I awoke Saturday morning and sent a 10-character text, “Let’s dig!” A few hours later my walking buddy Mary rolled up in her Ford Explorer. We’d thought of everything. Mary laid old towels in the back so we wouldn’t mess up the car; the spade rested on top. I brought the gloves. We had bags. We were ready.
Under the cover of gray skies threatening rain, at high noon, we commenced our work: digging up what at one time would no doubt have been someone’s prized peonies, shade-loving trillium and Virginia bluebells. A woodland spring delight.
I kept watch while Mary went to work with her short-handled spade and dug and dug and dug. The plants gave way easily in the soft, wet ground, and we quickly filled our bags until their handles nearly gave way from the weight of our treasure. We almost got away with the deed, when I looked up and saw a man standing in the barren lot at the top of the slope looking curiously at us.
Uh-oh. We’d been caught.
Before I go further, let me provide some context. For years, Mary and I have walked the many graceful streets of St. Louis County. For several months we have commented on the empty white Century home with the For Sale sign in the yard. The lot next door is barren and recently cordoned off with a developer’s sign promising to build a new home. A parcel of the main property? We aren’t sure.
A couple of months ago we ventured onto the property to look around. The house, red outbuilding and pool need repair. The surrounding yard is large and wooded and overgrown with understory brush and lots of bamboo. The grounds meander down to a ravine. It is graceful, shady and quiet. A far cry from suburbia in which it is located. We were surprised there was so much land behind the house.
Like anything that’s been around for more than 135 years, there are stories to tell. In a twist of odd luck, I was talking about this house at my book club and one of my friends mentioned that her home was once occupied by the man who built the white house in the late 1800s. She sent me a write up describing its history and sad demise of its builder (he set fire to the home and original barn and committed suicide on the property). According to the history, he relocated the light above the front porch from an antebellum plantation in southern Missouri.
A couple of weeks ago we ventured back for another look around. Why, I don’t really know. We wended our way past the bamboo to a clearing. Overgrown and neglected, the ground slopes down to a ravine and traces of a garden can be seen. We had missed this on our mid-winter walk through when there was no trace of any emerging plants. We’d also missed the remnants of plant stakes and markers littering the ground, their type faded, the metal ones bent and corroded. Black plastic garden edging has been pulled up and thrown in a heap. All that remains of a small round pond is its faded molded plastic form.
This time everywhere we looked something is growing. Peonies are emerging from the grass everywhere. Daffodils in shades of creamy yellow and white. Muscari. Wild geranium. Iris. Variegated trillium. Clumps of blue and pink Virginia bluebells. A rock garden covered by overgrowth edges the pond and makes a path down the slope to the edge of the yard by the ravine. A mass of flowering yellow ground cover carpets much of the area.
This is someone’s forgotten love.
And by the looks of it, it is soon to be turned under by a bulldozer. The property, which is slightly less than an acre, is staked with bright orange flags marking its borders. On the walk home we talked about how sad it would be if it all got bulldozed under. The garden gone with the history of the house and all the stories of this lovely ground.
To be sure, this was a premeditated act. We had no permission to be on the property. And you can be sure that no one gave us permission to dig up any plants. Mary’s sister, who is a realtor said it would definately be a no-no to take any of the plants.
Make no mistake, I would not–never have–go to a property that is for sale and just dig up their garden. I will vouch that I am a law-abiding citizen who obeys the rules. I am not a plant theif. (Am I?) But this felt different. This property feels abandoned. On borrowed time until it is turned over to start a new story.
We dug quietly and I urged Mary to hurry up. “This is the last one,” I said three or four times. I did not want to explain to the neighbors what we were doing. We filled several bags with tender plants but many, many more remain.
Then I saw him. Up the slope in the foreground of the yellow house. I felt certain our unexpected visitor would have a few questions.
“Mary, look up. There’s a man up there and he’s watching us.” We stopped digging the trillium and headed up the hill. He did not look angry. Just curious.
Turns out he was looking through the lot, past the ravine and over to the next street to see if he could see a house he is interested in. He knows a developer interested in tearing the property down for him and builing anew. We talked for about 15 minutes and shared the origins of the white house with him and told him it has been empty for so long that we wanted to rescue some of the lovely plants before they were turned under by heavy equipment. He seemed to understand.
As we loaded the back of the Explorer, Mary said she felt certain the gardener who planted this woodland garden would thank us. I don’t know.
Was it theft or was it a rescue?