The Story of a Garden by Mabel Osgood Wright (1859-1934)
There is a garden that is not like the other gardens round about. In many of these gardens the flowers are only prisoners, forced to weave carpets on the changeless turf, and when the eye is sated and the impression palls, they become to their owners, who have no part in them, merely purchased episodes.
This garden that I know has a bit of green, a space of flowers, and a stretch of wildness, as Bacon says a garden should always have. At its birth the twelve months each gave to it a gift, that it might always yield an offering to the year, and presently it grew so lovable that there came to it a soul.
The song-sparrow knows that this is so; the mottled owl that lives in the hollow sassafras has told it to the night-hawk. Catbirds and robins, routed from other gardens by fusillades, still their quick-throbbing hearts, feeling its protection. The coward crow alone knows its exclusion, for he was unhoused from the tall pines and banished for fratricide. The purling bluebird, claiming the pole-top house as an ancestral bequest, repeats the story every springtime. The oriole and swallow whisper of it in their southward course, and, returning, bring with them willing colonists.
The rock polypody creeps along in confidence, with no ruthless hand to strip it off, and the first hepatica opens its eyes in safety, for tongues of flame or the grub-axe have not crippled it during the winter. Once the petted garden beauties looked askance, from their smooth beds in the tilled corner, and drew their skirts away from the wildwood company, but now, each receiving according to its need, they live in perfect concord.
The wild rose in the chinky wall peeps shyly at her glowing sisters, and the goldenrod bows over it to gossip with the pentstemon. And this is how it came to be, for the garden was no haphazard accident. Nature began it, and, following her master-touch, the hand and brain of a man, impelled by a reverent purpose, evolved its shaping.
This man, even when a little boy, had felt the potency of Nature’s touch to soothe the heartache. One day, led by an older mate, he trudged a weary way to see a robber hanged. The child, not realizing the scene he was to witness, was shocked to nervous frenzy, and a pitying bystander, thinking to divert his mind, gave him a shilling. Spying a bird pedlar in the crowd, he bought a goldfinch and a pint of seeds, and the horror of the hanging was quite forgotten and effaced by the little bird, his first possession. To it he gave his confidence and told all his small griefs and joys, and through the bird Nature laid her warm hand on his heart and gently drew it toward their mutual Master, and never after did he forget her consolation.
All this was more than seventy years ago. When the boy grew to manhood; following the student life, the spirit of the bird that had blotted out the scene of civil murder was still with him. Its song kept his thoughts single and led him toward green fields, that their breath might leaven lifeless things, strengthening the heart that felt a world-weariness, as all must feel at times when facing human limitations.
Love came, and home; then, following hand in hand, honour and disappointment; and again, with double purpose, he turned Natureward. Not to the goatish Pan, but to Nature’s motherhood, to find a shrine upon her breast where he might keep his holiest thoughts, and watch them grow. A place apart, where the complete man might be at rest, and walking in the cool of day feel the peace of God.
At first the garden was a formless bit of waste, but Nature tangles things with a motive, and it was in the making that it came to win a soul, for the man’s spirit grew so calm and strong that it gave its overplus to what it wrought.
The garden’s growth was nowhere warped or stunted by tradition; there was no touch of custom’s bondage to urge this or that. No rudeness had despoiled its primal wildness, and lovers, who had trodden paths under the trees, were its sole discoverers. It was rock-fenced and briar-guarded; the sharp shadows of the cedars dialled the hours, and the ground-pine felt its darkened way beneath them with groping fingers.
This happened before I was, but hearing of it often, sound has imparted its sense to sight, and it all seems visual. With my first consciousness, the days were fined with planting and with growth; the pines already hid the walls, and cattle tracks were widened into paths and wound among young maples, elms, and beeches. Then there grew in me a love that made the four garden walls seem like the boundaries of the world.
Nothing was troubled but to free it from the oppression of some other thing. The sparrow kept his bush, and between him and the hawkheadsman a hand was raised. The wood thrush, finding his haunts untouched, but that his enemies, the black snakes, might no longer boldly engulf his nestlings, raised his dear voice and sang “O Jubilate Deo!” The gardener who planted no longer watches the bird’s flight, but the garden still tells its story. Will you come in? The gate is never dosed except to violence.
Eight acres of rolling ground, and in the centre a plainly cheerful house decides the point of view. The location of a house much affects the inmates; here sunshine penetrates every room and a free current of air sweeps all about, and there is a well of sparkling water close at hand. This well is rock-drilled, deep and cold, and the patron divinity of all good wells, the north star, watches over it, and nightly Ursa Major’s dipper circles above, as if offering a cooling draught to all the constellations.
For a space about the house the grass is cropped, and some plump beds of geraniums, Fuchsias, heliotropes, serve to grade the eye from indoor precision, to rest the vision before the trees and moving birds compel it to investigation. However much natural wildness may soothe and satisfy, the home is wholly a thing of man’s making, and he may gather about it the growing things that need his constant ministry. The sight of such an open space gives the birds more confidence, and the worm enemies that always follow cultivation offer them a change of food.
The old queen-apple tree that casts its petals every May against the window-panes, like snow blushing at its own boldness, held many nests last spring. A bluebird spied a knot-hole where decay had left him an easy task; a pair of yellow warblers, with cinnamon-streaked breasts, fastened their tiny cup between a forked branch above the range of sight. For several days I watched these birds, fluttering about the window corners where cobwebs cling and spiders weave, and thought they searched for food, until, following the yellow flash they made among the leaves, I saw that they were building; and when I secured the empty nest in August, it proved to be a dainty thing woven of dry grass, the down of dandelions, cocoons, and cobwebs.
