When the fates intervened and a public works project changed the water table in the 70s, draining my Aunt's beloved swamp, the howl echoed all the way down to South Florida, where my family was living. Summers brought us up to Magnolia Springs to stay a week or two. One day was always set aside for a visit to Mobile, to eat chicken and peach ice-cream with my terrifying great aunt Edyth, easygoing uncle Bob, at the place I pictured in Sunday school as paradise before the fall.
Back then, our car had no air-conditioner, and to spare mom's careful hairstyle we barely cracked the windows. Released after the hellish hour's drive to west Mobile, we children flew down the hill to the swamp's blessed damp shade.
We had no idea of the hours spent planting, pruning, weeding, laying brick paths through the woods and wouldn't have cared if we did. Three small, magical arched stone bridges spanning the now-dry stream beds drew us us into a winding, dizzy loop.The whole lot's only a third of an acre, but it was big enough for three barefoot children to become repeatedly, deliciously lost. Then, separated from my brothers, I'd round a curve and spy a familiar tree, regain my bearings.
Later, back home in the scrubby pine woods near our house, I'd imagine making a garden like that. And I did try: I sifted chunks of coral rock from the meager soil of our vegetable patch and laid them in a snaky white trail along paths the neighborhood kids beat between palmetto thickets. Then I made a tree house of sorts--a scrap of plywood wedged up into a creaky bottlebrush tree where I could survey my work.
Everything looks better from a distance is the lesson I absorbed that day. Everything: village squares in Mexico, labyrinths of grass and stream at Pascagoula, other people's lives, memories, the view from the deck of that battered paradise that is now my yard. I watch from up high until I gather the will to go down and see the mess up close. It's been neglected these past six months. Never beyond hope, I told myself all winter, it was worse than I'd imagined.
This spring a young friend and I are enjoying the fantasy of rescuing the yard. And I think it is returning the favor. We remove cherry laurel and oak seedlings, and the suffocating mats of leaves produced by vines of too many kinds. We uncover fuchsia, coral and violet. We agree we hate to see a big Indian azalea checked by more than a snip here and there to remove dead limbs and poodle-tops. We curse those who would 'cube' an azalea.
Pete acknowledges the garden's one aging Japanese maple, then tells me I really need some more. He shows me where they should go. He's uncovered a mossy Buddha, Quan Yin, St. Francis and a broken concrete cat. He has perceived my aunt's somewhat Asian, ecumenical vision for the garden and thinks it's a shame these trees are missing.
The plant sale at the botanical gardens is this weekend. It's better to plant trees in fall, but I resolve to stay closer to the chaos this year, and thanks to my new irrigation line, I will be sure they are watered and survive the summer. I will see the new trees through the heat to come. I will also enjoy the view of their red leaves from my windows.