Somewhere only we know

“In secret places we can think and imagine, we can feel angry or sad in peace. There is something to be said for just being, without worrying about offending anyone.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

For the last year that my family spent living in Southern California, my parents leased a house in a suburb of Los Angeles that backed up to the San Gabriel Mountains. The house was very “old Los Angeles” in ways that would embarrass a self-conscious teenager – try, for example, explaining to your friends from school why your washer and dryer were out on the patio instead of a in proper laundry room. The house was so ancient that luxuries like washers and dryers were an afterthought to its construction. It had a lot of what real estate agents would call “character.”

The house had one spectacular detail to recommend it, however. There was a mature weeping willow in the backyard with branches that draped all the way down to ground, like some haute-couture ballgown, and the tree had sufficient space underneath it for a swing. I read the entirety of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in delicious filtered sunshine sitting on that swing. It delights me to no end Les Misérables is now one of our daughter’s favorite stories. Something random connecting her childhood to mine.

The house was quite a change from the suburban Los Angeles I knew as a child thanks to that one tree. But something bigger would soon reveal itself.

***

Everyone in my family had come to loathe Los Angeles in their own way by that point. The only question that year was where, exactly, we were going to end up. My parents had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, which were the golden age of Southern California. They were raised on surfing culture and fantastic music, in a city that seemed to exert its own bizarre gravitational pull on the rest of the world. In fact, they met each other on a blind date to a Beach Boys concert right before my father shipped off to Vietnam.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, they watched California culture break down along hard racial and class divides. Polite neighborhoods gave way to gang violence and a drug epidemic. Home values crashed. It was oddly entertaining to watch Generation X swoon over a Super Bowl halftime show that glorified the gang culture of that period, as if Boyz n the Hood were some idyllic past they shared but lost. The Long Beach Crips, pockets full of rubbers, bitches in the living room getting it on – nostalgic poetry of white, middle-aged accountants in Plano now, I guess.

For me, however, the biggest problem of living in Los Angeles was the complete lack of natural beauty. With the exception of the week following the Santa Ana winds, the city was permanently blanketed with a cloud of orange smog. (I remember as a child being bewildered the first time I noticed we lived next to mountains – for most of the year, they were concealed by the smog. I had a similar experience the first time I saw the Milky Way on a camping trip up north.) When someone talked about a “riverbed,” what they were referring to was a concrete gulch alongside a seven-lane freeway that only had water in it once a year. It was not uncommon for people to replace their lawns with designs made out of colored rocks and pebbles. With the constant threat of drought and water restrictions, few people would endeavor to maintain actual gardens. And miles of endless new development meant mature trees were also difficult to find. Even the public forests in the area were poorly maintained and prone to fires, as all available water had been channelized to serve a reckless population.

My parents and brother were lobbying for us to move to Colorado. I wanted to move to South Carolina. I had not ever visited the state, but I felt the appeal of leaving gritty California for a Pat Conroy novel in my soul. Of course, our family ended up moving to Colorado, and I was happy for a couple years with a reservoir across the street to run laps around and long drives through the the gorgeous Rocky Mountains. But the moment I turned 18, I left my family and moved thousands of miles away to the South. I cannot imagine living anywhere else (in the United States, anyway).

***

At any rate, that unusual year – in a city that more closely resembled Afghanistan than Eden – would set my own love of gardening into motion.

We were not in the house very long before we were looped into gossip about the woman living next door to us. Her house had fallen into deep disrepair, with part of the roof completely caved in and covered with a gaudy blue tarp that flapped noisily during storms. Unlike any property for miles around, hers was overgrown with trees and shrubs. And then there were the cats. The woman had a pet-grooming business and was known by the city to take in any stray that appeared. Because she performed this “service” to the city, officials never gave her any grief about her house.

Neighbors spoke of the woman like some witch from children’s literature. Despite her cheerful and non-threatening demeanor, no one would greet her when she occasionally surfaced. She clearly felt the sting of their judgment and made no effort to socialize. Over time, wagging tongues invented every kind of slander about this poor woman one could imagine. Kids would triple-dog-dare each other just to go near her fence.

My parents, outsiders themselves in a way, decided to simply come out and ask her about the roof. I can’t remember if they knocked on her door or cornered her when she went out to check her mail, but they soon learned that she had no one in her family to help her, knew nothing about home improvements, and simply could not afford a major replacement project.

My father and my brother (also a teenager at that time) offered that if she would pay for materials, they would replace her roof for free. And so they did, working a series of several weekends in the hot California sun. It was an enormous project thanks to the scale of damage. They not only had to replace the surface, but all the structure underneath it, which had rotted away. Then we helped her tidy up her front yard. It was like a brand-new house.

Everyone in the neighborhood stopped by after construction was finished to get a look. In addition to rehabilitating her house, they had also rehabilitated the woman’s unearned reputation. She was no longer a witch, but a member of a community that was curious to learn her life story and invite her over for drinks. She was certainly more gracious than I would have been under the circumstances. I still cannot stand being around gossipy personalities to this day.

***

So what does replacing a roof have to do with gardening, you ask?

From their vantage point on the roof, my dad and brother were able to see this woman’s “overgrown” backyard. When the neighbors described her property, it was as if the place were one enormous tangle of impassable bramble. But it wasn’t. It was an extensive secret garden, and in retrospect, an important lesson on permaculture for me. They couldn’t wait to tell us about it.

In gratitude for my family’s assistance, she invited us into her private space.

Much like my own backyard now, the woman had a bunch of mature trees. Hers had grown so intertwined, however, that they virtually blocked out the sky. Beneath them was a squirrely maze of pebble and stone foot trails, lined with ferns and a wide variety of other lush green plants. Wind chimes dangled from tree branches, and there were nooks with colorful pieces of art and sculpture. Once you were standing in the middle of the garden, the air felt so pure it was intoxicating. It was about 20 degrees cooler under the canopy as well. And humid.

The garden was an incredible private retreat. With all the cats running around, the memory reminds me a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s gardens in Key West. You could easily imagine dozens of places where you wanted to curl up with a sketchbook and a cup of tea. You tried to imagine it in the moonlight.

My parents are incapable, I think, of the emotion of jealousy. When they meet someone who has something special like this, they want to find ways to help them make it even better. Over the remaining months, my father constructed a grand water fountain as a focal point for her garden made of repurposed wine barrels. He and my brother installed misting irrigation systems throughout the place, which gave the gardens a rain forest feeling.

We spent many warm evenings out there listening to music and the wind chimes, talking about whatever. It was a wonderful opportunity to form a friendship with an adult who had done interesting things and threw herself into many passions. Someone who had carved out a life well-lived, even if it did not clearly match society’s expectations. Who had found (made) true happiness and beauty outside of the rat race. Something that took many years and incredible devotion.

I remember sitting there on her porch thinking, I will build an Eden like this someday.

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