I grew up in Brooklyn in an area defined by the brick of the houses and the gray concrete of the ground. The concrete sidewalks had slightly different textures depending on the amount of pebbles that were in the mix. Some of the concrete blocks were broken. I avoided walking on those since kids in my class had told me that if you step on a crack you’d break your mother’s back. That thought scared me.
There were a lot of fences I could run my hand along each day as I walked the 5 blocks to elementary school. The fences were mostly made of metal. Some had diamond-shaped patterns with sharp twisted points all along the top. Others were evenly spaced black metal spikes that were like the ones I saw in the killing traps in the Tarzan movies.
My favorite summer vacation getaway was to stay with my Uncle Teddy who lived in the country. The 4-hour drive to Schenectady always filled me with happiness in anticipation of seeing him again. Seeing his smile. Getting his hugs That excitement almost made my miserable car sickness worth it.
Uncle Teddy had no sidewalks in his neighborhood. You walked on grass to go places. There were no fences around the homes except for some cute short white wooden ones. There were no barriers between the neighbor’s houses.
One day shortly after arriving for vacation I was standing behind my uncle’s house in the woods. I noticed that if I pulled I could peel off sheets of this white stuff that surrounded the trunk of some of the trees. Some were thicker than others, some more nubbly with brown streaks. I’d never seen trees like this before. It was interesting to me. It felt good.
Uncle Teddy briskly came out of his house and I could tell he was not pleased at all. “Why are you peeling the birch tree”, he asked in a tone of voice he’d never before used with me. I just shrugged my shoulders & said it was fun to do. He told me that I was hurting the tree by taking off its skin, that the tree needed it’s covering to stay alive. The white I was peeling was the bark of the tree and it needed it to breathe.
I was shaken to the bone. I began to cry. Not because of him being angry but at the thought that I was hurting something that was living. For me, it was the Wizard of Oz moment when everything turned to color.
The garden came alive instantly for me. The grass was alive. The leaves were alive. The flowers were alive too. It was a magical world just opening for me. I followed Uncle Teddy around every day that vacation listening to him teach me. We planted 4 o’clock seeds and gladiolas. We raked and fertilized and trimmed and mowed together. That’s the summer I became a gardener.
I have spent my entire life since that summer learning about the garden. What grows the best in my area, with the climate I have, the winter and summer temperature cycles, the amount of sunshine and shade, the type of soil and the chemistry needed for my plants to thrive? What is the life cycle of the flowers, plants, trees and shrubs in my garden, is it a day, a season, a year? How can I grow responsibly and with respect for our environment? What plants encourage a community of pollinators to thrive and improve everyone’s lives? After all who doesn’t like butterflies!
I became an artist. But my art starts in the garden. I create paintings to express the infinite possibilities, the optimism and the happiness that comes from tending the earth. The garden teaches me daily the complexities and the interconnectedness of every living thing surrounding us. The garden is humbling. I share my garden through my art.
The birch tree planted in my woodland garden is a daily reminder of my Uncle Teddy. He, with his kindness and generosity, transformed my life by introducing me to the world of nature when I was just a little girl.