At The End Of The The Rainbow

by Maria Theresa Maggi on April 3, 2017

It’s barely visible, but if you look closely at this photograph, there is a fading rainbow just above the tops of the trees. And it you look even more closely, you’ll see the residue of another  one above it where the clouds are breaking through. It is the Spring of 2014 on the Palouse. This is the backyard of the house on Asbury Street as seen from the upstairs window, where no doubt I was sorting through things as I prepared to move. Or maybe I grabbed my camera and “ran” up the stairs to get a better view of the double rainbow before it faded. That’s why I now have a shot of this yard in all its early Spring greener-than-green glory. Take a good look: grass out of control and needing to be mowed seemingly overnight, the pear tree by the fence, all leafed out and about to burst into blossom, the ancient ornamental hawthorne completely decked out with it’s own fuschia colored blossoms, ready for flower essence -making to strengthen the heart. My herbalist friend once joked that in Spring it reminded her of Sideshow Bob’s hair, and  after that  it became part of The Simpson’s lore my son loved so much, and never failed to get a giggle out of any of us.

The impromptu tulip patch at the back fence is ready to pop, and all the raspberries are leafed and green–EVERY thing is drenched in water soaked emerald. My beloved clothesline is strung out across the emeralds and if I was closer, the water droplets on the clothespins would have shone in the light between storms like spontaneous solar lights.

On the outside of the fence, urban downtown life in Moscow goes on. A car pulls up at the Subway drive-through, a student walks through the parking lot of the real estate agency next door. But inside the fence, the plants are beginning again as they have for at least 20 years–the bulbs and the hawthorne may have been there well close to a century. It seems as if it will never change, will always resurrect itself into a new summer each year. At the time I snapped the photo, I am confident of this because I have sold my house to a woman who feels as I do about the place and will cherish and tend it. I have kept my promise to this land and this house in my bureaucratic and political efforts to make sure she can buy it.

But that world on the outside of the fence grew dragon fire and brimstone in the last three  years. The rezoning I thought would protect it made way for the developer I had sparred with for over a decade to buy up the rest of the block and systematically remove all trees and living things to build duplexes up against every old house he owns. I saw this happen down the alley when I lived there, the first prototype, and I fought him with everything I had the strength to fight him with. I even looked him in the eye and said “you forced him out,” referring to the neighbor with the grapevines and the beautiful garden who had become my friend and who had to leave when his rent was raised. His response to me was to look at his phone (because he couldn’t look me in the eye and lie about that one) and say “who on the city council do you want me to call? I can call any of them right now and they’ll do what I want. They LIKE me.”

At the time, I chalked this up to his youthful arrogance, and continued my letters to the editor, my comments at public hearings and finally, when it became apparent it was the only way to save it, paid for the rezoning of my Asbury Street house. And I did save it. If I had not done that, it would be bulldozed by now. Instead it is intact and will celebrate its birthday of 120 this September.

But apparently he was right about one thing–the city council does love him. They never did anything to stop his style of development in this neighborhood now deemed a place of “urban renewal.” The visions they lied to me of having about that apparently went out the window with all the trees and flowers and peace and quiet. There is a duplex being constructed next door that hugs the fence of the star garden and will loom large with its two stories, blocking the sun. The students will be further crammed in and exploited, with nothing growing but rocks (and no one to sing “the stones are the bones of the earth” to them, as my friend and I did when the commercial building on the corner was “landscaped” with huge rocks and a bobcat that shook my house with the force of a minor earthquake). They will now have a bar across the street where the old co-op once was, open until the wee hours of the morning, featuring loud outside concerts and liquor, where they can further fuel their exploited sorrows and ignite their urges to kick in gates and throw garbage along the alley lined with despair on their disillusioned ways home. My heart aches for them. They won’t have the experiences my former student neighbors had, of learning to grow a garden, of swinging on a tree swing,  of making a pie with cherries all the neighbors picked together, of helping me with my wood or tasting my raspberries and pears.

It will no longer be safe for a dog to stay in the yard, especially at night. It will not be peaceful, or quiet, or optimal for things to grow. The woman I sold the house to is a saavy person when it comes to real estate and she saw the writing speedily gathering on the walls. She saw that as much as she loved it she couldn’t stay as long as she had hoped. It wouldn’t be safe or peaceful anymore for her or her animals, and the value of the house would plummet. She sold to the developer I had held off for over 10 years. He was gracious and gave her a good deal and a lot of time to stay while she looked for a more suitable new home.

I can’t fault her for this; I couldn’t stay either. But it’s hard to see my fantasies of winning the day dashed against the pavement. As I’ve written here before, I used to dream up strategies of redemption that involved giving the house to the Nez Perce Tribe, or Friends of the Clearwater, anyone who would snub their noses at the development ogres and go right on fighting the good fight in the middle of it after I was too tired to do it myself. If I could have afforded to do that, I probably would have. I even wrote the famous musician Carol King, a benefactor of the environment in Idaho, asking if she’d buy it for Friends of the Clearwater. But she never wrote back.

