I can clearly see my house, or the beginnings of my house, in the far background of a 1903 postcard of the First Christian Church in Berryville, located over on east Church Street. In 1903, my house was a small white box sitting on a bit of treeless ground. The ground looks like an over-grazed pasture and there are bumps and rocky hiccups thrown across it. It's was a bit of a mess back then--and it is still a bit of a mess today, but for different reasons.
In the middle distance there is a long stone wall running between the house and what looks like a chicken coop or small hog house. It is late autumn or winter and the postcard is black and white and both the house and church look barren and New Englandy. I suspect Robert Frost would have written something a bit stern about it if he were looking at it.
Today, a hundred and ten years later, the house is the color of a burnished cranberry and is surrounded by a high wooden fence. Previous owners added rooms and additions and a couple of dormers that dimly admit light for a few minutes each day when the sun is just so. Despite the money poured into it the house it is still as disheveled as a hangover. It is also sinking far more rapidly into the ground than I like. Yet...there is no place like home.
From the southwest corner of my back yard I can see the First Christian Church. Between my house and the church is a row of mostly abandoned shacks, another, newer house across the street from the shacks, and then a line of trees. Finally, we arrive at the church yard and the Church. The entire distance is maybe the length of a football field.
In 1903, Berryville was barely fifty years old. Earlier, some folks had arrived and had built a pretty good town, but it got burned down--I am told--by both the Confederates and Yankees. I guess they took turns. The author Donald Harington intimately details the salient characteristics of these early settlers in his fine novel, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (Tao Tao). If you read this book it will help you understand why things work the way they do around here.
Although the history of my house and the Church is interesting to me, what has caught my attention in the postcard is the empty space lying between the two. In the early postcard it is open space where members of the FCC parked their buggies and horses during services. Sometime in the1940s or '50s the yet to be shacks filled in some of the empty space. Then, in the 70s', the house across the street from the by then emerging shacks was built and reduced the emptiness even further. Trees behind the '70s house eroded the emptiness even more. Each year the emptiness of the hundred yard canvass was filled in.
Five years ago, I joined a group and planted a community garden in the space flowing out of the tree line and into the emptiness behind the Church. I've written about it here before, and on some sustainable agricultural blogs originating in the Upper Midwest. The garden is a typical Arkansas garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, some corn, some beans. The big excitement is provided by three lengthy beds planted in annual flowers; these flowers were spectacular and the vegetables were no better or worse than any others grown in the area. Members donate the excess to Loaves and Fishes and can and freeze the balance.
Plans for this year have been delayed by all the cold weather and, while lettuce and potatoes and beets are in the ground, it looks like it will be at least another 10 days before we get much else planted. We are really eager for spring.
Whether our plans for the garden work out or not depends on a lot of things, including the will to carry the plans forward, the weather, and so on: the community gardeners feel confident and optimistic, but life often throws up a few road blocks. In the mean time, the poet Alexander Pope seemed to have the best understanding of what it is we gardeners do with space, empty or otherwise:
Consult the Genius of the place in all
That tells the waters to rise or fall
Or helps the ambitious hill to the heavens scale
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale
Calls in the country, catches opening glades
Joins willing woods and varies shades from shades
Now breaks, or now directs the intending lines
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs.
The Genius of the place will certainly be consulted as the garden goes through its paces, its cycles, and through the months ahead of it. Like most gardeners, I can hardly wait to get going and, wet or dry, I'm confident that we'll all get in on the harvest.