The Dry Years
It’s hot this summer. Too hot. Like hide in the house with the air conditioning on hot. I hate that.
I grew up on the East Coast and my memories of summer are of being really hot, really sweaty and really burned out most of the time. As a kid, my frustrated mother used to throw my whiny ass into a cool bathtub til I cooled my jets. As a teenager my competitive nature lured me out to the beach to tan alongside my friends, as did the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and party with the boys. But I was still not a sun-worshipper. I didn’t realize how exhausting heat and high humidity can be–I just thought I was a lazy person. Then I moved west.
We arrived in mid July, and the weather was perfect! It was warm, mid 80’s, but dry, and the sky was the most beautiful shade of blue. An intense blue, cerulean maybe, but warmer, like manganese blue, but cooler. Unbelievable. As was the fact that I had energy in the summer. You mean I’m not a lazy person…who knew? I could be outside all the time nearly every day without getting surly and sleepy and wanting to lie down in a cave somewhere snuggled up to a block of ice. Suddenly summer became my favorite season! I began to garden furiously to use up all this new-found energy.
When we bought our first tiny home with a big yard I planted flowers around the foundation and restored an old abandoned shade garden I found under the giant fir trees in the corner of the yard. I removed wheel barrow after wheel barrow of debris, unearthing a round bed encircled by rocks and planted with sweet violets, wood hyacinths and narcissus. My neighbor, who had a conscientious objection to mowing lawns, thought I was nuts and told me so. But I was a woman possessed and when I was done, I plopped a bird bath in the middle of that wild English garden, and had the prettiest little yard on the block.
But the Laura Ingalls-Wilder in me was longing to live in the woods. Eventually we bought five acres in a development called Long Lake View Estates. That’s what you call a marketing ploy. It was really a former clear-cut sub-platted into smaller acreages, and I think one lot might have had an actual lake view, but nobody seemed to mind. It was quiet and there were still some stands of tall hemlocks, firs and cedars around that softened the edges of everything in the neighborhood. The piece we purchased was in the far corner of the development at the end of an empty 900 ft gravel road. We were surrounded by forest, and had a creek cutting through the lot with deer, coyote, bear and bald eagles for neighbors. No homes nearby. I think even Laura would have been impressed.
I worked on that property day into night for the next sixteen years. It was just a clear cut bordered by woods, but we were close to Puget Sound, and I loved how loooong the days were in summer and how temperate the climate was. I could work outside year round. I put up with green tomatoes and undeveloped peppers for lack of heat and planted lush perennial gardens overflowing with flowers and shrubs for consolation. We transformed truck load after truck load of blue grey stone into walls and flower beds and steps and walkways. My husband helped with the hard stuff until his second hernia operation, (sorry babe), after which I’m sure I must have manually moved about ten tons of rocks single-handed, building the hardscape and then moving the rock from one storage pile to another as the yard work progressed. I spent my days happily covered in dirt and dressed in rags and accumulated so many pairs of dirty, dingy sneakers it took an energetic rescued malamute a year to chew through the pile.
At some point, we lost our minds and decided to move East of the mountains–to John Day, Oregon. We wanted more winter sun and less people, and we needed to drop out of the rat race after the sad losses of our parents. I realized before we even got there, while the house was in closing, that it was a mistake. I walked around my garden weeping. I went down the hill behind the garage and hugged the giant big leaf maple, pressing my face into the mossy bark, and cried and cried. I took pictures of the house and gardens and the creek. I made a photo album to remember it by, said goodbye to the two family pets we had buried under the cedar trees, and we drove away.
At first, I made a huge effort to share my husbands euphoria over the tiny western town in the foothills we settled into. It’s the kind of place a lot of guys dream about living. It’s rugged and dry and mountainous with cattle ranches and barbed wire everywhere. Think cowboys and Indians and Randolph Scott. (Wait…angelic voices in the background.) Everyone we met was always asking us if we liked it there. I always said sure. Until a wise man we met there looked deep into my eyes when I said that and questioned my response, and a new girlfriend shared with me how much she hated it, and I started to admit to myself, I hated it too.
There were rattlesnakes in the yard. It was so arid and the hot summers and cold winters, constant wind and rocky soils slumped my plants into sad defeat. I would find myself under the blazing sun, standing out in the yard with a hose in my hands and tears streaming down my face, my back to the mountain views that lured us there as I tried to revive beds of shriveled vegetation. I mourned the loss of my beautiful Northwest summers and the lush environment of our Long Lake home. I was really grieving. The multitudes of mule deer that roamed the ten acres we bought and bore their young in the plum thicket bordering our pasture, were rowdy jihadist types. They religiously jumped in front of moving vehicles in suicide assassination attempts on the human beings who were desecrating their sacred lands. They ate everything in sight, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and small trees, except for the hated juniper. They even beat up my dog. The bitches.
I became difficult to be around and frustrated my husband to no end with my bad attitude. It took me about five years to get used to living there. By then we had decided it wasn’t for us and were in the process of trying to move. (Was it my attitude?) We found a five acre tract in Southwestern Washington. It had a run down crazy ladies garden full of flowers, shrubs and weeds, and overgrown trees. It had a little creek down in the corner we we could walk down to and watch from the banks. So we bought it. It was a mess. The house was tiny and needed work, but after a small addition and seven years of working outside, it’s shaping up okay.
We struggled to sell the Eastern Oregon property and shuttled back and forth between the two places for several years. But now that we are settled back in the Pacific Northwest, yes, it’s much, much better here. The summers are a little hotter and the winters a bit colder than at Long Lake, but the rain is abundant enough to grow what I want. I’ve managed to get the fruit trees and grape vines and flowers we inherited to look like something that someone loves and nurtures instead of a sad decrepit tangled mess. It’s not the same as our place in the woods near Puget Sound with its rock beds, picket fences, roses and lavender, and the beautiful big leaf maple that broke my tree huggers heart to leave, but it’s a place where I can garden most of the year. And the hotter summers help the tomatoes ripen, which is nice for a little old Italian lady like me. I’m back to being covered in dirt, dressed in rags and accumulating dirty tennis shoes, which our latest rescued malamute shows absolutely no interest in at all.
Last fall, we took a walk down the steep hill to the wooded, wild slopes that border our yard, where Olequa Creek cuts into our property corner. As we stood on a high bank beneath a couple of magnificent cedar trees staring downstream, we watched something cutting through the water creating a small wake. We were mesmerized to discover salmon spawning in that creek. We stood there in awe, watching the fish skipping by and stopping in the pools formed by the gravelly bed, wagging their battered bodies back and forth in the current. There, beneath a canopy of fragrant evergreens and big leaf maples, I gave a sigh, and finally, finally thought, I’m home again.