Room to Breathe

The garden was once my place to be away from people. I’d pack extra water and a snack and spend hours in the dirt, pouring sweat and occasionally tears into the ground as I weeded and cultivated and trimmed and pruned. Turns out other gardeners are quiet people too, and side by side we’d tend to our gardens, exchanging few words beyond the friendly greeting. I could rely on warm conversation from the across-the-path gardener, Gino, on Mondays, his day off, or a prolonged in-service session with Pasquale, the Italian master to whom everyone looked for advice and tips. All of us wanted our garden to be like Pasquale’s burgeoning plot.

Aside from the occasional intramural garden discussion, the garden has functioned largely as a refuge, a place to go sort things out. While I’m in the act of rapt focus on the plants, I find the bigger, complex problems have a chance to spread out, like a thousand-piece puzzle on the dining room table. When I’m done at the garden, I usually have a better understanding of whatever issue is troubling me. While I’m harvesting tomatoes and basil, I’m also picking up some perspective.

But in the last couple of years, my garden environment has changed. The park district, whose land I rent every summer for my 20X30′ garden, has built a gorgeous nature center just south of my plot. They took back part of the garden plots in order to build the center, and at first, I was piqued at the incursion, but what they have done with the space is really wonderful. From the nature center, the park district runs programs from bird-watching excursions for adults to evening nature hikes for kids. They’ve left the adjoining fields untouched, and use them to teach about native plants. All day, every day, groups of people led by nature guides traipse gingerly through brush and flower.

It’s exciting to see so many people participating in nature programs. I love that one of my favorite places on earth has been appropriated for this use, and has been allowed to return to its original wildness, to its natural state of being. It’s a wonderful thing when nature is encouraged and welcomed, especially in an area as populous as this.

But the one drawback is that my quiet place is no longer quiet. Instead of being a place apart from people, it’s now more in the middle of people than ever. No matter the time or the day, I’m surrounded at the garden by participants in some park district program or another. In fact, the plots immediately to my east and north are both “preschool garden” plots, so proclaims the hand-painted sign posted in each of them. I’ve been treated to tiny children staggering under the weight of a watering can, sloshing their way through rows of marigolds to the pumpkin patch. It’s hard for this mom to separate from the cuteness of these wee gardeners, so I end up watching and chuckling as they work their tiny green thumbs.

What I no longer have, however, is privacy. I’m glad for the park district and for the growth of these amazing programs, but I do miss having a place to go Away. The very same thing has happened to my beloved forest preserve, where the park district has appropriated adjacent land and turned the existing structure into another nature center. It, too, is now overrun with curious and active kids exploring the same trees and creek and barn where I spent some of my childhood.


I am so glad this is the direction the park district has moved for this little town. When I think of all the kids who are getting exposed to trees and plants and rocks and creeks and bats and birds and other wildlife, it makes me very happy. But I know this is another sign it’s time for me to go. There’s no more space for me here. There’s no longer a place for me to pour myself into the ground, to have my quiet moments of wonder and confusion. There’s no place for this introvert to be alone and figure things out.

I’ve been squeezed out, but the timing could not be better. I have a feeling I’ll find plenty of room to breathe in Oregon. I’m counting on it.

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