The Marks We Leave Behind

Today’s first real post-winter foray into the garden reminds me that I’m a messy gardener. Late, as usual. But I’ve got a special packet of seeds to plant this week, and they’ve inspired me to be more attentive this year.

This is the effect of the person who sent me the seed packet, my guru of gardening, my aspirational green thumb.

Entrance to my friends' garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All photos: PKR

Entrance to my friends’ garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All garden photos were taken in Alaska.
All photos: PKR

I tackle gardening tasks in fits and starts, I spend hours one day until I’m sore, and then I won’t be back for a few days while I recover, even if the weather is ideal or the season quickly pressing on.

My drip irrigation system has been a work in progress for years, I plant up and tend and then I leave for a week and everything dies. I plant new things. It’s a fraught relationship. I’m still a beginner after twenty years.

Our garden was taken over from a French family that was abjectly devoted to the little square of territory (and I do mean little).

Before them, there was an English lady with a similar  passion. Before that, parts of the property were still taken up by the village stone oven (demolished to universal disapproval by the English owner to improve her view of the mountains beyond), the rest populated by number of fruit trees.IMG_1604

Our tiny corner of village has been worked and built and redone since the 15th century, when our house was first constructed.

Whenever I work the garden, I find evidence of what went before. No matter how many times I turn the soil, there’s always something new. Old coins, the outlines of the old oven, a long-buried heap of small animal bones. An old cooking pot, completely rusted through.

There’s been a recent story in the news about satellite images of a patch of land in Newfoundland, Canada. On a small peninsula that looks nothing more than windswept and wild, careful examination by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak revealed small and unusual variations  in vegetation patterns on the land.

 A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures. Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe


A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

Specifically, Parcak identified straight lines of certain kinds of vegetation that could be the result of buried ruins, ancient walls that alter the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and thus, the grasses that grow there.

An initial archeological dig has turned up promising evidence that this site at Point Rosee might just represent the second known Norse settlement in the New World.

All based on the way the grass grows, a thousand years after the settlement was abandoned.

Could the people of Point Rosee, assuming they really were Norse settlers, have ever dreamed in their wildest sagas that tufts of grass could indicate their presence after a millennium?

Back to those seeds I need to plant.IMG_1614

They were sent to me by one of the most gifted gardeners I know, a long-time friend who moved away over ten years ago. We became close friends here in France, then she returned to Alaska over a decade ago.

We don’t get to see much of each other these days. The ten-hour time difference makes phone call scheduling a challenge.

It would be easy to let this friendship wilt, easier than maintaining it over the distance and years. Far simpler to let it go its way and replant with a new one. But, for all the fits and starts, some relationships are worth it.

These are the relationships that leave deep marks, that alter the soil around hidden walls and make the vegetation grow differently.IMG_1633

The seeds – some of her favorites, she writes – will go into the garden. If I do my job right, I’ll get to spend time next to them as they grow over the season, and watch them blossom and bear fruit, and enjoy the close proximity.

And maybe, like many of the plants in our garden, they’ll keep coming back, year after year, a mark of our time here.

Secret signs of long distances in time and place that people have gone to live, to thrive, to make friends, to leave again.IMG_1619

Pot of Gold

We spent the week cutting thick bramble runners and digging out bramble roots with a pickaxe, raking and digging and smoothing the ground, enduring the amusement of neighbors who came by offering their supplies of Round-up herbicide.

Like any simple problem left unattended for too long, the bramble roots ran deep and the thorny vines fought their removal. Underneath one very large mass of vines, I found a decaying tree root that put up real resistance to the pickaxe. Why? Because embedded in the old tree root was a rusty pot. And all around the pot was the detritus of  home life that had been put here back in the 1940s or thereabouts.

A couple of crockery shards, some glass bits, a plastic-handled knife that is definitely from a more recent time, the old pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

This past week, I’ve been working on a corner of the garden that’s always been my bête noir, a ragged patch of annoyance.

Our small garden, not directly adjoining our house but opposite the driveway, was once the home of the village ovens. The stone ovens were taken down by the first foreign owner when she bought the house and its property back in the 1970s. But this little house and plot of land have been inhabited and worked since the 15th century.

The garden, when we moved in, had seen a few owners come and go since the ovens came down, and each gardener only added, they never took away. By the time we got here, there were corners that had been thoroughly overplanted and then neglected, hedges that had gone untrimmed, brambles that had multiplied unhindered. It was a glorious mess around the edges, which were encroaching on the tidy middle section.

The old garden.

The old garden.

We’ve been reluctant to do anything over the years because I liked the crazy romance of it all, but beating back the bramble jungle became too much. So over the past year, we’ve been streamlining. Those raspberry canes that were stunted and fumbling under a cherry tree grown too large? Gone. The nine flower beds (9!) that were choked with ground elder? Gone. The new raised beds that carry my signature gardening style of ‘Haphazard’ are easy to maintain and require less water. The pebbled path that runs the perimeter of the garden where the sun rarely shines is free of moss and weeds. The herb garden is a collection of pots and containers.DSC02240

But that one stretch of hedging that runs along the road, that part remained old garden. Thick brambles between five different hedge bushes, fronted on our side by a decorative veil of peonies and roses meant to distract from the other stuff. Sure, we could just dig the whole thing up and slap down a lawn.

What fun would that be?DSC02239

We used to think we might find a pot of gold in the garden, some buried treasure or at least an interesting cache of old jewelry or coins that someone in all the centuries of this land being gardened might have left behind. So far, it’s been mostly shards. I did once find a pre-WWI French centime, which I gave to a neighbor who had been born in that year, 1912.

Still, every time I come across the remnants of our predecessors, I have the sense that we are a part of something longer, something with a backwards and a forwards. An awareness that we’re the current bead in the pearl string of gardeners here, which is its own kind of treasure.DSC02244