The Self-Taught Gardener: Once more to the lake

This simplicity of spirit is at the heart of what I love about country living and what I occasionally fear is lacking in our present-day approach to rural life.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, weekend homes were known as cottages and were exactly that…comfortable cabins and bungalows that were used as a place from which to escape urban life. They were not elaborate homes created by architects and landscape designers to keep up with the neighbors and one’s social peers. They were not the Berkshire Cottages of the Choates and the Sedgewicks, but places that were looked at as a respite from everything that those grand weekend houses embody. This simplicity of spirit is at the heart of what I love about country living and what I occasionally fear is lacking in our present-day approach to rural life. A quick drive-by of my family’s old lake house on the border of Michigan and Indiana on my way home from the holidays has left me thinking about values and how we live, and what it says about contemporary life.

Our cottage, set on a small spring-fed lake where my siblings and I learned to swim and enjoy the pleasures of a simple sybaritic life, was certainly not about keeping up with the Joneses (let alone the Whartons, Choates, and Farrands). A few acres, hedged in lilacs that received a biennial pruning, with a few apple, pear, and apricot trees and a long arbor of grapes, was not set up to impress or to be cared for by a staff of gardeners, but for our pleasure and as our responsibility. Yes, weekends included golfing, swimming and woodland hikes, as well as an occasional fish fry or pig roast (the latter being “the event” of the season for the most part), but they were also the times when we cared for the land that we had taken on as ours.

 

The fragrance of lilacs is intoxicating and calls to mind childhood and the loving work that went into caring for the hedge that surrounded our cottage. Cutting lilacs back every year or two helps to promote bloom and keeps the plants in good form.
The fragrance of lilacs is intoxicating and calls to mind childhood and the loving work that went into caring for the hedge that surrounded our cottage. Cutting lilacs back every year or two helps to promote bloom and keeps the plants in good form.

Spring Saturdays included cutting back the clematis and the tattered fronds of ferns that grew along the front of the shed, and turning the deep red earth in the vegetable garden, which was not easy for a slender young boy of ten. As I jumped onto the pitchfork, more often than not it was I who was dislodged from my position, and not the hardpan clay of the soil. Over the years, and with the addition of leaf compost and a few pounds to my slight frame, the task became easier. Every other year, we rejuvenated the lilacs that surrounded our cottage so that they would continue to bloom heavily but not close us in too much by getting any taller. (Enveloping us in their fragrance, on the other hand, was welcomed). And evenings consisted of playing cards or games, not seeing what charity event was happening that weekend and fussing with clothing that belonged back home in the city. Yes, there was a fireman’s ball each year and it was a civic obligation to buy tickets, but the event was homespun and easy, and rarely involved neckwear.

 

If memory serves me right, the clematis on our old shed was Clematis montana var. rubens, which is known for its vigorous nature and its fragrant flowers.
If memory serves me right, the clematis on our old shed was Clematis montana var. rubens, which is known for its vigorous nature and its fragrant flowers.

I was apprehensive of what my visit to the lake would show me. My memories seemed idyllic and perhaps informed by nostalgia. The house had been sold and I was not sure what the current owners had done to it. After all, mothers do not stay home anymore and put up grape jelly and apricot preserves, and the Internet provides endless entertainment options, certainly more than the three channels that our television barely received from our old antenna there. Television was not at the center of our weekend. Had it been, I would not be the card player or Scrabble champion I am today. (Winning was never really the point; camaraderie was). Would the old pear tree be there, the one from which I first tasted a perfect pear, not grainy or hard, but sweet and unctuous, as its juices dribbled down my chin which I promptly wiped with a shirt sleeve?

As the evidence of our gardens and lives fade, sumacs and other plants step in to fill the void.
As the evidence of our gardens and lives fade, sumacs and other plants step in to fill the void.

As I passed along the rural roads leading to the house, through fields with rows of cutback corn stalks, golden in the winter light and surrounded by hedgerows that served as wind blocks alongside acres of farmland, and past sumacs sharing their architectural form as they took over roadsides, I could see that many of the cottages and cabins that I passed along the lake seemed to have been denuded of lilacs and hydrangeas. They lacked flowerbeds and vegetable plots. Many of the houses had been renovated to be grander and larger, and, I’m sure, to have the best access to high-speed Internet.

The landscape of the world surrounding my childhood cottage was defined by hedgerows and cornfields, and the power lines that ran through these settings had a utility and beauty that in many ways seems superior to me to the elaborate tuteurs and pergolas we build today to surround our homes.
The landscape of the world surrounding my childhood cottage was defined by hedgerows and cornfields, and the power lines that ran through these settings had a utility and beauty that in many ways seems superior to me to the elaborate tuteurs and pergolas we build today to surround our homes.

I prepared myself for what I might see as I turned onto the gravel road that led to our cottage. As I pulled in front of our cottage, stripped of its grapevines and lilac hedge, the shed long gone, and the clematis and ferns replaced by a lawn that could simply be quickly mown each weekend, I felt a sadness for the owners, who no longer had a connection to the seasons and the fragrance of the lilacs. I then returned to my car, my dog Fred at my side, determined to head home to the Berkshires and lead my life in the manner which my parents had shared with me. It also reminded me to prune the lilacs back at my home in Ashley Falls and give them the care they deserve.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

3 thoughts on “The Self-Taught Gardener: Once more to the lake

  • I too grew up going to Lake Michigan and the Indiana dunes. We also had a cabin that allowed blueberry stains on the floor from making preserves and escape from Chicago. After moving to upstate N Y I also noticed the departure from that simple connection with wild nature and the noise of constant mowing from neighbors imitating the English estate style. Great article.

    • Thanks for your note. Maybe we need to find a way to bring a bit of the midwest here. I think of having a childhood that included such simple pleasures to be one of the things for which I am most grateful.

  • I can’t/shouldn’t go home again–unless someone has gone ahead to report back. The chestnut and elm trees of my childhood neighborhood were lost to blights and the Dutch colonial houses gave way to apartment buildings. But the memories drew me to the tree lined streets and garden centric small town I now live in. Perhaps I’ll plant a mulberry tree to reinforce my recollection of purple stained driveways. Thank you, Lee, for reminding me.

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