An Ordinary, Magical Property

I should start by saying that, as suburban properties go, mine is pretty average by mainstream standards. Located in a well-established, nearly century-old neighborhood (and signed by the developer!), I have roughly 1/10 of an acre sloping both from side to side and from front to back. Without a garage or driveway of my own – but with the far end of my backyard bracketed by my neighbors’ garages – and with bamboo screening off my neighbor to the back, the space is enclosed and very secluded-feeling.

Fairies at the bottom of the garden? Blackberries and a young catalpha tree
Fairies at the bottom of the garden? Lilies, roses, chokecherries, blackberries and a young catalpha tree front the bamboo forest

But even before permaculture visions started dancing in my head – long before this was even my property, back when I was a child and the neighborhood’s honorary grandparents lived here – these gardens were one of my favorite playspaces. I found secret paths through the bamboo, and Uncle Leroy had muscled large stones into the hill at the back of the yard to make a rough and thrilling staircase bounded by Aunt Ruth’s gorgeous orange daylilies. In the nearby gardens grew peonies, iris, carnations, lilies of the valley, and the magical rosebush that had grown from a boutonniere rose Uncle Walter stuck into the ground after his sister’s wedding.

While I never actually saw fairies at the bottom of the garden, I always had the feeling that they might be there….

When I moved in with my husband, son, and stepson after Aunt Ruth’s passing, I had an overwhelming sense of homecoming. I planted peonies in Aunt Ruth’s honor all through the front gardens, created a rain garden of iris, and tucked my transplanted herb garden in among the stones of the hill; my husband and I pounded fenceposts through hard-packed clay to enclose our vegetable garden.

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The Pipe and its spillway

And that was the year we discovered The Pipe. Roughly a foot in diameter, made of metallic-glazed terra-cotta, it jutted out of our uphill neighbors’ garage, with a spillway leading down to a corresponding pipe that dove beneath the lawn. Directly across the yard, another spillway and pipe led beneath our downhill neighbors’ garage. It seemed to function mainly as a hidey-hole for the neighborhood cats – a large white and black-spotted queen and her three Siamese-mix kittens we named Scoot, Scout, and Skedaddle.

It wasn’t until the spring rains of the next year that we saw the reason for the pipe: water pouring out into its underground twin, popping up briefly at the base of the stone steps, and then diving back underground to continue its trip across the yard. It was a curiosity at the time, no more; we figured it probably carried runoff from the houses up the street.

We figured the same for the weep-holes in the wall that bounded our uphill neighbors’ driveway. When the runoff pooled in the side yard with the water from our downspout, my husband dug a French drain at the foot of the wall, where it filled and reflected leaves and sky after every rainstorm.

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Tiny, tart wild grapes grow on the vines trailing through the bamboo.

Meanwhile the backyard blossomed and thrived. Honoring my husband’s spiritual walk as a Sun Dancer in Lakota tradition, we welcomed volunteer chokecherry trees and planted a cottonwood to rustle in the breeze outside his office window. We experimented with new veggie crops and composting. I planted dwarf arborvitae bushes for their sacred cleansing properties, and the dreaming herb mugwort to border a meditation circle in the secluded north corner. My stepson harvested grape leaves from the vines trailing through the bamboo, and served them wrapped Greek-style around rice and sausage, and my son learned a wicked-fast badminton serve over a net strung across the yard.

Times changed: first my stepson, then my son went off to college. I came home to work after a brief and frightening health scare. My husband collapsed with heart disease and died nine months later. Suddenly single, with the kids grown and on their own, my copy writing business committed to green and sustainable businesses, I looked to the land for comfort. Pursuing my Master’s in Applied Healing Arts at (then) Tai Sophia Institute, I took an Independent Study in Creation Spirituality under theologian Matthew Fox‘s direction and earned my Permaculture Design Certification in Starhawk’s Earth Activist Training….

And began to look with “permaculture eyes” at my own property.

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