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?
Wow, Laura, what a story! You're so brave! You're like the pilgrims, or the people who crossed America from the East coast in wagon trains...well, to me you are! You're also like a character in a book...no, really, you are!
Impressive, especially for this little Anglo-Italian-Swiss girl...
My parents did something similar when I was about ten, in neighboring France. Maybe not quite as extreme as you, but they bought a plot of land and built a house. We moved in without running water, or bathrooms, and my father did a lot of construction work himself, and they both designed a beautiful garden. They still live there now.
Thanks for that!
This describes everything I want in life.
We have lived in our place for 10 years and just remodeled some this past year. Its over 100 years old and needs a good bit more work. We need more land and hope to sell within the next year or so. But like you, we have sacrificed a lot to have what we do and have put a lot of time in on it. I think the longer the toil, the sweeter the rewards and the survivors. So many today want that instant gratification and yet they never realize what they miss in the process. Your place is beautiful!
Cesca--I think your parents were braver than me. My little travel trailer DID have running water and a bathroom--plus at the time I did not have a kid (!) So I'm not really so brave and nothing like a pioneer. I am just somebody who didn't have a lot of money and was determined to have a place where I could keep my horses. I was willing to make sacrifices to wn the sort of property I really wanted.
Dom--I hope you find a home that suits you as much as mine suits me. I think that just your clarity about what you want will serve you well. What I find is that many people would "like" a horse property, but they simply aren't clear enough in their minds what it might take to achieve this goal. So they buy that suburban house cause, you know, its the normal choice, the wise investment, and they never do live the way they want to live. I have a feeling that you will follow your dreams.
FJ Thomas--The one thing I am sometimes sad about is that I grew up on an old ranch and loved the old barns and houses--but that ranch got bulldozed. So building my own place is neat, but there is nothing like the feeling of an old barn or home. I would have loved that, too. All the work one puts into maintaining/remodeling an old place creates just as much intimacy as building a new one--or so I think.
We have a similar situation. Tom and I have lived here for eight years now and make improvements when we can. The entire place needs refencing, instead we repair fences and make them as safe as we can. Sometimes it seems our little house is going to fall apart. One side is definitely settling. We wish we had the money to build a new one, but not yet. The barn is in the same shape. We love it here, so inch along, a few dollars at a time, making improvements when we can.
Susan--I would love to have had an old ranch. But I do know that it is an endless repair job. That is the plus side of building your own place. Everything is relatively new and there are less repairs. But there is always something (!)
Your 75 percent mortality on plants makes me feel better. Between the harsh climate, getting eaten and other problems, I lose a lot also. Luckily there's a plant nursery just down the road that specializes in plants for this area. I worked there for three summers and learned a lot, which helped my gardening.
You are totally right, Laura: people choose what they want. Sure, there are setbacks (as Dom can attest), but I don't believe adults who say they've "always wanted to ride" but never did.
Oh, yeah? So, what's stopping you?
Me, I'm living the life that I would have chosen as an 8-year-old kid: I spend the vast majority of my time surrounded by family and friends and animals and books. And these days I'm old enough to say "NO" to things I don't want to do--a blessing that I couldn't exercise when I was 20!
So here ya go, Laura: our dreams have survived pretty nicely, too.
I'm a firm believer in The Footwork Principle. I grew up in a large, very urban city, but I was born with a country heart, and unsuited to city living. I knew this when I was six. I wanted a garden. I wanted animals. I wanted horses. I wanted quiet.
I would do whatever it took . Somewhere along the way I came to believe my job was to do the footwork, and the rest would come when I'd cleared all the literal and metaphorical weeds. Want a garden? Prepare the land. Keep it up. People began to bring me plant starts for which I'd been searching. I shared what we already had. I guess my point is: i tired to make it easy for the universe to help me. I didn't have a horse, but I made room for one in my budget and my life, and learned everything I could (ongoing project!) about horses. So far, when I've done the footwork, it's worked out for me. Thanks goodness!
Susan--Yeah, to begin with I planted anything that I admired and I learned the hard way that lots of plants aren't suited to this place. Like you, I discovered a couple of local nurseries that specialize in the sort of plants that thrive here, and that helped a lot. My mortality rate is probably only 50% now (!)
Yay Aarene. You're one of my heros, with your constant focus on "life is good." That's exactly how I feel, too.
Jane--I agree. You have to move in the direction of your dreams and be open to the help you will get. It works for me, too.
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