The secret gardener

My working-class neighborhood here in central Maine is a cozy, if somewhat time-worn, filigree of a community wedged between a freight railroad and the Penobscot River. Its history, until not so long ago, was hardscrabble: Almost all the families had a connection to the woolen mills or sawmills on an adjoining island. Days were long, the work tedious, and coming home meant only a modicum of respite before beginning the next day's labor.

Such life experience shows in the unadorned, matter-of-fact nature of the properties here. Some houses are all but tumbledown; others are neat, square, and unpretentious. Many are well-kept wooden boxes sitting on lots without so much as a marigold to add a bit of color. Decoration is mostly a function of what raw nature affords: a weeping willow shading a stream, a grove of staghorn sumac (blaze red in autumn), a field of shadblow sporting tiny white blossoms, a dirt path disappearing into the pine woods.

The town doesn't dedicate many resources to my neighborhood. In my opinion, the reason is twofold: the relatively poor economic status of what was once disparagingly known as "Crow Valley," and the fact that our road is a dead end. Funds set aside for community beautification are concentrated up on "the hill," in the town center. When I made a formal request for some money for plantings to spruce the place up a bit, I was unceremoniously denied.

Acknowledging this, I decided to embark upon a quiet, modest, but - I believe - very important project. I walked to the edge of my neighborhood, the very place where the road from the rest of Maine feeds in. I stood there and looked around. What I saw was a rail line, and between it and the sidewalk a gravel, refuse-strewn buffer, perhaps eight feet wide. Across the road was a cement plant, also with its buffer. Not a tree, not a bush, not a daisy. Even the wildflowers seemed to reject this place.

And so, one night, about a month ago, I went outside under the light of a full moon and dug up a dormant sucker from the magnificent lilac hedge in my backyard. I carted it down the street in a bucket, along with my spade. Working briskly but with care, I planted it in the buffer next to the railroad. I threw down a few handfuls of mulch, doused it with water, and went home to bed.

The next morning I was able to view my handiwork in the full light of day. Still standing. And so, that evening, I dug up two more suckers, wandered out into the darkness, and inserted these lilacs as well, spacing them seven paces apart. Now there were three.

The next day: still standing.

I took some pains to hobnob with my neighbors that afternoon, wondering if they had noticed anything. I planted a few conversational cues, such as, "The railroad bed looks a little nicer this year," but nobody seemed to make a connection. This only emboldened me. I set out that night with another planting - or rather, three. This time I migrated across to the buffer by the cement plant. By the entranceway there's a big chunk of bedrock, sitting stark and barren. I immediately dug in, highlighting it with a hosta, a barberry, and a sapling of wild cherry. Now the road to my neighborhood was becoming nicely framed: lilacs on the one side, by the railroad, and a burgeoning community garden on the other, by the cement plant.

Still, nobody said a word. They didn't seem to have noticed. Or had they?

I need to mention that, when one enters my neighborhood on that wasteland road, there is a solitary clapboard house. It's small, poor, and a little out of kilter. It sits squat and alone between the cement plant parking lot and its heavy equipment yard. A previous occupant of the house painted it a bright, rather shocking blue, as if to convey the message, "Yes, this is a home."

This blue house has hosted family after family over the years, always people of modest means, always with kids, always on the verge of moving someplace else. As a result, nobody had paid much mind to the small piece of front yard. Not a tree, not a bush, not a geranium.

The blue house is within spitting distance of my clandestine plantings, and in the night, as I worked, I would sometimes look over my shoulder and see a light burning in a window. And so it came to pass that, after I had reconciled myself to accepting the idea that nobody was taking note of our neighborhood desert blossoming like a rose, the blue house one day looked different. There, on the front lawn, was a small, rather leggy lilac. Not only that, but someone had planted it with utmost care. It was staked and mulched.

I continued my plantings. More lilacs, a forsythia, a wild honeysuckle. And then, two days later, three more lilacs appeared in front of the blue house, and they were leafing out with vigor, as if exploiting all the nutrients that had so long gone untapped.

It's true what they say: If you try to make a place beautiful, people will be affected. They will want to keep it beautiful, maybe even emulate that beauty. At this writing, the tandem dance continues: I plant something by the railroad or the cement works, and shortly thereafter the anonymous occupant of the blue house does the same. It's a rewarding harmony, and just in time for the summer to come.

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