The Gardener began on the eastern edge of the woods in what is called the meadow. He dug out the bindweed and the porcelain berry which laced through the stems of grass. He dug out the clumps of non-native grasses. He planted wild ryes and bluestem, which he brought with his own money, divided and redivided until he had enough.
Gardener – The wild ryes belong to the genus, Elymus, while the little bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium.
Writer – Among the grasses he planted joe-pye weed. . .
Gardener – Eupatorium purpureum.
Writer – ironweed. . .
Gardener – Venonia noveboracensis.
Writer – and asters, again bought with his own money. At the north end to hide the linear displays of the retail nursery, he planted american elderberry. . .
Gardener – Sambucus canadensis.
Writer – highbush blueberry. . .
Gardener – Vaccinium corymbosum.
Writer – and three eastern junipers. . .
Gardener – Juniperus virginiana.
Writer – again bought with his own money. He didn’t work exclusively in the meadow, but completed that project first. Then gradually over the next few years he worked his way down into the wooded slope toward the fence that separated what is now called The Institution from the narrow public park. On maps the park is called Riverside but to the neighboring public it’s known as The Park. Commuters, runners and dog walkers follow the paths connecting the train station at the north end of the park to an elegant apartment complex at the south end. This public was against any changes in their park, but oblivious to changes that had transformed the neighboring Institution. The chain link fence ran the length of the property line from the nursery in the north to an ancient grove of hemlocks in the south. . .
Gardener – Tsuga canadensis. The tallest of them died because of the northern migrations of the wooly adelgid, which now survive the mild winters.
Writer –In my story. . .
Gardener – Your story can’t be far removed from mine!
Writer – a narrow public road, just beyond the hemlocks, marked the southern property line.
Gardener – Yep!
Writer – The remnants of an orchard covered in vines stood on this ground.
Gardener – Right!
Writer – An iron fence and a stone wall separated the old orchard from the road.
Gardener – Same!
Writer – And a woodland path starting near the iron fence followed a ridge through the hemlocks to an overlook below the Administration Building.
Gardener – That’s it!
Writer – Another path forked off the main path and ran below the outlook along a rock cliff.
Gardener – Been there!
Writer – At the base of the cliff an old grove of american beeches. . .
Gardener – Fagus grandifolia.
Writer – grew.
Gardener – Still does! Do you remember the American beeches growing behind the house where the Youth lived?
Writer – The trees that grew behind the house are the very same trees that are growing in the Woodland.
Gardener – No, they aren’t. Same species but two different places.
Writer – These trees you are remembering are growing in the same place, in the fertile ground of our imagination. They were saplings that started in older times. In this tale, by the time the Gardener started working in the woodland, their crowns had reached the President’s windows on the second floor of the house where Total Power’s man once lived. An enormous red oak. . .
Gardener – Quercus rubra.
Writer – growing further up the hill, near the Administration Building, added to the beauty of the scene.
Gardener – I agree that you’ve made dramatic changes, but. . .
Writer – You’re always interrupting.
Gardener – What about the Nyssa sylvatica, I remember a magnificent specimen growing south of the nursery. Why are you shaking your head?
Writer –Because you insist on making this your story. If you and I walk up to the old Tupelo, are we looking at the same tree?
Gardener – I hope we could agree on that!
Writer – We’d have our best chance then, wouldn’t we; but later we’ll remember that tree differently.
Gardener – We should agree on something.
Writer – I think we can agree that aside from the hemlocks, beeches and the tupelo and a few large red oaks, all possibly a century old in the time of the Gardener, the majority of woodlands was secondary growth, since most of the land along the river between the railroad tracks and the meadow had been large vegetable gardens in the 19th century.
Gardener – Yes, we can agree, but. . .
