Today I turned 42, and it seems that so far in my life I have never found a place that provides me with the same comfort and familiarity as that of my rural childhood home. I have chosen life in the city, yet I am called by the nature of the country like being called to the warmth of a handmade patchwork quilt on a chilly evening.
There are things I need in my world--I need to walk in a shockingly cold, shallow stream; I need to spin a panoramic circle and see only trees filled with birds, blue sky, and the green of the land; I need to hear the rush of wind over fields of hay; and I need to smell the sweet, warm aroma of freshly cut grass. But since I have made my home in the suburbs, I can only experience the patchwork quilt-like comforts of these natural elements in my backyard.
Approximately ten miles north of St. Paul and east of Minneapolis, what is now Shoreview and North Oaks, James J. Hill, financier and railroad builder, purchased an expanse of land on which to develop a model experimental farm. Perhaps the beauty of this land harkened to Hill's own rural homeland; perhaps he too was seeking nature in the city.
Hill planned to develop superior livestock and crops for individuals who settled near his railroad. In 1950, the property became what is still known today as the North Oaks Company, still owned by the Hill family. Once a tranquil setting of vast open space, wildflowers, saplings, and weeds matured to surrender their seeds season after season, scattered by the wind to fall on dark soil and repeat their carefree existence. Today the land has been transformed to become a lovely community, but it is no longer a quiet rural respite to those seeking a weekend away from the city, nor is it country. It has become a reprieve from the city sandwiched between the too distant country--it has become a suburb.
This small corner of land we own where two streets intersect is located in what is now Shoreview, where I look down the street past the end of the cul-de-sac and through my neighbor's backyard to see the back side of prestigious North Oaks. Planners aspired to preserve the natural beauty of the land there with winding roads, limited use of street lights, cul-de-sacs, no sidewalks, and a general sense of privacy within a natural setting for over four thousand homes.
One mile east of Hodgson Road the neighborhood is now populated by mid-and large-sized homes running a gamut of prices, where the divisions are not of walls or fences but of the age of the homes and the value of the property. This is no longer home to fields of prairie flowers, wild blueberries, or shiny, dirt-packed roads created by horses' hooves. For many, this has become nature in the city.
Our backyard may not be special to those who don't know it, but in the spring, it's alive with the energy of life. There is a triangular garden outside of the family room window that is our entire view of nature during the summer months; beyond that a patio with an arbor. The deck that my husband and his dad built sit at the right side of the garden and patio where we celebrate Father's Day and my daughter's August birthday, and where my girls sit with friends and chat, wildly giggling and talking over one another. We enjoy pre-game libations on the deck on weekends with friends who are our lifelong Canasta and Acquire partners.
Someone once said that there is nothing that brings one closer to God than seeing plants emerge from the ground in the spring. That's how I feel as I walk around and check the progress of each plant. After only a few weeks of warming temperatures, the hostas have pushed themselves up from their resting places below the ground's surface. Every day I tour the yard and inspect the plants closely, admiring their progress, always amazed at how much they can grow in twenty-four hours. Today the hostas only look like pointy stalks but as the sun continues to warm the earth, they will gracefully rotate until their leaves are unfurled and they look like bonnet-donned country women, all clasping hands to support one another.
When the hostas are open, we will mix eggs with cayenne pepper and drop dollops of the mixture on all the animals' favorite plants; it's simply a deterrent, not a true remedy to keep the away from grazing on what has become our homeland, but was once there's. They don't understand the new rules of the land, the "you can eat over there in the woods, but don't cross the street and eat over here" dialogue that I wish I could have with them.
I have to watch my step as there is life all around me: a lone bleeding heart that is the first blooming plant to make rapid progress in the spring; the yellow evening primroses which are more profuse every year, so much so that I only glance at them casually as they are as reliable as a trusted friend and their explosion of color doesn't occur until June; and occasional ferns that I transplanted from a wild area on one side of the house that are showing their lacy leaves but not yet showing their curled heads.
While I am not a great outdoors person, I appreciate the beauty of nature. Having grown up in the country, I am still drawn to the dark rich soil that captures my eyes as we drive to Madison to visit a nephew. I am still moved by beautiful green fields of corn stalks, row upon row of obedience to the elements, natural and artificial. I recall as a child when I intentionally tried to get lost in the cornfield like the children I saw on the news, but to no success because of my grandfather's teaching on the sense of direction. But what I mainly love about nature is that it exists within us and without, and we can be active participants in it, or just observe its beauty.