People like to save forests and lakes, and they should like to, and work hard to do it. But no one much cares about an old neighborhood filled with heirloom flowers and fruit,  and huge old shade trees, hidden beyond the beaten path of the main road or the unused railroad tracks, or the huge complex of the university. Instead the powers that be  see growth as property tax revenues that come when wealthy investors invest in their urban renewal schemes.

Thus it comes to be that my dear old backyard will now become a duplex. The house will stand, and be rented, and though the woman who sold it to the developer says he’s changed and she has a good relationship with him and I believe her,  I am doubtful he’ll do anything but what he’s done with every other single old house he owns. Rent it out at exorbitant rates and not fix it up. When it’s ready to fall into the ground, he’ll bulldoze it. And when he has the money he’ll build another ugly duplex.

But this is no ordinary house, though. This house has balls. It’s survived at least one chimney fire, seen moonshine runs, remodels, people knocking on doors in the early hours of the morning, not knowing where they are. It’s sheltered my family and any of my friends who needed a place to stay, it allowed us to carve out its center and build a new core made of a masonry stove, it’s been painted by a hundred students, stood the test of countless storms. It’s strong, and I pray it will continue to work it’s magic on the unsuspecting.

Meanwhile, the living things in the yard had to be saved from the approaching backhoe. The last couple of weeks have seen an amazing “grass roots” effort facilitated by the woman I sold it to and my dear long time herbalist friend to re-home as many plants as possible, and find a solution for how the pear tree can live again as well. Neighbors and friends in Moscow and as far away as Spokane will now take care of plants, stones and the bricks that once made the star garden. My herbalist friend has started a “tree nursery” in her  laundry room, where 8 inch starts from the pear tree and branches from grandmother may hawthorne and the old rose are patiently taking root. Some may end up in my son’s yard in Portland, and a few plants  may even make it all the way to the coast, along with the piece of wall from the house with the image of Martin Luther King.

When changing circumstances require a letting go that is commensurate with a death, there are many simultaneous and equally valid responses. I’ll call them the tributaries of the river grief, separating and running out to the sea, while also carrying a bit of everything from the original river. First, there’s the letting go of my fantasies of winning the day in the forms I have daydreamed of: the house and yard and garden going on for another generation, or more, a pastoral spark of living light in a sea of urban renewal. With that goes the daydreams of sticking it to The Man by giving it back to the tribe or the environmentalists. Following that goes any temptation to want to blame the dear woman I sold it to for not being able to continue as I had hoped she would, since even when I set it up to continue on without me, it was getting too hard for me to maintain the place alone, let alone fight the fight neither one of us foresaw in the form it’s taken to keep it and its land intact. Along they all go through the alluvial clay, down to the ocean. Then there’s the blame I really do assign to the Moscow City planners for their utter failure of imagination when it comes to the urban renewal district. Even the little pocket park we eventually were granted was approved probably because of an environmental impact report from the old grain towers that demonstrated contamination. A full scale clean up was not required to allow the pocket park and the creek day-lighted, but building housing demanded it. And so, in my cynical stream of thought, that’s ultimately why it was un-tabled and passed by a conservative city council, after two years of deadlock–not because I read them a poem about “Seeing Hog Creek.” They made the motions of bowing to the need for green space, but it was also about not wanting to pay to clean up.

This is a hard stream of thought to let go over the boulders without feeling its bitter taste, its utter disappointment. Even so, there is a creek day-lighted and a park where there wouldn’t have been. The big park did not get sold to the school district. The trees I donated in honor of my mother and father, so far as I know, still grow there.

But within all these streams is the most brilliant current of all, the one I must follow if I am to go on, and I plan on going on. That’s the one full of mystery and surprise, the one full of wait-and-see questions about how it all shakes down, what new beginnings come from a seeming end. It carries the cleansing water that will nurse the little 8 inch cuttings from the pear tree, the old rose, the ancient May Hawthorne. It carries the fact that the construction workers over the fence watched in respectful silence as my friends sang to the plants and put them in pots for transport, and that one of them asked if he could have some bulbs.

When something dies, especially something or someone beloved, I believe it releases its essence into more than it was in the form it shed. People do this when they pass; their spirits expand with love and understanding of things they just couldn’t quite “get” when they were alive. I don’t know how it happens, but I know it does. It doesn’t remove the sadness, but it makes these transitions ripe with a potent release of powerful perspective, and the good that can follow from it. And so when I look at this photo of the little pear branches carefully trimmed so that a quart jar will fit over them to create the condensation they need as they begin to root in their carefully created mix of rooting soil, it is like seeing lights emanate from the dark brown starts about to bud out. They are lit up with the future, uncertain and unpredictable though it may be, by the magical light of the past.

