• Otter Views: Farewell to the garden

    My brother Mike’s birthday falls at the front end of September; mine at the back. We customarily meet at some calendar mid-point for a commemorative meal, some football viewing and a few laughs.

    I usually drive up to the place he rents near Mill Valley. It’s an old ranch homestead from the 1930s, probably the last one standing of that vintage. The homestead still has its three original acres, a hand-made wooden house with a stone fireplace, and several rickety outbuildings. Mike calls the place “Happy Acres.”

    Ringed by “widow maker” eucalyptus trees as lofty as ship’s masts, the homestead slopes down a brushy ridge above Tennessee Valley. A cool Pacific wind blows through the trees at all hours, rattling the leaves like castanets. Snaking through bay trees and California oaks, Highway One switchbacks past on its way to Muir Beach.

    Mike’s resourcefulness and the absentee owners’ fondness for the old homestead have enabled my brother to live there since 1974 on a handshake rental agreement. Having lived in 20 different places over that same period, I’m always amazed at how little Mike’s hillside world changes over time. It’s like a perpetual snow globe of eucalyptus leaves.

    Before I drove up there last Saturday, though, he called and prepped me for one change. “I had to let the garden go,” he said. “In my dodgy physical condition, I just couldn’t keep up with it anymore.”

    The news saddened me, but I wasn’t surprised. Heart problems have slowed Mike over the past couple of years, and the garden was a heavy workout even in the best of times.

    “I understand,” I said. “You need to look after your health. You can’t be bucking a tiller, weeding brassica beds, patching the greenhouse and shoveling horse pucky into wind rows all day.”

    “True. But what golden memories I’ll have of all that.”

    Indeed, if a garden can be a repository for memories, that one certainly was, or is. The garden’s still there, but it’s quickly losing definition as scotch broom and native grasses overrun the beds where produce, berries and flowers once dwelt.

    In its glory, probably around year 25, the garden occupied 10,000 square feet of rich, soft, well-worked soil on a sunny flat near the bottom of the three-acre slope. Ten-foot high fencing and a rickety gate safeguarded it from deer unless someone forgot to latch the gate. Then the deer ate very well.

    The garden expanded incrementally over the decades, adding planting beds, crop rows, berry trellises and fruit trees as time and energy allowed. Mike did much of this by himself. But when other renters or visiting brothers could be pressed into service, new features could be added.

    Around year 20, during one of my stays at Happy Acres, the tomatoes and peppers got their own greenhouse. This was a big swaybacked structure framed from salvaged lumber and old sash windows. The roof was visqueen plastic as tough as elephant toenails.

    The greenhouse was funky-looking even when new, but it worked. On the coldest, grayest, stormiest winter days, the tomatoes and peppers basked in 90 degree humidity. It was Miami in Marin. One garden helper set up a lawn chair and a portable radio in there.

    As of last weekend, the greenhouse still stood, but years of punishment by the elements had popped some seams. Several windows sagged out of true, and the visqueen flapped like a ghost ship’s sails. Tomatoes, peppers and lawn chair were gone, and gangster blackberries were busting through the walls. It looked like entropy in action.

    Armed with his trusty seed catalogues, soil amendments and garden tools, Mike long held entropy and blackberries at bay. On any summer evening of any given year, he could tote to his kitchen a wicker basket full of ripe apples, peaches, plums and pears; root crops, row crops and vine crops; herbs, berries, and cut flowers. Once I counted nine potato varieties in the same harvest.

    When his health and bull-like strength declined, Mike recruited helpers to keep the venture going. The selling point was organic soil that had been worked, composted, mulched, tilled, sifted, worm-casted, fortified and pampered for three decades. The helpers divvied the plots into a sort of community garden, and the harvest continued.

    But while Happy Acres maintained its snow globe status quo, those same decades saw the surrounding neighborhood gentrify as dot-com millionaires built showy hillside mansions. Trophy wives in glossy Land Rovers looked askance at the gardeners’ dusty jalopies. At length, the gardeners and the garden succumbed to entropy.

    Perhaps out of respect, Mike and I didn’t speak of this over the weekend. But before I left Monday, I said my own farewell to the garden. It had a long and beautiful run.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 12, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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