Writer – In this world of mostly dead secondary tree growth, the Gardener spent one winter cutting vines off the trees, some as thick as the handle of his spade. Unless the ground froze deep, which rarely happened, he dug out the roots with the spade. At noon, rather than go back to the potting shed where he wasn’t loved, he sat on the trunk of a dead tree he’d cut, eating bread and cheese, his stainless steel water bottle and a thermos of coffee inside a backpack he stashed near the chain saw, a plastic gallon jug of gasoline and a white plastic bottle of chain oil. He imagined what the shoreline looked like before the Dutch arrived. The human need to see more, he thought, had forced the settlers to cut down all the trees, even those they didn’t need to build their homes or fences. By the time Total Power’s man bought all the lots from their previous owners at the end of the 19th century, the earlier forests had been cut. This powerful executive and his wife built their home on the ridge south of the manor home, now called North House, where a former landholder had lived. The views of the River Slang from the new home on the stony prominence, must have been stunning and can still be appreciated from the south windows of the President’s office and in winter from certain other second storey windows. The Gardener remembered the view of the Bridge from the President’s office that day he hoped to avert the labor struggle. But this insatiable need to see further than anyone else had created the need for vistas, for distant untouched landscapes that could be viewed like a picture without visual interruption. One day Total Power’s man saw men on the far side of the river excavating the rock on the Great Wall for New Drake. Using Total Power the executive was able to save the Great Wall for the time being.
But ironically the exotic plants, fashionable at the time, which he, his wife and their gardener were introducing into their gardens on this side of the river, were spreading insidiously beneath their very noses. Had the primary forest existed would the exotics have succeeded? Who can say? As it is, they gradually replaced the native species that were trying to reestablish. The Gardener couldn’t blame the executive and his wife. The same thing had happened in the Old Woman’s garden, but on a much smaller scale. It happens everywhere. As long as someone is there to maintain things there’s a kind of equilibrium. But the concept of equilibrium in nature, which he’d come to believe in school, couldn’t have been right. It seemed the invention of those who still believed in the perfection of Eden. There could never be equilibrium; it was tantamount to stasis. Species naturally struggled with each other for survival. It was no different than a crowd of commuters jostling on a railroad platform for space. He didn’t believe the Purebreds who preached that native plants are a panacea to restore the natural world. Everyone, he believed, is a native of Earth. When humans left their birthland in the heart of the continent called Africa by some, the Garden of Eden by others, they took with them, the world around them, tucked in their traveling bags, stuck to their shirts, locked in their memories.
What the Gardener wanted to create down here in siberia, to use the disparaging expression of the other gardeners, was an illusion of perfection. A garden of the imagination. Only there could one find Eden. For some it might be that long ago home when the Lenape lived here. For other it might be that image he’d seen one Sunday outing with the family at the Museum of Art, sailboats ghosting at evening out there on the River Slang under the Great Wall. Either way his illusion depended more on his maintaining balance in the woodland, than on native plants. The Gardener felt at home here sipping his hot coffee black. The visitors, should they come one day, wouldn’t actually see Lenape living under the tall trees, nor a painter capturing a flowing river that was moving like time and taking everything the painter saw with it. All the visitor needed was an imagination. Even as he sat there eating his lunch his back against a rock, the Gardener went on moving trees about as well as shrubs like a magician. He studied their appearance, erased what he didn’t like, started over again. He wondered if he would finish the woodland he envisioned. Probably not, he thought, since his vision would go on changing.
He was able to work under the lofty eyes of the President and her administration. They never returned to the woodlands after their visit years before. In the fall he collected leaves and stashed them near his nursery. He piled up compost. It was meager at first, much of the debris woody. But even these began to break down, the stems of vine and the thin branches, which he chopped with the blade of his long handled spade. Now and then he sharpened the blade with the long narrow whetting stone he carried in his back pocket with the chainsaw wrench. He no longer worried about the hidden cameras. The vines had killed the trees that held the cameras so he cut down the trees. Anyway it didn’t matter anymore. The President was in charge. Her Board voted for the new mission statement when the Treasurer was absent. Although the Public Employee Union of America was an established fact, the gardeners who had brought this about were gone, with the exception of the Gardener who was banished to siberia. “In time,” the President reassured the Board, “the new generation of gardeners will lose interest in the Union. They’ll resent the required dues. They might even vote the Union out.”
Meanwhile near the old orchard, which the vines had killed, in the area between the iron fence and the Hemlocks, the Gardener liberated several red oaks and a white pine whose crowns the vines hadn’t reached. In the middle of the woodland, just west of the meadow, not far from the fence, a thicket of suckers had formed around the magnificent tupelo we talked about. He choose four foot whips growing on runners from the tupelo and cut them free with enough appending fibrous roots to support them. Further south he planted the tupelo whips at the lowest point of the property where the hillside leveled out near the fence and water collected after a heavy rain. He bought a bare root bundle of white oak saplings from a land grant college. . .
Gardener – Quercus alba.
