The first farm we owned – south of here in Nelson County, Virginia – was much younger than our current place, younger by like 100 years. But it was still old – 100 years of living in a space changes it. There, the changes weren’t great. The sewer pipes came out right under the back porch. The previous owners had used the hill below the farmhouse as a dump for, maybe, generations. The hillside above the house had been timbered but then never cleaned up, so tree tops were lying everywhere.
In short, it was a mess, and on the days when I spent most of my time outside carefully picking up broken bottles and digging sheets of aluminum foil out of the dirt, I was angry. This place had not been stewarded well.
So we made it our mission to leave it better than when we bought it. We cleaned up all the trash we could, and when our goats arrived, we unleashed them on the underbrush and overgrown pasture so that they could bring it back to health. We did MASSIVE burns – I’m sure you could see them from space – of the felled tree tops and discarded logs, and we dug out the discarded oil cans and car parts that littered the side yard.
In the three years that we called that place home, we cleaned it, landscaped it, and tended it as well as we could. We built a chicken coop and a matching workshop. We added a lean-to with a green roof (and we got married under it). We put in raised beds and fenced out the deer. We planted hollys as a natural screen between our house and the neighbors. We leveled a place in front of the house and added a shade garden with bleeding heart and variegated fern under the silver maple.
The day we sold it, I cried. Hard. But I knew we were making a good move, and most of all, I knew we had done well by that mountain homestead.
In Christie Purifoy’s book Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace*, she tells the stories of all the places she has lived, particularly her settled place – Maplehurt, a century-old farmhouse in southern Pennsylvania. She waxes lyric about the trees she has loved – and reminds me what I really want a deciduous magnolia for our yard, and she laments the amount of time and money it takes to care for a place well.
But most of all, she minds me that placemaking is an honor and a blessed responsibility. To beautify a piece of land or an apartment or a rented house at the back of a farm, that is to do holy work.
“Who are the placemakers? They are the ones who gaze out over emptiness and, sometimes through tears, see shimmering possibility.”— Christie Purifoy
At my first-ever apartment on Second Street in Harrisburg, PA, I built a garden in an nearly-abandoned courtyard behind our building. As far as I could tell, the only use the space got was when the tenants took our garbage out, wanted to smoke, or wanted to sunbathe in privacy.
We didn’t really need the space to be beautiful, honestly, because we lived two blocks from the park that ran the length of the Susquehanna, but I needed to beautify it.
So I asked our landlady if I could mulch it and tend her roses – I knew NOTHING about tending roses but got a lesson from Dad – and I went to work. I carried bags of mulch down the narrow alleyway. I stripped out weeds and seedlings dropped by sparrows. I planted a few flowers along the side of the neighboring building.
It wasn’t much – not what it could have been – but the place looked tended, and soon, I saw people sitting out there to just talk or read. A little seclusion in a busy city.
This spring, my big task is to build – by hand-digging – permanent raised beds in our vegetable garden. This space has been garden for nigh on 200 years. I saw it when we first visited this new farm – I knew it was home instantly – and I have been dreaming that garden into fruition for years. This is the year I make it happen.
I’ll start in the greenhouse, digging out the good soil and piling it to the edges to help with drainage and weed control (The ground ivy is laughing already). Next, I’ll build two center beds, leaving the dug out rows as pathways. Then, I”ll wheelbarrow in the wood chips the tree trimmers have gifted us before I plant some cold crops.
After, the bulk of the garden will get the same treatment. It’s going to be an immense amount of work, and it will mean the sacrifice of lots of other things, especially on weekends when Philip is home to help me wrangle the wild man that is our 9-month-old. It will mean fewer outings, and a lot of hot baths to ease my aching body.
But it will be worth it in every way because this is what it means to be a placemaker. To see the potential in a place and to love it – as best we are able – into being. I can’t wait to begin.