Lives Lived Before
Updated: Jun 6
I stared belligerently at the sloping hill at the edge of our property in Reading, Vermont. Hands on hips, head warmed by the sun, pursing my lips with a determined scowl on my countenance, I said in response to my husband’s Doubting Thomas look:
“So what if it’s a little hilly? It will make a perfect terraced garden.” Images of Rome and Asia had nestled in my brain, contributed by National Geographic magazines through the years.
“The rain will just wash the plants away downhill.” He said judiciously.
“It worked in Roman times.” I pedantically replied. “If I plant deep, they will survive any spring rains.”
He furrowed his brow, knowing once again I had a picture in my mind of what I imagined but what could never realistically be achieved.
“It will be orchidaceous.” I sprouted the new word I had just garnered. I raised my chin in superiority.
“What? Orchid who? You can’t grow orchids in Vermont on the side of a hill, let alone outside in our Vermont climate.”
“Orchidaceous, not Orchids. Meaning flashy, showy, as in orchids. Not real orchids.”
“I can put bricks, or wood around the edges of the beds. I’ll plant columbine for climbing. And pansies. It’s still early enough for them to bloom. Maybe Geraniums, for the summer months. Lots of color. And Ivy, to anchor in all the plants through next fall and winter.”
“Okay. Have at it.” I watched his departing back as he returned to our home, our little 1870’s Cape Cod, my golden nest on the hill off Route 106. The stream blasted happily at the edge of the road, singing its song of melting snows and March rains. It was in full swing, proud of its height and strength in its crashing rush over boulders, rearranging stones and tearing down low hanging branches. The music of the water embraced and emboldened me. I would plant this hillside garden. I would succeed.
I was encouraged by the old Vermont farmer’s adage and the wisdom of the Farmers Almanac: ‘Never plant until all danger of frost is past.’ That was now, a message to begin. My project took off the next day. First, I removed the turf, easier in the spring with the ground finally recovering from the swamp of mud season, the soil drying into warmth. The grass, assured of a new season of life, resisted my trowel and shovel, hanging tenaciously to its roots. Not to be outdone or defeated I dug more furiously, throwing aside the poor, defeated grasses.
I turned over the clay-heavy soil and wondered why I could possibly imagine a garden where none had existed before. This was just a neglected hillside of weeds. Still, I persisted. By the end of the day I had victoriously dug the first tier in preparation for a cozy flowerbed. The sun had turned my neck into a lovely shade of deep-sunset red. My nails and Oshkosh overalls were caked with dirt. My muscles ached.
Occasionally Bobby would come out to access my progress. “Hmmpft.” He would say, before returning to the breezeway to continue refinishing the latest antique we had acquired, readying it for sale. His indifference to my garden project spurred me on. I would have a hillside garden.
I decided to plant pretty pansies along the top bed. Their growth, or death, would determine the future of my terraced garden. I hoped to continue downward to the next level as the soil dried further.
By April my pansies were in the ground smiling gaily at me. Their adorable faces of golden yellow, indigo blue and deep purple thanked me for their new home. They luxuriated in the soil and stretched their roots, making friends with earthworms and pebbles. They grew. I had succeeded. The first row of my garden had proved me correct. Bob had to agree.
I moved downward to the next level, removing the recalcitrant turf from the slope of what I imagined would be my columbine and ivy bed, whose purpose was to keep the earth secure. Nothing could thwart me. The stream burbled it’s approval and returning Robins and Cardinals sang their songs, accompanying me in my horticultural efforts. Their music was loud overheard proclaiming their return, their new nests, another generation on the rise. All of nature agreed that my garden plan would be a success.
I watched Bobby plane an old door. I was proud of my endeavors. “Hmmft to you.” I muttered under my breath. “So there.”
Then, it rained. A lot. I worried through the night and watched the rain pummel the window over our bed as my husband snored into his dreams. I sent blessings and good vibes to my pansies: “Hang on.” I begged them. "Please. You can survive.”
