A Walk in the Woods

Peggy Wolff, writer and chef, considers the obsessions of the gardening gang.

I wonder if gardeners like gardening.  I don’t mean my kind, the amateurs but the real gardeners, the dedicated ones.  The seedsmen, the propagators, the plantsmen at the wholesale nursery.  Do they like it or is there some perverse satisfaction when a really hot summer burns up the perennial bed and they have to start over? Do they get a kick out of watching the predators that ruin things beyond belief?  I don’t; it kills me that the deer who feast on the melon-colored buds of the Asiatic lilies I planted don’t even see color but see shades of gray, as do the rabbits that destroyed the pink anemones I tucked below the Japanese maple, a rescue from a home demolition site down the block.

Do we like this?  God knows.  But we’d die before we’d give it up....

One early summer morning I sat in my Jeep at Menoni and Mocogni’s building yard where landscaping materials were for sale—large terracotta squares, sand, boulders, granite blocks, bluestone chips, aged red bricks. The rules were straightforward: weigh your truck in empty on the scale before loading up, then weigh in again with materials. I was about to make a woodland path in my backyard, not a main path, but a side path, for walking down the hill to a picnic table under a canopy of hardwood trees.

By crossing through other woodlands, I knew that paths could blend quietly with a forest scene.   And now I gazed at all the possible components  each in their own stall:  a range of decorative gravel from decomposed granite to red flint pebbles; a mound of pine bark; and beyond that, a dump of concrete as natural-looking rock.  It was a designer’s palette of colors, from brown, paver redand pewter, to something called autumn blend.  I spent an hour raking my fingers through the crushed stone; treading on landscape timbers; fingering the bluish pea gravel, yet knowing that its dry, chalky feel would be no ‘walk in the woods.’ Because my path, or any woodland path, had the power to create a mood, the material was everything.  Cedar bark mulch looked good, it would add a gentle earthy color, but with the Midwest’s heavy spring rains the woodland floor would turn to mud. With each footprint my shoes would be soaked through by the ground water squishing up through the mulch. 

I was getting some wry, quizzical looks from other customers who were real landscape contractors in big trucks. In my little Jeep, I was clearly out of place and overwhelmed by all that I didn’t know.  My bottomless ignorance.  They had the air of knowing what was what. Let them wonder, I thought.  I’m OK, just at the bottom of the garden design pyramid.

I had not plotted the path, had no drawing on paper, nor a clue as to how much to buy.  A Mack truck pulled by and the sight of his flagstones pulled me in.  That was it! I put on my heavy gloves, paced the flagstone bin and, like a foreigner who doesn’t know contractor etiquette, hand-selected the good ones and loaded them into my trunk. 

Judging by the amused but tolerant looks from faces netted with wrinkles, I shouldn’t have been breaking up the flagstone stack.  I should’ve fork-lifted the whole lot.  

I didn’t trade the looks back.  I was done.  I shifted  in my car seat: it was so hot that my shirt felt shellacked to the leatherette. I stared into my rear view mirror at a pickup loaded with patio stones and nodded at the driver. I was struck by his handsomeness.  In my next life, I thought, I will hire this guy.

In line, waiting for the Park District truck to drive off the scale, I flipped through the plastic windows in my wallet.  There was the photo of our son building a sukkah* in the yard, next, the one of our daughter around age nine, a flashcube of happiness holding her harvest of baby carrots in her lap.  What was obvious to others suddenly occurred to me:  I let the garden take over my life.

It wasn’t the $102 bill.  Talk to a gardener, that’s nothing.  The tonnage was worth the trip.

It was the time spinning my mind.  The hours spent looking at books; the paperwork I filed with the State of Illinois for a wholesale buyer’s license; having allowed  my son a sick day from third grade so that he could unpack my Mother’s Day wheelbarrow (some assembly required.) 

We had about a quarter acre of backyard woods, a hundred-year-old hardwood forest of ash, hickory, maple, sumac, and oak. Now, I stared at my blank canvas,  getting a feel for what to let go of, some guts about where to overindulge, and then letting it happen---ideas tumbled, some mad, some insane, others possible.  I still wanted---though I knew it was  impossible---a woodland pond with Peking ducks.  An Amish footbridge rising over rainwater that trickles down the hill.  Sensible people might have let any of these notions of water features pass like a cloudburst but, as the enlightening garden writer Henry Mitchell said, good sense has little to do with gardening.  

Clearly, to shape all this space that hugged the earth and was intended to be passionately lived in, had, without a lengthy self-examination, become something of a curse.

I knew it would take me the entire weekend to get the path right.  First, trucking the stones in a wheelbarrow from the front driveway to the rear yard, then, the puzzle of proportion.

I started to build the path by walking the space myself, moving at a comfortable pace,  treading on black earth. Where each footstep hit the dirt, I marked it with a yellow plastic stake from our tent kit. My pace wasn’t everyone’s, but since I would be the most frequent walker, I decided how fast walkers would move.  There were few fixed rules, but to capture a sense of the woods, it made sense to go slow.

The stones were a good choice: thick, heavy, and slightly convex. They would drain quickly, and in the wet woods, the slightly rounded shape had some texture and roughness to ensure a good grip.

I walked the path a dozen times, up the slope and down, testing out the direction, then the spacing so it didn’t trip me up.  It fit my walk, curving and twisting, right through a patch of wild red trillium that colonized a grassy spot that captured every bit of sunlight that filtered through a slash in the tree canopy above.  

Finally, I could sit to enjoy the garden’s paths and steps, lines on a map I now know by heart. But it didn’t last.  The minute I quieted down, things had a way of telling me to get to work.

There was all that bare earth beside the stones.  What would I settle for?  The smallest clumps of native moss, like the kind from Colorado that liked it wet and dark? Or the one from the east coast that needed a sunny patch of limestone to survive?  Maybe I’d start creeping Jenny groundcover and just watch that it didn’t take over and get too lime bright for my purple and sage taste.   That plant could have embarrassing vigor, giving little hint when it’s planted of the monster it could become.

Do gardeners ever relax in their gardens? I’m clipping the dead blooms, I drift off the path to prune up a distant shrub. Is this the wisdom---or the curse---of keeping our eyes open? 

And so, the garden is never done.  Even a very good garden, a completely satisfying garden---Paradise---had its owner and occupants wanting more.

*The sukkah: 

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot commemorates the 40 day period during which the Jews were wandering in the desert and living in temporary shelters called sukkah. Sukkot is also a harvest festival and to commemerate, Jews again constructed and lived in sukkah, usually built at the edges of the farmers' fields. The festival, coming 5 days after Yom Kippur, is meant to kick off a season of rejoicing. Today, most Jews don't sleep in the booths they construct in their backyards but do take their meals there. The three sided sukkah can be as simple as canvas walls wrapped around aluminum poles, or quilts --even Persian carpets--for side walls. The roof is of a natural product, in its natural state, like tree branches cut from a trunk. Long bamboo poles, laid crosswise, with evergreen branches laid on top make a perfect sukkah: more shade than sun, and a view of the night stars to come through.





Peggy Wolff’s stories on what, where, and with whom people eat have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune's SUNDAY Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, and more. Her new book, Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie, a compilation of food writers on Midwestern Food, comes out in November 2013.