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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: This is it

Lee visits a childhood home and learns a lesson about how a connection to nature and the land can lead us forward in our lives.

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A trip home to Chicago for a memorial service and a decade-marking birthday event left me in a somewhat ponderous state. Such moments can leave me considering humankind’s role on earth, our contributions to the world and our families, and the impact we have on the environment we inhabit. With this in mind, I found myself leaving the interstate as I came to the Michigan-Indiana border with a desire to visit the site of so many of my childhood memories— our cottage on the Michiana border, between Lake Michigan and the neighboring orchard towns. It was a magical place for me growing up, a simple plot of land where my father and mother and my dad’s extended family spent holidays swimming, hiking in the woods, occasionally roasting a lamb over an open fire, and, of course, gardening.

An old fir tree is one of the few things left from the landscape of my youth.

It was perhaps the first place in my life where I came to see the impact we may have on the landscape. Hedgerows of lilacs and yew surrounded our cottage, with a big noble fir marking the entrance to the drive. Over the years, a collection of grapes vines, apple and peach trees, a hedgerow of raspberries, and a vegetable garden were also introduced into the landscape. My childhood was filled with the bounty that this landscape provided, and it contributed as much to my life-long love of food as my passion for nature. The work that was involved in caring for the landscape never felt like a burden—it was part of the weekend. Biennial pruning of lilacs, the division of irises, the planting of spring bulbs in fall, the harvesting of grapes and the sowing of beets were a part of the rhythm of our lives. And the efforts were rewarded not only with the bounty on the table, but also with a long swim at the end of the day in the spring-fed lake that was reputed to have an Indian buried at its center, a paddle in a canoe through the lily pads at the north end of the lake, or a hike in the woods that were bisected by a road near the church where one entered our little community, whose streets were named after the native tribes that once inhabited the area.

We called our cottage ‘This Is It,’ after the less-than-thrilled adolescent response of my oldest sister upon first seeing the house, and it was a part of our lives for many years. It was then passed along to my cousins as my siblings headed off in various directions to lake houses in Wisconsin and I headed east. We were thrilled it was staying in the family, only to discover that the passion for caring for the land was of less interest to my cousins, who loved the house and the lake, but wanted the simplicity of a low maintenance green lawn. I learned this during a family reunion a few years back. But I still wanted to see what remained and to trigger my memories of those magical moments, especially as I enter a new decade of my life.

A stand of squirrel corn connects my past home with the present.

So, I went past the farms and lakes and headed up to our cottage and found myself asking, just like my sister did all of those years ago, this is it? The clematis that scurried up the chimney surrounded by ostrich ferns was gone, as were the lilacs, the grapes, the hedges, and the apple tree. It was a broad open space now, with a few violets dotting the lawn as I looked out over to the old spruce that once held a church bell my parents used to call us back from the lake when it was time to come home or that was rung to invite neighbors over for cocktails at the proper hour.

Trout lilies are loved as much for their specked foliage as their flowers.

I was saddened by what was no longer but, my curiosity assuaged, I headed back out on the old country road that led through the woods to the local church. As I turned into this lane where I once hiked with my cousins looking for snapping turtles and other wildlife, I found what I had been looking for. The wood was filled with spring ephemerals and squirrel corn ran all the way to the roadside, its nodding flowers fluttering in the breeze. In this moment the past connected to the present as I thought of the squirrel corn that was coming up in my garden at home in Ashley Falls—most likely transported there from Bartholomew’s Cobble by the squirrels my dogs regularly chase out of the garden.

I stopped the car, walking through the woods to discover trillium and trout lilies, blue cohosh and mayapples that filled the woods and were starting to infiltrate the abandoned fields of the parish at the woodland’s edge. As I walked about the woods, I felt renewed, and a bit embarrassed by the ego of coming here to see what remained of our efforts to tame the land. It reminded me of my friend Peter Wooster, an incredible gardener who believed that when he dies his garden should be turned back into the earth and nature should take its course. It was a wonderful lesson at this moment in my life, and one more example of how our connection to nature and the land can lead us forward in our lives. Humbled and inspired, I went back to the car to complete my journey home.

Trillium are slowly establishing in the woodland.

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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.

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