the lawn, the sod lawn that they had to roll into place when we moved in, and when I was small I used to lie on that grass and try to tame my cat, my second cat, because my first cat, Rose, ran away when I was very little. My second cat was feral, born in the wild, and I wanted another cat so my parents got her for me. I named her Cinnamon Nose, because I was only about four, after all, and her nose was the colour of cinnamon. But she was skittish and wouldn’t let anyone near her, so I spent hours and hours on the lawn trying to coax her to come near, and she would sprawl on her side and stretch out and dig her claws into the dirt and slowly inch closer. Years later, we gave her to my grandparents.
There were butterflies in that garden, huge beautiful butterflies in gold and orange and black, and praying mantii too. Once I saw a praying mantii with babies, and they were so tiny it was difficult to believe they were real. We always had cats. Daddy’s dog died not long after we moved to Folsom, and we didn’t get another one, so the cats usually dominated the back yard. But when the wild turkeys came over the fence, then the cats scattered, because the turkeys were much bigger, and the noises they made frightened them.
Sometimes my dad and I sat in the back yard, on the steps to the deck, and ate peanuts, the unshelled kind, because the best bit was getting them out of the shells and then just tossing the shells to the ground. And sometimes in the summer we put up the wading pool on the deck—because we didn’t have a real pool—and I splashed around until I got bored and went back inside. Once, this provoked a black widow, and she came climbing through the cracks in the deck and started stalking the boards between me and the kitchen door and I was trapped in the pool, terrified, because I was only a little girl but I knew that black widows were poisonous.
The front yard was not nearly as interesting as the back, but there was a little Japanese maple in front of my room—it was my sister’s room first—and I used to sit underneath it, because it was just the right size for a little girl, like a little umbrella. And once I skied down the grass on the hill, because there was never any snow but I must have wanted to go skiing anyway. Usually we put the slip-n-slide on the hill and slid down. Daddy used to have a truck back then, and sometimes it would have windows in the truck bed, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but it was always tempting to climb in and play; he got angry at us, once, because he was afraid that we would fall out, and after that we were not allowed to play in his truck any more.
It took time before the yard in Olympia turned into anything, but gradually it blossomed under my mother’s green thumb. My parents took out most of the lawn and once more put in fruit trees and raised beds and more blueberries and raspberries. There is a tree outside the laundry room window, just to the left of where I once dug a giant muddy hole, back when my parents were still working on redoing the yard. Perhaps it is some unspoken rule that every child must either try to fly, or try to dig a hole to China. Or maybe I thought that if I just dug far enough, I could get back to California.
I never got my tree house, but my dad built a deck with a sunscreen in the back corner of the yard, and I used to climb the tree next to it and sit on the wooden slats of the sunscreen. And I used to take a book up into the tree and just sit and read, or pretend I’d escaped someone and I was hiding up there. Daddy built another deck, a smaller one, in the opposite corner of the yard, but no one ever used it, and it’s gone now. There’s a black ironwork bench there now. My cat likes to sit in the exact middle of it. Our neighbours, once upon a time, built a deck of their own, and as their yard slopes upward and the deck sits high, anyone could see straight into our yard. My parents planted trees along the fence, and those trees have grown into a massive wall of green. If I were Sleeping Beauty, I’d pity the prince who had to hack his way through those trees. But it would be worth it for the flowers—every year, the ground beneath those trees, along the edge of the patio, blossoms into a glorious explosion of colour as my mother’s flowers come out to play.
The roses live in the side yard, where we can see them through the living room windows. Mum’s recently taken out a few bushes, including the white bush I claimed as my own years ago. Most of the rest are varying shades of pink and red—love and passion. The trees outside those same windows were once small and scrawny, but now they block out most of the afternoon light. I usually forget about the other side yard; it’s a no-man’s land, and I almost never go there. The front yard is trees and grass and hedges, but it is pretty, because the heather and the hedges bloom, and two of the trees are maples with deep purple-red leaves that stand out against the blue of the house. When I come home for the summer, Dad and I get out the bat and mitts and balls, and he pitches and I swing, and if I’m lucky and not too out of practice, I sent the ball sailing across the street and over the mailboxes and into the drainage area. I am as close to a son as my dad got, so we play softball together.