Writer – with his own money and planted them as well. He wanted white oaks and tupelos, because they generally grew wider than they grew higher and wouldn’t obscure the views to the river from the higher ground. Because areas were now open to partial sun he added a few native Rhododendrons. . .
Gardener – Rhododendron catawbiense or maximum.
Writer – which he found at certain nurseries with root balls wrapped in burlap. He hoped they’d achieve some size before a full canopy returned to slow their progress. At the end of the season he asked nurseries if they could donate shrubs. They gave him pot bound varieties. . .
Gardener – Roseum Elegans and English Roseum.
Writer – He couldn’t any free arrowwood. . .
Gardener – Viburnum dentatum.
Writer – so he bought one out of his own funds and took softwood cuttings from it, which he stuck in a small frame in his nursery. Because he lacked a mist system like the one in the Tropical House his success rates varied; but over time he was able to propagate enough to create a copse here, a coppice there. He hoped one small black haw. . .
Gardener – Viburnum prunifolium.
Writer – would develop into a thicket one day.
Sometime after Total Power’s man built the house, his wife created a rock garden on the ridge and the first woodland garden. She or her gardener planted wild flowers that had succeeded beneath the vines, clumps of clinton’s lily. . .
Gardener – Clintonia borealis.
Writer – and bellwort. . .
Gardener – Uvalaria grandiflora.
Writer – As these spring ephemerals began dying off he dug up the rhizomes and spread them about. Over the century the bulbs of a tiny blue flower. . .
Gardener – Chionodoxa sardensis.
Writer – glory of the snow, multiplied. By the Gardener’s time it was turning the hillside blue in early spring. When it finished the Gardener raked the fading narrow leaves with their stems of seed pods into piles, then scattered the litter in other areas. In this mulch the seeds germinated. A few years later they flowered. He added bloodroot. . .
Gardener – Sanguinaria canadensis.
Writer – mayapple. . .
Gardener – Podophyllum peltatum.
Writer – trout lily. . .
Gardener – Erythromium americanum.
Writer – After a while, even the people using The Park noticed. True, they were upset at first, when the Gardener removed the vines and trees. They thought he would do the same on their side of the fence. Then they began to notice other things, the increased diversity. But it was the naturalists who were the first to start visiting the woodlands regularly, with their cameras and notepads. They looked for birds, they looked for wild flowers. Where a tumble of brambles had been last year, black cohosh. . .
Gardener – Cimicifuga racemosa.
Writer – goats beard. . .
Gardener – Aruncas dioicus.
Writer – meadow rue. . .
Gardener – Thalictrum polygamum.
Writer – was growing among ferns, some evergreen. . .
Gardener – like Dryopteris marginalis. . .
Writer – the marginal wood fern.
Gardener – Dryopteris goldianna. . .
Writer – goldie’s wood fern for winter interest. Others were deciduous. . .
Gardener – Onoclea sensibilis. . .
Writer – The sensitive fern.
Gardener – Osmunda claytoniana. . .
Writer – the interrupted fern to mention a few. It wasn’t long before the gardeners among the Institution’s visitors, disappointed by the standardized and often mediocre work on the established areas, began drifting down to the woods. They noted the design work, the subtle planting vignettes as well as the more unusual plants, the Trilliums. . .
Gardener – varieties of Trillium lancifolium and recurvatum as well as the unusual underwoodii.
Writer – and the wild lilies. . .
Gardener – Lilium michiganense, canadense, columbianum, catesbaei, grayi, and michauxii.
Writer – Among these visitors were those who brought him plants, a rare orchid, a threatened primula. As the woodland collection grew he was able to reciprocate. One day the Treasurer walked into the woodlands. He’d heard through the grapevine that something magical was happening. He suggested they go to nurseries in the Gardener’s pickup, and he would buy whatever the Gardener wanted. The Gardener told the Treasurer he wanted a few two inch caliper white oaks since those in his nursery were too small, and some white pines. . .
Gardener – Pinus strobus.
Writer – “One day,” he told the Treasurer, “long after we’re gone, these pines will breach the canopy with their flattened heads and replace the old pine, that now grabs the visitor’s eye on a winter’s day.” The Treasurer also bought the Gardener a white
spruce. . .
Gardener – Picea glauca.
Writer – and a black spruce. . .
Gardener – Picea mariana.
