The connection we as human beings have with "place" is deeply ingrained in us, even with nomadic peoples who tend to revisit special places in their wanderings over and over again. To be removed from a special place can be highly traumatic and emotionally disorienting.To have a special place forever changed or destroyed can be heartbreaking.
It is not just that we make a connection with "place" as in a particular geographical space filled with its various accoutrements.These spaces are also like containers holding the richest memories of our own lives, and of our dearest loved ones.
I miss our house in Greensboro. Divorce rips one or another person from a special place, and changes that space for the ones who remain. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine walking around the yard there, touching the bark of the two large river birch trees I planted with my kid's enthusiastic help, or looking into the crab apple in which we all loved to climb and hang out. It was often home base in tag. And then there were those intense crab apple wars once a year. In my day dream I walk fifty feet over and touch the silver maple whose limbs and roots I constantly pruned to give light to the vegetable garden, and from whose lowest limb we all jumped into the huge pile of leaves each fall. I think of the dead area of grass that we tended to kill each year playing hot box, and the route around the perimeter of the trees and inside the fence that was our own home-grown race track for running or biking. I miss that place.
Many people carry such memories of their childhood homes which have been sold and are now owned by other people and other families. But some people, and a goodly number of folks I work for, have moved into family homes after parents or grandparents have passed away.
There is one place I work in which the family lives in the former home of the mom's parents. It is hard to be there without thinking of this mom, now herself a parent of grown kids, as a little girl running around the American holly trees or climbing up the very big magnolia, or just following her mom around their wonderful garden.
Many yards and gardens have special areas set aside where beloved pets have been buried. And in some cases there is a tree planted in remembrance of a parent or a grandparent who has passed away, or (and it is hard even to think about) in remembrance of a lost child. Needless to say those spaces are like holy ground.
At one place I work the young couple has moved into the husband's grandparent's house. In this case the grandfather was the gardener, and a good one at that. His plants still line the house. It is such a blessing to me to see how his memory is revered in the way the plants are treated. They aren't just plants. They are pieces of family history. They are connections to a loved one. In some ways hard to understand, they are like the very presence of the loved one in the here and now.
Sometimes, and all too quickly here in humid subtropical Columbia, a special place becomes overrun by volunteer trees and vines. Order has been taken over by the forces of chaos. Whereas the owners once had the time or energy to keep the chaos at bay, they do not any longer. And what used to be a special place of comfort and beauty is now just overwhelming. Too much is wrong to enjoy it - the azaleas are swamped by grape vines; cherry laurel and hackberry and oak trees are pushing through all the shrubs; ivy is taking over everything. The space which was once a refuge is now a source of great anxiety and disorientation. Rather than face the angst of it all, one just retreats into the house. In such a retreat a special place for all practical purposes is lost.
Though I am a gardener by trade it seems sometimes that my job is really to reduce stress and anxiety and restore just a little bit to a person's heart and mind of a sense of order and beauty instead of the chaos and growing ugliness of jungle. I call what I do garden restoration, but it is more psychic restoration. It's not so much about plants really, but about people.
I have seen older folks, people I now consider to be special friends, find at least for a time in their later years new purpose and enjoyment of life in being able to be back in their special places. Sometimes these friend enjoy doing actual gardening again. I have had the joy of watching strength return, color, and vigor. Gardening is great exercise Other times I get to see a friend just sitting and enjoying their space and all its inhabitants again, not just the plants and flowers but the birds and butterflies and Carolina anole lizards which are oh so easy to love. It is such an honor to have been part of that experience.
Yards or gardens have a special power of orientation for people in the early stages of dementia. There is the familiarity of course, but the touch and feel and smell of a garden evokes special memories and keeps the person's mental map more grounded in the important things of their lives. Aromas have a special power for evoking memory. I have written about tea olives and how, no matter how often I smell them, or where I am when I smell them, my grandmother Nanny is right there in my mind. One day when I am old, and my mind is fading, I hope there will be a tea olive nearby to bring Nanny to my memory.
Some people cannot, of course, move into their parent's houses. One good reason may be that their parents are still living! But many people take with them garden mementos - a young crape myrtle, seeds from the four o'clocks, a rose of Sharon, or day lilies and irises. These plants then provide a tangible connection between generations. One person I work for has had a transplanted crape myrtle and althea both be so successful that they are intertwined and in competition. Normally one would need to go . . . but it is hard to do. I think those plants will likely intertwine for years to come.
I have worked for a dear person fighting advanced cancer who, rather than completely retreat into her suffering, decided to turn her yard, long neglected due to sickness and surgeries, into the beautiful place it once was, so that she could enjoy it again in her last days. It was a big project, a physically demanding one, but oh what reverence, what purpose, what holiness attended it.
I want to close with a word to young people establishing themselves in new homes. Life is busy and stressful, and it is easy to treat the yard as window dressing. Plant some trees, set aside a place for growing flowers or vegetables you love; if you have children give them opportunity to help you. The time, the sweat, the camaraderie, all are building memories for you and for your children. They are ingraining affection. One day that tree will be a treasure, and the affection you have for a special flower or plant will follow you all of your days.
And as for me, in light of changes in my own circumstances, I am grateful that I can somehow spontaneously embrace the words of the Apostle Paul who said, "All things are ours." I may not have "place" in the way I have had it before, but somehow, some way, my own need for attachment to place is met substantially through the special places of my city and my state, and yes, also even all those wonderful gardens in which I work. I do not own them for sure. But I am given affection and enjoyment of them, as if they are mine. For, in that mystery of which the Apostle speaks, well, they are.