As I pull out a problem child oxeye daisy, I remember the person who gave it to me warned me later that she thought it was a weed. I learned in the past years that it's a very invasive plant banned in Minnesota. This and the weeds remind me of the parallels the garden has to life--within life there are imperfections and challenges that we need to decipher from what is good, to know what to cope with, and what to simply remove.
Several of the herbs from last summer wintered over and I break off a sprig of parsley and pop it into my mouth. It comprises the flavor of nature. Many of the zinnias that I plant each year from seed have obediently reseeded themselves among tiny alyssum having done the same. I go into the rock garden at the back right corner of the yard and begin pushing down the dead flowers that I didn't do before snowfall last winter. The cosmos, zinnias, liatris, columbine, and impatiens are partly decomposed and will go back into the soil to replenish it. Variegated hostas are doing their shoot-for-the-sky routine under the paper birch that grows within the boundaries of the rock garden. On closer inspection of the soil, I see hoof prints, which can only mean that the deer have meandered through the rock garden again.
The pearly-gray morning doves coo as they bob and weave around the garden, looking for fallen seeds or unsuspecting worms. They swagger over stepping stones, not seeming to mind the two baby rabbits that run past them quickly and dart into the hole their mother dug beneath the chicken wire under the deck. Every year it's a battle with the rabbits and by the look of the coco puffs mounded on the dirt, it appears the rabbits are winning. Nuisances that they are, we enjoy watching them grow so rapidly over the season from babies into mothers and fathers. We are entertained as we watch our cat, Sophie, watch them from inside the window, her body twitching and her eyes darting rapidly as she goes into crouch while she fantasizes about what she would do if she were outside in pursuit of the bunnies. The bunnies can graze all summer and not do the damage that a cluster of deer do in one evening's raiding party, leaving the hostas finished until they try again next year. If I have to choose, I begrudgingly choose bunnies.
The arbor in the backyard is one of my favorite spots in summer. My mom insisted on having it built for us as a housewarming gift eleven years ago; she is generous to a fault and has extravagant taste that a retiree's social security will never be able to quench. Still she tries.
This favorite spot of mine is not used to read a book or sit in the sun, but just to sit, if only briefly, and take in the sounds and the growth of nature that surround me. They somehow penetrate my flesh and nourish me, as though I am returning to a peaceful time of which I have no actual memory, yet somehow recall. Perhaps this nature speaks to my soul, or perhaps this is simply the emotion of true joy. I do not know.
An Edelweiss grape vine rambles up one side of the arbor that holds tiny pearls that will inflate over time into the sweetest grapes I've ever tasted. A bright orange honeysuckle with a thick, ropey vine has perfectly corkscrewed its way up and over the arbor. The blossoms are not yet open but it will be profuse. The bunnies let nothing go to waste as they feed on the blossoms that fall to the patio. The gentle sound of the wind chime intersperses with the songs of birds and I am transfixed by peace.
Finches flit and land on the thistle seed feeders and hang with their talons dug into the fabric of the sacs, holding themselves at an odd angle as they eat. Their weight swings the sacs back and forth gently as they replenish themselves and recommit this stop to their flight memories. For them, and for us, we hope to add the sound of water to the backyard one day creating a cobalt blue mosaic water fountain. It's now in pieces on a table in the basement and in my mind. The birds wait.
Without realizing it, thoughts about life, friends, love, money, children, and God weave through my mind.
Often when I look out the window to survey the neighborhood before going to bed, there are deer on the driveway, deer by the house, deer in the street, or deer in the rock garden in the front yard, arching their graceful necks up into the now dormant flowering crab trees, looking for any signs of greenery from which to feed. They are seldom alone. They are finally used to people, yet still stop to raise their heads as I watch them from the dark dining room and they sense the floor creek beneath my feet. We complain about the damage they do to the shrubs in the winter, to the garden in the summer, but of course, they were here long before us.
In itself, this suburb is a contradiction to the rapid pace of life, to the rushing traffic that hurries by five miles south on 694, to the larger issues of the nearby cities, to the land that it once was, having transformed over time into what many call artificial or superficial. But to simplify it, it has become what I cannot achieve in a purer form without uprooting life for us a--it has become an oasis where I connect with nature and with God, and it holds for me the comforts of a handmade patchwork quilt.