Back on May 30, I wrote about how we had decided, ten years ago, to strip our suburban yard down to the cheap fill dirt and completely redesign the environment from scratch. As I gather photos for more blog posts and video that I intend to create on the subject, I’m inspired at how it reminds of what can happen when we open our thought up to completely new (to us, anyway) ideas, instead of trying to simply adapt existing models and tweak them on the margins. This can apply to anything in life — what we eat, who we hang out with, what we do for fun or health or spiritual well-being. Looking at these photos inspires me to try and apply fresh receptivity to more of my life.
Author and screenwriter, Bill Witliff (Lonesome Dove, The Perfect Storm, The Black Stallion), gave me some simple, sound advice when I was a student and young writer at the University of Texas in 1982. I asked him the silly, beginning writer question, “how do you become a good writer?” He said, as with anything, we should practice, daily, the thing we want to be good at. If you’re writer, write. If you’re a musician, play your instrument. If you’re a gardener, garden. Don’t worry about the ideas. They will come. It’s our job to hone the skill and then receive the inspiration that is floating out there waiting for a place to land. That is what came to mind ten years ago when we looked at our cookie-cutter suburban yard, hardly different from any of the two dozen others on our particular circle. Why not just clean the slate, get some materials, and start doing stuff. We had no design other than a few simple ideas we’d kicked around.
We’d done a little something around the edge of one spot in the front yard. But then we just stripped off 90% of the lawn and stared at the dirt. We ordered good soil (more on that later) and lots of it. We found cut stones that we could have for free, left over at building sites in our neighborhood. We gathered rocks of all sizes from waste piles around roadwork sites and from farmers who were happy to be rid of them. Then we looked at how our property sloped and how the water drained from others’ yards through ours when it rained. We decided to build dry river beds to handle the drainage, and that led us to look at our space as offering the possibility of different elevations instead of just one flat plain. So we mounded the dirt here and there to create a rolling landscape. We created granite pathways and lined them with the cut limestone, and we built a small arbor (without a plan) to allow an evergreen Wisteria to grow over one path. Somehow, in a few quickly passing years, our typical, cookie-cutter suburban space had become a little arboretum, and birds of all kinds flocked to it, as well as a neighborhood cat which we adopted and keep inside most of the time.
So many lessons have been learned — how to mound dirt and border it with stone without the dirt turning anaerobic (foul), how to group different kinds of plants to yield vastly different visual environments, how to install a drip watering system to both save water and keep the garden happy, how to build disappearing fountains, and so much more. And of course, first we learned how not to do all the above.
But now, I miss the clean slate. Keeping the yard healthy and evolving is a different kind of challenge. As I look for another new beginning, I wonder what it will be. For starters, I guess I’ll follow Bill Witliff’s advice. Write more, think less. So I just finished exercise one. Stay tuned for more evidence, and join in. It’ll be fun.