People ask me sometimes where I get my love of gardening, and I don’t know what to say, because I don’t think of myself as a gardener. “Gardener” has an official–hobby ring to it, and that’s not what gardening is for me. I’m not really sure I can say what it is. But I do say that whatever it is, I get it from my mother.
Mama spent every available minute out of doors. Back in the sixties, before rural North Carolina land was worth much, Buncombe county had lots of what she called “old home places”–where houses or farms had stood and then fallen away. There was no one around to care or see what she did, so what she did was help herself—to old bulbs, violets, trillium, hearts a-busting with love; planted decades ago or springing wild from the ground; she knew every leaf and twig in the mountains. She could reach through a tangle of brush growing in the stone foundation of a vanished house, find a sprout the size of a fingertip and recognize it as she would a neighbor. Once identified, the plant would be liberated from its surroundings, placed in the back of our 1958 Chevy Nomad station wagon, and relocated to its new home in our yard.
Mama kept an old army shovel in the back of the Chevy; it was a handy small size with a pointed blade; left over from Daddy’s WWII service, it was ready to deploy at the first sight of a likely bulb or sapling. We sometimes carried the shovel when we were forced into accompanying her on her excursions. Today I’d give anything to go along, but as a child, trudging beside her down those unused, grassy tracks into long-abandoned, silent clearings to bring home still more daffodils seemed a tragic waste of an afternoon that could have been spent watching cartoons.
Eventually land values appreciated and the old home places started to be bought up; deprived of her supply, she branched out to digging up daylilies, butterfly weed, money plant, and anything else that appealed to her on the roadside. She even once, in a memorable episode, lifted some bedding plants from a McDonald’s parking strip. By this time, I was in high school, and why the embarrassment didn’t kill me I’ll never know. It was pointless to argue that this was stealing. She’d wave such concerns away saying that no one minded. When I returned home years later with my new husband, he joked that we should pay someone to dress up like a police officer and pretend to arrest her. I knew it wouldn’t faze her; that she’d be able to argue even a real police officer out of the charge by her unshakeable conviction—it was a downright moral imperative—that this was not stealing because these plants were actually supposed to be in her yard.
The house, fairly light when we moved in, grew increasingly dark over the years as she refused to take out even the smallest tree. She liked the privacy; she wanted to be shielded from the eyes she was convinced would peer at us from the road. She was resolutely, intently moving the land into a new expression of itself; something older, something wilder—something that had communicated itself to her over the years of seeking and procuring. How did she know what it needed? She never said. But she was absolutely sure of herself and never hesitated, never fumbled, never consulted anyone else for advice. She just kept adding and moving and the yard evolved inevitably into itself; it was impossible for it to have looked any other way.
Our house sat on two acres (“two acres more or less,” the deeds for mountain land read), and those acres were mostly wooded. Wooded was the way she liked it. Moss was plentiful; ghostly Indian pipe grew in the woods, where the leaf mold was inches thick. We had lots of leafy canopy, but the only things that bloomed were the ones that flourished in the shade; native rhododendron, early spring bulbs, violets—blue, dogtooth, Confederate—and periwinkle in the spring, pushing through the snow.
The yard Mama had brought into being was full of layers, depth and texture; trees to sit in; spots for us to hide and imagine that we couldn’t be found. It was quiet and seemed almost liminal, as though a child might step behind a tree into another, more mysterious reality.
Every other house on our street was much more conforming—an open lawn, some foundation shrubs, maybe some marigolds. Their yards always looked too sunny and flat to me. No stories could be made up in such a yard.
My mother wasn’t a gardener in the sense of gardeners who bring the same sensibility to the yard as they do to the interior design of their houses—decorating, fluffing, choosing colors of a unified theme, expressing their personal design aesthetic. My mother had to garden. It was the outpouring of her tremendous life force, of her sense of the natural world. Her will was enormous and inexorable, but she wasn’t so much imposing her will on the landscape as she was birthing it—giving it the life it had been waiting for. Even after she was ill with the heart disease that would eventually kill her, she would direct the yardwork with great conviction and assurance, operating out of her sure instinct of what should go where.
Pulling around her oxygen tank, sitting on top of a five-gallon plastic bucket turned upside down, she’d issue directives to the biddable young man she’d hired, to plant this hosta and pull out that bittersweet vine. I never heard whether she made Todd stop and liberate plants from the roadside—but it wouldn’t surprise me. Not at all.
When my mother died, we held the service in the front yard, surrounded by all that she had brought into being. It was October, and the leaves were changing. On the porch, we placed a tall vase of flowers that we had—yes—stolen from the roadside. Next to it, we propped the army shovel.