The cover of Christie Purifoy's book Placemaker.

Lessons of Placemaking

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.

If you’d like to read Christie’s book, Placemaker, I’d love to give someone a copy. Just comment below with a story about a place you’ve lived and loved, and next week, I’ll randomly choose one winner to receive this gorgeous book.  

Join us May 18, 2019 for a night of story and song
Also, Christie and Jason Harrod will be here on our farm on May 18th for a night of words and song. The suggested donation is just $20, and the evening starts at 5pm with a potluck supper. The show will begin at 7. I hope you can make it. 


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13 thoughts on “Lessons of Placemaking

  1. I once had a dream about living in a house where the city was in the front yard and the country was in the back. Thirty years ago, my husband and I bought a fixer-upper that faces a busy road with access to grocery stores, the hospital, and the YMCA. Our backyard is adjoined by a little neighborhood and our neighbor graciously allows us access through her backyard. We are still “fixing up,” but it is honestly the best of both worlds! Thanks for sharing with us some of your experiences with your homes!

    1. Oh, the fixing up probably never ends, huh? I love that you got your dream, Denise. Thank you.

  2. I live on a Farm (much newer but still full of challenges) in Palmyra, Virginia. Palmyra Paws and Claws. We rescue dogs and birds and have cats and goats as well. As I approach 60, my days of running a business or using my Literature degree from Tufts University are long over. Now I go with the seasonal flow, rescuing animals and growing much of what we consume. Life is good. Being bored is a concept I can barely imagine. Being immensely blessed is a concept I greatly embrace!

    1. Oh, Ginny, how did I not know you do animal rescue?! That is amazing. . . and I’m with you. . . sometimes I ache to be bored. 🙂

  3. It was a cute house, more like a bungalow. It didn’t start out its life on that corner. It apparently had been moved there many years prior. This would be where we would be starting our lives as newlyweds. We leased the place with an option to buy in hopes that one day it would be ours.

    The yard was a mess, mostly dirt and weeds. It clashed with the rest of the well-manicured yards in this older, quiet neighborhood. We were determined to fix up the place and get it looking respectable. Much to our neighbors’ surprise, we rented a tractor and tilled the entire lot. We worked the dirt by hand for days. We kept pulling freshly uncovered river rocks from the soil. The piles began to grow along with the discouragement. But our vision of a lush, green lawn kept urging us on.

    A few weeks more and the entire yard was leveled and devoid of rocks and dirt clods. A trip to the hardware store netted us a large bag of grass seed and a couple of garden hoses. We spread the seed, used a roller we found at a garage sale, and watered it in. Each day we watered it anticipating the first signs of our new lawn. A couple of weeks later, as I turned onto our street, I could see a soft tinge of green in the front yard. Sure enough, microscopic sprouts of new grass were peeking through.

    By the end of the summer, the yard was well established and looking beautiful for the first time in many years. Our neighbors shared their early skepticism when they saw the young couple move in. But their respect grew as they watched us toil to make our little corner of the neighborhood look better. It became the catalyst for friendships; these young whippersnappers and their retired neighbors.

    We did end up buying the place, and then sold it and moved out of state. Our old neighbors let us know another young couple moved in and they were taking good care of the yard. Many years later we drove by to show the kids our first house. The yard looked as sad and neglected as the day we moved in. Things like that happen. But as we reminisced of the hard work and the lush lawn it produced, we felt the same warm feeling we had back then. We created a better place. We, too, were ‘Placemakers.’

    1. Oh, you did create a better place, Paul. What a beautiful story, beautifully told, too. Thank you.

  4. Where my hubby and I live now is the only place we’ve done much of anything with. It’s been the only place we’ve owned. When my mom passed away in 2011, she left my brother and I some money and in the summer of 2012 a fairly large chunk of my share went into fixing up our backyard. Two sides of the yard – the north edge and the east edge – have a drop-off at our property line with volunteer trees and bushes on the slopes, so it has a bit of an “out in the country” feel to it and lends some privacy to the yard.

    We took out a rotting deck behind the garage and along the north side of the house and put in a large-ish patio done with 12 inch square blocks. There’s a rock garden with a graveled path meandering through it that wraps around the north east corner of the house, connecting the patio behind the garage to a smaller patio at the back south east corner of the house. I bought a new patio set for the larger patio and used the old one that had been on the deck on the smaller patio. Both patios are edged on one side with an open wall made of vertically stacked cinder block columns with a square iron railing running through the top holes. I hang baskets of flowers from the poles. There are potted plants and flowers here and there throughout the area and a metal bench and a bird bath in the rock garden area. There’s a bed of large hostas all along the eastern edge of the rock garden and an old watering trough with day lilies and a plant that I can’t remember the name of in it that the bees and butterflies love by the eastern edge of the small patio.

    It’s a bit of a shambles now as some things have settled at odd angles over the years and I’m not really a very good gardener. The rock garden has become somewhat overgrown with the creeping charlie, wood sorrel, wild strawberries and other bits and bobs that have spread into it from our “lawn,” though we do keep the path cleared. But it is still a lovely, calm and comforting place to spend a day or evening in the late spring, summer and fall. The large patio, which has some nice shade, is one of my favorite places to write.

    1. OH, Pearl, it sounds just beautiful. I love a bit of wild in a garden. And you make me ache for the hanging baskets I want to add to my office this summer. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the lovely post! I’d like to share a story in honor of my mom, who resides as of recently on a beautiful lot in rural Virginia. When I was two, my parents (along with my sister and me) left their lifetime home of Chicago to breathe the fresh air of a 30+ acre farm in northern Minnesota. Though their families, who they were leaving behind, didn’t understand their ambition for such a thing, this sense of adventure and desire for a connected, possibly even subsistence, lifestyle appealed to them. We lived on this farm in Esko for four years, as our family grew from four people to six, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have spent my young childhood years running through fields, hiking through woods, collecting chicken eggs, and tending gardens. My parents cared for this home, but above all its landscape, exactly as you describe; it is uncanny how your story makes me think of them, us, at this time. After running through the fields all day, my mom would patiently pick the thirsty wood ticks off of our dirt-covered bodies in the bath, knowing for certain we’d be basking in the utter freedom we enjoyed in that space the next day, and the one that followed. Many years and six wonderful homes later, my parents have returned to the country, to enjoy the work and art of placemaking.

    1. Oh, lovely, Laura. . . that is the life we dream of for Milo here – dirt and running until he drops. Thank you for sharing that story with me, and perhaps your mom lives near us? If so, come see us next time you’re down.

  6. I loved the Milwaukee of my childhood where the streets were lined with green tunnels of Elm trees that created a cathedral-like effect overhead. Sun streamed through branches pregnant with shiny leaves, and threw color and light in glorious patterns that surpassed the most intricate stained glass window in our parish church. I remember when the Dutch Elm epidemic ravaged Milwaukee. My siblings and I spent hours pulling colored tacks from diseased trees in our innocent attempt to save our beloved trees. We knew nothing of stewardship, but acted in love.

    Thank you for your images and your examples of stewardship.

    1. Oh, Yvonne, my father is a horticulturist and tree-lover big, so Dutch Elm disease and the chesnut blight were things we grew up knowing of. Thanks for sharing that beautiful story with me.

    2. Yvonne, Congratulations! You won the copy of Christie’s book. I”ll email you to get information on how to send it over. 🙂

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