Writer – When the large garden clubs arrived in buses they were met at the front gate by envoys from Visitor Services who always sent them to the Visitor’s Center and afterward to the nursery. On the virtual tour on the back wall of the Center there was no mention of the woodlands. Eventually a few of the more adventurous gardeners in one group peeled off from the rest to see the grounds for themselves. After hours of disappointment they discovered the woodlands. They spent hours down there looking for new plants, while the main group searched everywhere for them. When they returned they told their friends they’d stumbled onto a secret garden like those they’d heard about when the Wizard and the Porcelain Man were creating the High Garden. On another occasion after the visiting club was herded down to the nursery, two of their members wandered into the woodlands, intrigued by it’s appearance. On returning they talked of the promised land and swore they would return again.
Then one day the Assistant was shocked to hear one of the interns ask if she could work down in siberia with the Gardener. “That’s where the Gardener is doing time,” he told her, “No one wants to work down there; there’s nothing to gain there; you should concentrate on the high ground which will prepare you for the commercial world.” But she insisted and later others follow. The Assistant, dismayed, went to siberia to see why all these young people wanted to work in that jungle. He was shocked and jealous. The vines were gone, the dead trees somehow removed. It was a young woodlands but highly active. Still he couldn’t admit the Gardener’s success. He ordered him to encourage visitors touring the woodlands to buy plants at the Nursery. The Gardener ignored him.
But today, Spring fills the air with expectation, a carpet of deep blue covers the entire woodland floor. The Gardener has been planting hollies. . .
Gardener – Ilex opaca, our native holly.
Writer – and Eastern cedar. . .
Gardener – Thuja occidentalis.
Writer – on both sides of the fence to hide the chain link. He discussed the idea with the Treasurer, who then paid for them. He can smell the river, the salt mixing with the fresh water. He can see the river in the distance, the water the color of a clamshell inside. The river appears higher than he is. He finishes raking in the soil to form a water ring around the last holly, a male needed to fertilize the other female hollies he planted yesterday. He imagines the red fruit on a winter’s day, snow on the ground. Even the dog walkers and runners will like that! Then he hears the rhythmic beat of a diesel. An enormous tanker glides into view past the trees and vines. It’s riding high, going downriver toward New Drake harbor. It pulls on him, this gliding ship. Beyond it the Great Wall looms, lit by the sun mid morning. Without thinking he throws his rake and spade behind the holly, and starts running toward the river. He’s drawn along, like a kite on a string, following the methodical timing of the giant machine; like a kid, back when his father lived with the family, running toward the edge of something, landing in his arms. The park is thick with willows and norway maples and thickets of mulberry and honeysuckle. The porcelain berry is rampant. He leaps one fallen tree, then another half rotting, stumbles into a gully and is pulled by the sound of the retreating tanker to the other side. He’s standing on the verge of the railroad tracks where the ¾ inch blue stone begins. The tracks stretch north and south and beyond these lines of steel and the hot rails that feed the trains, a stone’s throw away, is the River Slang. The tide must be turning, he thinks, the ocean giving way to the river. The tanker looks like a toy now as it approaches the Bridge binding New Drake to the south end of the Great Wall. He never had time, as a kid, to run off on a whim, like the other kids, chasing dreams in far off places. He longs for something new.
His kids have never known the uncertainty he felt daily when he was their age; they’ve lived in the same place all their lives. And that’s because he became the Gardener and his wife, the Teacher. Now he’s the last gardener from the days of the Wizard. No one else is left. He can say it now, though he couldn’t then, he loved the Pruner of Yews and the Tropical House gardener and the Old Timer. He worked with them for years. The Old Woman told him not to be afraid. She told him he would know what he was meant to do on the day he did it.
He waits until the end of the growing season to announce his departure. Horticulture is upset. He, too, has now seen the progress down in the woodlands and realizes he will lose control again. The Assistant assures him the there are lots of gardeners who want to work down there. Finding a replacement will be easy. Resources informs Horticulture who tells the Gardener “the President will conduct your resignation interview.” “Interview,” asks the Gardener, surprised. He remembers the last time he was in the office, her words and her icy embrace and the cold sweat on his back. Now she is chatting as if everything is fine, as if they are two old friends. “Well,” she says, “now that you are leaving, perhaps I can go too.” He notices the lines under her eyes, the tension in her shoulders. She’s grown old.
Natural equilibrium p. 80