by Laura Crum
Lately I’ve been thinking about survivors. No, not the TV show—I know nothing about that. I don’t even have a TV. Haven’t had one in my house since I was in college and lived with roommates who were addicted to soap operas. I’m thinking about real survivors.
I live on a small property that I bought twenty years ago as a piece of raw land. Over time, and as I could afford it, I’ve turned it into a sweet little horse property. It’s fenced and has a barn and five big corrals with pasture sheds. There are two small houses (750 sq feet and 550 sq feet). There is a little riding ring and a vegetable garden and a shop building and a dog run and a fish pond. There is a rambling wild garden that melds into the truly wild and brushy hills that surround us. Every single bit of all this I designed myself. My husband and I maintain it. It’s a real labor of love and takes much of our time and money. But we don’t begrudge it.
Sometimes people who haven’t known me very long come out here and say things like, “Aren’t you lucky?” or “I wish I had a place like this.” Or “I’ve always wanted a horse property but I could never afford one.” This usually makes me grit my teeth a little. Quite often the people who say these things own a nice suburban home in a subdivision. Their home cost them more than double what I paid for this little piece of bare land. If I’m in a good mood I smile, and say, “You know, I lived in an old travel trailer out here for seven years—that’s how I afforded this property.” If I’m in a bad mood, or I don’t much like the person, I say, “You could have had this; you just made different choices.” Because that’s what it comes down to.
The only things that were here when I came here were the plants and animals of the brush country. Just wild, hilly land. We sculpted the land such that I had a level riding ring and a passable graveled drive up to the house (though for seven years the house was only a travel trailer). We built first the fences and corrals and barn and pasture sheds (of course—any horse person would do the same), and then, when we could afford it, the little house. Eventually we were able to replace the old travel trailer (which was falling apart by this time) with another even smaller house. Every single “garden” plant on this place I planted myself (or my husband planted himself), just as we designed and helped build the two little houses. I have to say that I think this creates a depth of knowledge and intimacy with one’s home that cannot be acquired any other way.
And the payoff, twenty years into it, is the absolute joy I feel when I walk or ride around my home and look at the results of our planning and labor. The horses in their big corrals or turned out to graze along the driveway, my pleasant bedroom with the morning sun streaming in, my husband’s music room full of late afternoon light, the big roses that drape the pergola, the round vegetable garden in the middle of the riding ring, the porch where I have a margarita in the evening…all of it gives me endless satisfaction. And nothing gives me more pleasure than observing the “survivors.”
What are the survivors? They are the plants that worked. I like gardening almost as much as I like horses, and I have spent lots of time out here planting things. Everything from fruit trees to flower bulbs, California native plants to Mediterranean shrubby herbs, wildflowers to water lilies, roses to redwoods, you name it, I have planted it. And mostly watched it die.
Yes, its true. The casualty rate among things I have planted is something like 75%. The reasons are many. Gophers and deer are high on the list. Drought and neglect (it is meant to be a wild garden—I don’t fuss with the plants much) take their toll. Some plants just aren’t suited to this environment. Some plants (like ceanothus, a native California shrub sometimes called wild lilac) have a short lifespan and are going to die in a few years no matter what. So now, after twenty years of living here, I take particular pleasure in those plant projects that have worked. The ones that are thriving. The survivors.
Last weekend my husband and I spent some long, sweaty hours cutting out the dead ceanothus plants by the driveway. Once glorious huge, blue-flowered, sweet-scented shrubs, they had died of old age a couple of years ago. But I was loath to tackle their removal. There was always a trail ride I wanted to do instead. But this spring I’m trying to focus more on the garden, and I’ve taken on a few chores that have been postponed for awhile. So the dead ceanothus went.
And guess what? The redwood trees I had planted at the same time as the ceanothus, that were somewhat hidden by all that dead wood, leaped into the foreground, and I realized, to my delight, that the skinny five foot high saplings I had planted twenty years ago along the property line were now a redwood forest. Look.
Its kind of amazing to stand in a redwood forest that you planted yourself. I looked at my trees and was so pleased that they had survived and thrived.
And then I let my 33 year old horse loose to graze. Gunner is a survivor, too. When I first moved out here I brought two horses with me—Gunner and Plumber. Gunner was 13 and Plumber was 4. These two are still here with me today. They are my longest running animal companions. Gunner is 33 and Plumber is 24. Both are sound and healthy. Here is Gunner just last Saturday, two months after the bad night, right before Xmas, when he got cast. He has made a full recovery. Doesn’t he look good?
And finally, on Sunday I rode.
So it was a good weekend in every way. Much joy in my survivors, plant and animal, and plenty of joy in loping Sunny up a few hills. I may not take elegant vacations to tropical islands—in fact, I rarely go on vacations of any sort. But I don’t mind at all. The life I love is right here.
Does anyone else out there find their greatest pleasure in just dinking around at home?