First, this was just a steep hillside, shallow-rooted Douglas fir clinging to its slope, towering over fern fronds, over leathery salal with its pink porcelain blossoms.
That’s what it must have been, though when I saw it first it was only driveway, a harshly flattened ledge cut out of the weeping clay. A gravel stream that parted at one end of the shoebox house and ran on either side – hardly more than an easy toss from the kitchen windows on the upper side, and barely an arm’s length from the downstairs windows on the lower.
The driveway debouched near the top of a gravel road, right where nosy drivers realized they were hitting the dead end. That driveway, wide and bare, obviously looped around the house so that sitting at breakfast in one’s skivvies was always a perilous enterprise – any moment you might hear the crunch of tires on the gravel and then strangers peering in the windows at our sloshed bowls of cheerios.
Nothing grew on the weeping clay cliff above the driveway. In wet season it perpetually dripped a reddish slime, in dry season it hardened into something more rocklike than earthy. Plants – jasmine vine, honeysuckle, anything – no matter how hardy, how stubborn, no matter how much I hacked a hole for them and watered assiduously through the dry season – they all turned up their toes and blackened into slime. The soil was slimy itself and the air smelled rotten and lifeless. No birds sang anywhere nearby.
Until the third year – when suddenly weeds grew and grass: the superabundance of herbicides applied by previous owners I can only imagine having finally lost their tyrannical grip. Now the weeping clay became soft grass which became weedy grass and dried into shaggy heaps of yellow grass. And then came arcing spurts of thorny blackberry.
And still the unexpected tires crunched at breakfast time, or friends pulled right up to the door, right outside the big kitchen window as we sat sloppily at spaghetti. Fishbowl to anyone who had a car. They could catch us either side of the house like the howler monkey exhibit at the zoo.
And so gravel was scraped away. Rocks built up to ease the weeping slope.
It was still not a garden.
But something like the sketchy dream of a garden. I drew circles on the ripening soil with flour, planted rocks around the edges, and laid out tiny shrublets and baby perennials . . .
After a summer and winter and wet spring of raking and weeding and digging and planting and imagining, starts began to spread to their full size.
A long summer, hacking out the compacted clay beneath the gravel, then new gravel laid. Then raked away as unwalkable. Then a crazy-quilt of limestone laid out over a hard-packed sand bed for a footpath.
And then, before leaves fell from the big-leaf maple, suddenly it was a garden . . .
And more and more a garden every year. Overgrowing plants I dug out and moved further along the bank as everything filled in. Birds came back and the air rather than smelling like rot and muck began to smell spicy and dazed with sweetness.
And this became a garden.
But not forever.