My three kids — who are now 13, 16 and 19 — ask what I want for Christmas.
“I don’t really want anything,” I say (every year).
“That’s not an answer,” they reply (every year).
“Write me a letter or a story,” I tell the youngest. “Sing a song you wrote,” I suggest to the middle child, a talented mezzo soprano. “Just make something that can’t be bought,” I say to the oldest.
This year I have a new idea: “I want our family to work in the back garden one whole day together,” I said to them in our Exeter kitchen and over Skype to Exeter, New Hampshire where the older two go to school. This used to be commonplace but fieldwork, book touring, conferences, rowing camps, voice camps, summer schools and holidays with far-flung California relatives has dispersed us like startled starlings the last few years.
The youngest twists his face into a walnut. “That’s … not … a … gift.”
It may come as a surprise for you to learn that someone with a lot of gardening credentials hasn’t had her hands in the dirt a whole lot here in England.
For 23 years, we owned 20 acres in the Pacific Northwest. This American farm comes up in all my book talks: farmhouse, salmon-spawning stream, woods with massive cedars, maples and firs. Wild turkeys, 25 chickens and horses roamed the meadows. A pair of nesting bald eagles in giant black cottonwoods. A black-and-tan German shepherd sentry named Beowulf. A vegetable garden, an heirloom fruit orchard, and huge yard I planted myself with outdoor rooms stretching around the house. We held onto it until this past July when it was finally time to say goodbye. I still have my gardening hands: short-nails, strong hands. I’m rather proud of them.
When I moved to England in 2007, the deep sense of place I’d felt on that farm in the Pacific Northwest — the invisible layer of history, emotions and memories that covers a particular landscape — could not be transplanted here in England. The farm was part of my bone marrow. It happened slowly over time as we restored part of the creek, planted thousands of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs, and remade every inch of that place with our own hands.
In moving abroad, I felt like Tayo, the shell-shocked WWII veteran in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Disrupted. He is slowly restored to his identity as a Laguna Pueblo Indian through the rituals of his people and the natural world. Moving across the pond, I was stripped of doing what I’d done my whole life. Rituals were gone. Strangely, I could not plant anything for years in Devon. Not even a bulb. I even killed houseplants. In retrospect, putting down roots in a foreign country, as oddly as it sounds, felt like an act of betrayal. I missed my old trees, the fish, the shadows, the wind — everything. The landscape and my mind had melded like a newborn-mother bond.
Instead of digging deep, for a few years, I just tread lightly on the English landscape. I held England at arm’s length. The hours and hours and hours and hours I spent puttering in my American garden were instead replaced by hours and hours and days and weeks of walking in England. It was a different way of getting rooted. I studied garden design and garden history, travelled to great gardens throughout Europe and England and wrote two garden books. England — especially Devon — became my garden.
The rest is history.
I’m ready to put down some shallow roots ten years on. My neighbours Nick and Jane occasionally see me behind the hedge in my front garden — a small, restrained, enclosed architectural space with lawn, boxwoods and ornamental grasses. On warm days, I drink coffee at the small, round table there and it feels like an embrace. I put that garden in quickly and don’t really count it as putting down roots. But a month ago, I planted about 120 tulips, daffodils and alliums there and felt brave enough to think bigger. Maybe I can do more …
It’s the blank canvas in the back garden that can be mined for gifts. It’s a three-tired lawn with a white wooden greenhouse, an old, billowy apple tree, a small chicken coop and an expansive view to Dartmoor.
I have learned that if you don’t garden, you can dig yourself into a hole. But not gardening on the scale I was in the USA opened up new horizons. It will be a gift to finally have my family gardenmaking together: the space will become a place. And eventually when I have to leave it, that will be okay.