It is harder to remember the garden in Olympia as it was than it is to remember the garden in Folsom, because I think about Olympia and I see the garden as it is now, or as it was the last time I was home, not as it was six or ten or fourteen years ago. And when I lived in Folsom, I was constantly outside; since moving to Olympia, I have spent much less time outdoors—it is too rainy, I was too sick, I grew up and had less interest in being outside…and then I was simply not home.
I count my grandmother’s garden as my garden as well. She lived in a one-story house smack-dab in the middle of a wonderful triangle of land. There was a canal that ran along the back of the house, beside the fence; there was one place at which a set of steps bridged the canal so that we could reach the fence and peer into the field behind it. At the bottom of the house, my grandmother grew fruit trees and all kinds of berries. The strawberries ringed the trunks of the trees, so we had to be especially careful not to crush them.
At the very top of the yard my grandmother grew vegetables, and since we were always there in the summer, there was never any shortage of things to eat when we were outside (if we were inside, there was always popcorn and ice cream and sweets in dishes around the house). And in the middle, between the house and the vegetable garden, were my grandmother’s roses, all kinds, in all colours. There were probably other kinds of flowers as well, but I remember the roses most of all.
On the other side of the house, at the bottom of the hill, the big windows of Grandma’s living room looked out over the extra parking spaces, and the big stretch of yard full of interesting shrubs and bushes and all of the yummy-smelling firs and evergreens and her lovely birdbath.
My family visited every summer, and at that time of year the garden was in full swing. My cousin Jessica and I spent hours outside when we were there, playing Orphanage or the Violet Pretend, and when we had to go in for lunch or when it finally got dark, we pretended that the orphanage had captured us again. It was less fun when it was just me, but I still ran around outside in that wonderful garden and picked flowers and ate Grandma’s food. One year Jess and I made swords out of sticks, complete with hilts tied on with string, and taught ourselves to fight with our stick-swords.
And then eventually Grandpa died and Grandma moved to Olympia, and now that house and garden belong to someone else. I hear they put in a lawn. But in my head, it is still a garden, and will always be a garden, because it was always a garden when I was a child.
I have not inherited my mother’s green thumb, as she did her mother’s; it seems to run unpredictably throughout the family, like freckles or a penchant for brussel sprouts, as my Aunt Laurie is a gardener, as is her daughter Jenny, but my Aunt Bonnie is not, although her daughter Jessica has recently discovered that she does have an interest in gardening. I do not like gardening, although I do like gardens; I like the pretty, but I hate the dirt. I miss living somewhere that there’s a garden; Knox is bleak for much of the year, its trees bare and grey and lashed by the winds. As angry as I was to move from California, the one thing I grew to love about Olympia above all else is how very green it is, not only from all the rain, but because there are so many evergreen trees that it stays green all year round. Now, everywhere I go, there are never enough trees, and it is never green enough. And I miss the gardens. I loved being in Oxford, because all of the colleges have full-time gardeners; they are smaller, enclosed spaces, and they reminded me of proper gardens, especially in the spring. [An addendum: it is spring in St Andrews, and the green fills me with hope. There are flowers, and there are trees, and even if it is not green enough, there are flowers everywhere. There were crocuses and snowdrops first, and then there were daffodils, and now there are tulips and hyacinths and the trees are in bloom. It isn’t the same as a proper garden, but at least it’s an improvement over Knox…]
But the thing I think I miss most is that ability to pretend, to run out into a garden and pretend that I have indeed run into another world, complete with a new name for myself and a new story. There is something so simple about it, though at the time it is the most important thing in the world. Children, especially imaginative ones, constantly create and recreate stories without even thinking. They simply make it up as they go along.
And then one day, the years of magical thinking fade away and children simply stop pretending, walk out of their imaginary worlds for good and almost never go back. They stay firmly planted in the real world. But writers go back. They are anchored to that imaginary world, to their gardens, wherever those gardens might be; they are able to return to those worlds, or some imaginary worlds inspired by those worlds of childhood, because there is something in them that cannot let go of pretending.