Joan Gussow's Extreme Garden Makeover
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Oddly enough almost the first thing I thought of when I looked out the window on Sunday morning was taking a picture. I have a camera, bought new shortly after my husband—who took all our family’s pictures—died. I realized I wanted something simple, because I never knew whether the fancy Leica he always used was focused or not. So I went out and got a point and shoot, which I used once or twice, just before the entire picture taking world was changed by the development of the digital camera. I got one of those for my older son. But I wasn’t taking any pictures, and I knew that what I saw out the window Sunday morning needed a photo or two.
The day before I was in a splendid frame of mind because I had spent the early part of the day revising the chapters in my new book and gotten the whole manuscript ready to send off to the publisher before company arrived in the afternoon. For the first time in my writing life, I was getting an advance for a book. So as the rain smashed into my window panes, I sat happily at the computer, cleaning up.
My friend arrived around 3, her visit having been planned with the intent of working in the yard. Instead, we sat inside eating fresh-picked Brussels sprouts and boiled wheat salad made with winter wheat seed that she had once brought me too much of to plant. The green sprouts of what we had planted last fall are out there in the yard. After the lights went out, we ate by candlelight and it was nice to have someone here through that lashing storm. But when we looked out just before dark and saw the angry gray river sloshing over the boardwalk, and I went to check my Tide-log and found out that high tide was 2-1/2 hours away, I knew I was in for it! And I certainly was.
Because when I looked out the window the next morning I discovered Armageddon had arrived in Piermont the night before, resulting in the total destruction of my garden. We had no real warning like we often get—no notice that a northeaster or a hurricane was coming, yet no one in the village can remember a storm so bad. In my garden, most of the raised beds were ripped out of the ground and tossed across the path, the boards poking up into the air like a carelessly stacked pile of lumber. I’m certain all their luscious, but now unenclosed soil was washed out in the flood.
Everything growing—my little hedges and all the mache covering the garden beds—was covered with woodchips and trash—and water. Logs from the river were floating about the yard. The boardwalk had been ripped up and deposited on the riverbank. The destruction was almost unimaginable! I put on rubber boots and walked part way out, shortly after I first looked out, and having no idea even where to start, came back in.
So I started by having someone come and take a picture since otherwise no one who wasn’t actually standing on my terrace would believe the destruction. What to do? The path is blocked by the boards torn up from the raised beds. Not a job I can undertake myself, as they say. I found myself quite numb—not hysterical as I might have expected. I think it's age. There's absolutely nothing I could have done to prevent it, I've long recognized that this sort of raging weather is going to be a given in my riverfront home, and I sure as hell don't have to feel guilty about not having started my peas!!!
As she was leaving, my friend had remarked something about how it was bad to have "bare soil" in the winter. And I couldn't help laughing to myself as I walked out Sunday morning realizing that the soil is sure as hell bare now--and splashed across the yard I suspect. Where has my fertility gone?
So after calling a neighbor to take pictures, I called Dave, the man who built my stone wall and my now uprooted raised boxes, and he came, saw and solved. I think I have known for a long time that this devastation was coming. But the only real "solution" was to fill in the entire garden and start over. It wouldn’t stop the river from lashing over the boardwalk, but it would prevent 18 inches of water trapped in my yard from sloshing back and forth and tearing up the raised beds. However, not only had I not had the heart for such a drastic solution, but I knew how difficult it would be to load that much dirt into the yard when the only entrance was my driveway and all the fill would need to be wheelbarrowed in—a very time-consuming and expensive, perhaps impossible, proposition.
Then Dave came. He looked over the fence north of me and saw that it was, briefly, an empty lot, where a house has been torn down and another will be built starting in April. He said very gently, "Joan, could you talk to the owner and see if I can bring in a cat and 100 yards of fill and dump it to bring your garden up two feet? (pause) “If you’d even consider that," he added.
I suspect he imagined I would reject such a drastic plan hysterically, but in fact, I've anguished for some years about how many times I could watch my little garden be battered by storms before I knew something drastically different had to be done. After all, simply repeating your prior solution is a definition of insanity. And I realized suddenly that it would be a relief, such a relief, to look out at this destruction and know I would never look out at it again.
So I said “yes,” assuming total loss of everything now out there. But as we talked I found that Dave planned to take up all the shrubs, move in the dirt, replace the plants AND rebuild his stone wall on top of the new fill, then rebuild the boxes now scattered across the yard, and voila--I'd have a chance to start over.
AND, as I realized when I was talking with Dave and fretting about what it would all cost and whether I could afford it, I suddenly realized that I had my book advance! So how can you beat that confluence of events—the lot north of me is available for staging the job for the first time in over 100 years, and just about the same time I sell a book based on the lost garden for enough money to pay for it. Then the powers that be pick that moment to send a storm that says "enough already" and I'm ready.
So I'm very psyched. I'm not looking out, seeing the devastation and wondering how I'll fix it again and then how long it will be until the next time. I don't think I had realized what a burden that was! Now I don't have to do anything. And I can't help thinking that the once-in-100-years access, and the simultaneous availability of an unexpected advance—mean that whoever is up there has been keeping me in mind for just such an opportunity I'll call my next book "Starting Over at 81." And I have a picture to prove it.