A robin raised two broods, building a new nest for the second, as the first one was too near the path to suit his partner’s nerves. He spent his days in prying earth-worms from the lawn, singing at dawn and twilight so deliciously that he furnished one more proof that bird voices, even of the same species, have individual powers of expression, like those of men.
The fourth bird to build, a red-eyed vireo, was quite shy at first, yet hung the nest over the path, so that when I passed to and fro her ruby eyes were on a level with me. After the eggs were laid, she allowed me to bend down the branch, and a few days later, to smooth her head gently with my finger. A chipping sparrow added his wee nest to the collection, watching the horses as they passed, timidly craving a hair from each, and finally securing a tuft from an old mattress, with which he lined his home to his complete content.
If you would keep the wild birds in your garden, you must exclude from it four things: English sparrows, the usual gardeners, cats, and firearms. These sparrows, even if not belligerent, are antagonistic to song birds, and brawl too much; a cat of course, being a cat, carries its own condemnation; a gun aimed even at a target brings terror into bird-land; and a gardener, of the type that mostly bear the name, is a sort of bogyman, as much to Nature-lovers as to the birds. The gardener wishes this, orders that, is rigid in point of rights and etiquette, and looks with scarcely veiled contempt at all wild things, flowers, birds, trees; would scrape away the soft pine needles from the footpaths and scatter stone dust in their place, or else rough, glaring pebbles. He would drive away the songsters with small shot, his one idea of a proper garden bird being a china peacock.
It is, of course, sadly true, that cherries, strawberries, grapes, and hungry birds cannot meet with safety to the fruit, but we should not therefore emulate the men of Killingworth. We may buy from a neighbouring farmer, for a little money, all the fruit we lack, but who for untold gold can fill the hedge with friendly birds, if once we grieve or frighten them away?
You may grow, however, tender peas in plenty, and all the vegetables that must go direct from earth to table to preserve their flavour; only remember when you plant the lettuce out, to dedicate every fourth head to the wild rabbits, who, even while you plant, are twitching their tawny ears under the bushes, and then you will suffer no disappointment. Once in a time a gardener-naturalist may drift to you, and your garden will then entertain a kindred spirit. Such a man came to this garden, a young Dane, full of northern legend and sentiment, recognizing through rough and varied work the motive of the place, –like drawing like; and with him, a blonde-haired, laughing wife, and a wee daughter called Zinnia, for the gay flowers, and he found time to steal among the trees in the June dawns to share in the bird’s raptures, making his life in living.
It is a drowsy August afternoon; the birds are quiet, and the locusts express the heat by their intonation. The Japan lilies, in the border back of the house, are densely sweet, the geraniums mockingly red, and the lemon-verbena bushes are drooping. The smooth grass and trim edges stop before an arch that spans the path, and about it shrubs straggle, grouping around a tall ash. This ash, a veritable lodestone to the birds, is on the borderland of the wild and cultivated, and they regard it as the Mussulman does his minaret, repairing there to do homage. Before the leaves appear the wood thrush takes the topmost branch to sing his matins, as if, by doing so, he might, before his neighbours, give the sun greeting.
The robins light on it, en route, when they fear that their thefts in other gardens will find them out, and the polite cedar-birds, smoothing each other’s feathers, sun themselves in it daily before the flocks break into pairs. Upon the other side, a hospitable dogwood spreads itself, a goodly thing from spring till frost, and from it spireas, Deutzias, weigelas, lilacs, the flowering quince, and strawberry shrub, follow the path that winds under the arch, past mats of ferns and laurel, to a tilled corner, a little inner garden, where plants are nursed and petted, and no shading tree or greedy root robs them of sun or nourishment.
Along the path between the pines, the black leaf mould of the woods has been strewn freely. The fern tribe is prolific in this neighbourhood, and a five-mile circuit encloses some twenty species, most of which may be transplanted, if you keep in mind their special needs. This spot is cool and shady, but the soil is dry from careful drainage. The aspidiums flourish well; A. acrostichoides, of two varieties, better known as the Christmas fern, with heavy varnished fronds, A. marginàle, with pinnate, dull-green fronds, A. cristatum, almost doubly pinnate and with them the fragrant Dicksonia punctilobula, whose straw-coloured lace carpets the autumn woods with sunlight, and the black-stemmed maidenhair grows larger every year, rearing its curving fronds two feet or more.
What endless possibilities creep into the garden with every barrow of wood earth! How many surprises cling about the roots of the plant you hope to transfer uninjured from its home! Bring a tuft of ferns, lo! There springs up a dozen unseen things – a pad of partridge vine, an umber of ginseng, a wind flower; in another year the round leaves of the pyrola may appear and promenade in pairs and trios quite at their ease, until the fern bed becomes a constant mystery. For many years some slow awaking seeds will germinate, the rarer violets, perhaps an orchid.
I brought a mat of club moss, with a good lump of earth, as was my habit, from the distant woods. Several years after, happening to stop to clear away some dead branches, I started in surprise, for enthroned in the centre of the moss, a very queen, was a dark pink cypripedium, the Indian moccasin. It is an orchid very shy of transposition, seldom living over the second season after its removal, seeming to grieve for its native home with the fatal Heimweh, so that the seed must have come with the moss and done its growing in the fern nook.
“TheStory of a Garden” first appeared in The Friendship of Nature: A New England Chronicle of Birds and Flowers, by Mabel Osgood Wright (Macmillan, 1894).