And so, I say good-bye to a beloved piece of land that held a space of healing for me and many others connected to me for so long. The star garden was designed by my herbalist friend and me,  and originally built by my former students from the English Department at the University of Idaho, two of them now married to each other with a family of their own. I can still hear them calling “not it! not it! not it!” in order to avoid being the one to have to go to the front of the property and turn the hose on and off. When it was all complete and very young and the plants were small, I hosted a summer solstice ceremony my herbalist friend was having for her students. We lit candles at each tip of the star and stuck them in the dirt. We walked the star, as we would many many more hundreds of times over the years, as a labyrinth. And a little girl who was but five at the most and who is now grown into a lovely young woman, skipped from tip to tip, holding her mother’s hands and laughing, on the longest day of the year. Her nickname was “Bug.” Many more ceremonies and conversations were to come, plants harvested, people helped, including my friend Tom, who fell on his bicycle and didn’t have health insurance to have his arm set in a cast in the traditional way. Instead he kept it in a sling and came to the garden to harvest comfrey leaves and wrap it in a poultice to help it heal. Between my supply and that of my herbalist friend, his arm healed. We all laughed he had chosen the best time of year to break his arm. It’s where I sat with a little todler friend we had learned was functionally deaf, rocking on the glider under the May Hawthorne with him, while we looked up into her branches and signed the sign for “tree,” each of  our faces plastered with leaf shadow and heartfelt smiles.

I set them free on this page, with all the other stories of the garden to rush over the rocks, down to the ocean of unconditional love and overarching mystery, where the past is complete and we hold it in our hearts.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Donna Betts April 4, 2017 at 8:58 am

Such a lovely tribute to your little home and garden on Asbury.
I feel as though I was there watching the story unfold and was shoulder to shoulder with your friends and neighbors. Your stories always touch my heart and resonate in the deepest part of my soul. I always forget that I am sitting at my desk at work.
Sending love to your dear plants that sustained your garden and loved you back with their annual displays in springtime. Sending love, Donna B.

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi April 4, 2017 at 9:22 am

Dear Donna–thank you!! I’ve got tears in my eyes after reading your kind words. xoxo

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3 Peggy Bean April 4, 2017 at 10:03 am

Oh Maria…I sit here with tears running down my face. It’s such a sad and beautiful world.

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4 Maria Theresa Maggi April 4, 2017 at 11:11 am

Indeed it is, Peggy, indeed it is. Thank you.

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5 Veronica April 6, 2017 at 11:23 am

Oh, Maria, this breaks my heart. I’m so sorry all your hard work is for naught. It’s so difficult to stay positive when such lack of compassion exists in places of power, to make these decisions that destroy the few good things we have left. I admire your ability to find and focus on the positives that come from it – the people coming together, saving the plants they can, spreading that love beyond the backyard. I struggle with that.
This post comes at a time when I’m also struggling with my own grief (including what’s happening in the world, where I have so much trouble accepting and finding hope), but I recently had to put one of my kitties to sleep forever. Your imagery of the river and its tributaries is comforting, and gives me some thought to follow as I figure my head out.
I hope all the little plants’ offshoots grow big and strong to create their own memories in more hearts and homes. xoxo

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6 Maria Theresa Maggi April 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Dear Veronica, I’m SO sorry to hear about your kittie. That’s one of the hardest things to live through. I can certainly relate to your struggling with the difficulties of the big picture and how they seem to be mirrored in the smaller picture of your everyday lives. I am comforted myself that my words help comfort you.Thank you for your hope for the little plants rooting and beginning again, to make their own memories in more hearts and homes. What a lovely thing to say. Thank you, my dear.xoxo

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7 Gena April 8, 2017 at 6:49 am

Maria,

For reasons I know you understand, it is such a good time for me to read your thoughts on grief. Thank you for the beautiful metaphor of a river and its tributaries, for acknowledging that multiple feelings coexist during the process of mourning, while also holding faith in a body of water that flows toward healing.

Your post speaks to me because I’ve always dwelt in a cityscape, which means that I’ve watched my own neighborhood and countless others change dramatically. I recognize that this is an inevitable feature of city life, the ever-changing storefronts and buildings and skyline, but I also appreciate that there is always real loss involved, especially when it’s a tiny part or a sturdy, resilient city tree that is razed (and that happens all the time).

So, I so hear your point that it is not only rivers and lakes and mountains that deserve preservation, but also homes and yards and parks, those incredible pockets of life and greenery that make towns and cities rich and interconnected with the natural world. Thanks for putting that into words so powerfully—and for sharing your process with all of us. I’m praying for all of the plants and seeds and buds from your Asbury street home to find new roots very soon, so that they can keep giving to the world around them.

G xo

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8 Gena April 8, 2017 at 6:50 am

“Tiny part” was meant to be “tiny park”! 😉

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9 Maria Theresa Maggi April 8, 2017 at 8:46 am

No worries, Gena, I got it! Thank you so much for this lovely heartfelt comment. It’s comforting to me that my words on grief resonate with you, and others. It’s like being able to donate organs when someone dies to have the reflections, along with the seeds and seedlings and cuttings, go on to make life elsewhere. As I read your words about the inevitability of change in a city scape, I thought of Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I am a BIG fan of that book, which we are still learning how to heed, and which all too often we ignore when it comes to urban planning that helps preserve and create community and safety and well being. Thanks again for all these great thoughts. xoxo

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