The next morning despite their fortitude and determination their yellow, indigo and purple faces were draped in mud. The young plants had fallen in confusion and chaos, evicted from their impermanent home. Their drowned little bodies seemed to be apologizing, “So sorry. We tried.” It was a sad day for all of us as I collected their little bodies and placed them gently in clay pots, hoping for survival in a safer environment.
The earth of my terraced garden sneered at me. “Defeated by a little rain? Shame on you.” The stream roared its encouragement. Branches surfed on the wake of its new waves. I kicked at the mud and heard Bobby's voice in my head, spurring me on. “Told ya so.”
There was nothing to do but start over. Within a week the sun had kissed the earth and breezes had caressed the hill allowing me my second advance in this hillside garden campaign. Hillside vs. Jayne, battle of 1970, Reading, Vermont. Second attack.
Sitting on my haunches and covered in dirt, yet again, I surveyed the battlefield. There was no hope. I had to give up. Soil cascaded down the hill in gleeful tiny landslides. I admitted my defeat. I picked up a warmed mound of soil, then dug my fingers into my ruined bed. My fingertips struck something hard, not quite the usual stone, but perfectly round. Carefully, as an archeologist would, I plucked the small round object from the soil and placed it in the palm of my hand.
Gold. I had discovered gold in my backyard in Reading, Vermont. I examined it more closely and realized it was a ring. I spit on its surface and discovered a red stone in a square setting, with intricate mud-caked designs around the stone. It could only have been a ruby or garnet and was obviously quite old. I looked at my gold-shuttered nest and remembered that our little Cape Cod has most likely been built in the 1870’s. I examined the ring further. The engravings fit the time period into the 1900s. I placed it on my finger. It fit. I looked up at my dig.
“Thank you.” I said to the hill and to whoever had lost this ring while gardening. How long had it lain hidden beneath these years of soil deepened by history, changed by the seasons? It was a woman’s ring, with a modest, small stone. It was not the ring of a wealthy woman, but that of a young one, possibly an engagement ring. It belonged to someone just like me with dreams of a flowering hillside of beauty and hope, welcoming all eyes to envision a garden of delight. Orchidaceous.
Through this ring dug from the ground of my backyard I was connected to another woman. How long ago had she lived, worked in this garden? She must have been heartbroken to have lost her ring. Most likely she searched for it and wondered where it had ended up. I had unearthed a tiny bit of history, bringing this piece of jewelry into a new world from the old. I was connected to the past through the desires of another gardener and the earth under my feet. One woman had the same dream which I shared: digging a garden on the side of a hill. Perhaps she had succeeded. Had I captured her dream in this old Vermont soil in pursuit of my own garden? Had this hillside been blooming with flowers and dreams, just like my own?
I keep the little Ruby ring in a special niche of my jewelry box. Occasionally I take it out, examine it and place it gently on my finger. It’s deeply worn red stone, it’s mellow richness of old gold warms my finger and heart and reminds me:
We are all connected. We gardeners of the past, unearthing old lives and dreams, tilling the soil to plant new hopes, new dreams.
My fingers are so much older now than they were in 1970 when I dug through the earth in Reading, Vermont. My hands have been worn down by years of writing in journals, cooking, gardening, making gravestone rubbings, raising children, caressing and being caressed.
The ring still fits, encasing me in memories of a warm spring day where I was building a new garden and a new life. The little ring reminds me of the importance of archaeology, of the ways in which we are all connected, the lives lived before me, and those yet to come.
* * *
In Vermont my son and his family plant a garden every spring. My grandson stuffs himself when the raspberries ripen. He reminds me of his father, 37 years ago, stuffing himself with ripened plums from our Sacramento, California plum tree. My granddaughter harvests the burgeoning plants and fills a wheelbarrow with vegetables. We are all connected through the generations and gardens of our lives, celebrating our past and preparing for our future.
*Note: This Food For Thought entry was inspired by the Netflix movie, Dig, celebrating the unsung heroes and discoverers of ancient artifacts. It is based on actual events from my life in Vermont.