Monday, 4 June 2007

Seeing Beyond

I visited my friend Dina the other day and got depressed.

Dina is the sort of person I would hate if I could. She has been blessed with more talents and skills than any one person I know: she can sew and cook to a professional level, she can draw, paint, sculpt, and embroider. She can wire a house, plaster walls and put in her own tiles. Dina can build and fix things, she can butcher road kill, she can skin animals and raise her own vegetables. And she knows the name for every goddamn plant under the sun.

Four years ago, she and her husband bought a house. I went to see it with her before they moved in and was not impressed. It was an ugly, graceless box of a place with no distinguishing features. The kitchen stank, the floors were manky, the bathrooms were small and pokey, and the extensive back and front yards were filled with rubble and weeds. There was a view of a telephone pole in the backyard, and a row of ugly, stunted little bushes, plus a big black hole where someone had burnt a lot of junk. But the very worst thing was an ancient Victorian greenhouse which was falling down in a rather spectacular way: every single pane of glass was shattered or broken, the outer wall looked to be crumbling, and the inside was filled with rubble and weeds. The area around the greenhouse had more dock weeds and dandelions than I've ever seen in my life.

Dina stood, surveying all of this, and smiled. 'This place is great,' she said. 'Look at that little bubbling brook!' I was surprised: she was right! There was a lovely little brook a stone's throw from the house, but you could barely see it for the trees. Beyond the brook was a beautiful field dotted with gorse and heather, but you could hardly see that either. What you COULD see was a whole lot of junk and rubble. It was depressingly, overwhelmingly obvious that the place was a dump. To everyone, it seemed, but Dina.

During the past four years we have made many trips to Dina's house, and the transformation has been amazing. First she knocked out the two back windows and made them into sliding glass doors. All of the bedrooms were painted and decorated, walls were knocked down here and there, and the change was phenomenol. A huge deck was built outside, trees were chopped down, opening up a fantastic view of the neighboring fields, a hedge was established to hide the telephone pole, and the large burned area was dug out to form a fish pond. The greenhouse was demolished over a few scary weeks, and in its place is now a stunning artist's studio of glass and wood surrounded by a tiered herb garden with driftwood sculptures artfully placed.

But it is her gardens that fill me with envy. Everywhere you look there is something beautiful or interesting. Near the brook is a fairy garden with a wood-chip path surrounded by woodland flowers and whimsical touches: crystals hanging from trees, tiny hand-crafted sculptures strategically and unobtrusively placed. On the far side of the house is a wildlife garden shaded by tall trees and bursting with a splendid selection of wildflowers. The house is surrounded by every climbing vine you can imagine: wisteria, honeysuckle, climbing roses, golden hops, clematis, ivy, Virginia creeper. Her herb garden is a riot of different colors and textures: soft, wooly lambs' ears, fluffy bunches of bright green parsley, silvery green and blue catmint, variegated lemon balm in butter-yellow and green, dainty plumes of fennel, and golden clumps of marjoram. Her vegetable beds are filled with neat rows of strawberries, runner beans and Chinese broccoli. There are roses and peonies and hydrangea and azaleas -- flowers and shrubs too numerous to mention. Everything is thriving and a lot healthier than the plants I've been agonizing over in my humble garden for the past two years. For God's sake, I've paid to go into less attractive gardens than hers.

What amazes me most is Dina's vision. I saw what was in front of me: a nasty, drab, dull-as-dirt box of a place surrounded by a world of junk; she saw endless potential.

Last year, I happened to go to the beach with Dina and we found an old rope which she insisted on dragging back to the car.

"What in the world do you need an old rope for?" I asked. It smelled, after all, and it was falling apart.

"I can use this in my garden."

I should have known, but all I could think about was how much trouble she'd have getting rid of the thing once she'd realized how gross it was.

Yesterday I noticed it hanging down the side of the house from the balcony on the second floor. It is smothered in wisteria and looks like a million bucks. Driving around the area, I've noticed a fair amount of wisteria about, creeping up frames and trellises and spreading up garden walls, but you've never seen anything like Dina's wisteria-up-a-ship's-rope garden feature.

Like I said, I'd hate her if I could.


Brian said...

If Dina is any good at removing rampant lantana , I could have used her at Dondingalong !

Luckily , apart from that plant pest , I was able to utilise the nature of the place , and stick to native plants and growth to provide all the wildlife sanctuary and Oz views that I could wish for .

But , I have to say , your friend's efforts sound delightful !!

Mary Witzl said...

Believe me, Brian, Dina is the kind of person who would not only help you get rid of your lantana, but consider herself thrilled you'd asked. That's another of her irritating features: she loves helping people. And feeding them: her idea of a good time is having a group of friends show up unannounced and hungry. Weird, isn't it?

As for your lantana, have you finally gotten rid of it or does it keep coming back? Everyone has their own botanical nemesis. I've got several: Montbretia first and foremost (I keep finding more of this), ground elder (ditto -- and it keeps coming back), and dandelions, which just don't know when to quit. Still, my weeds give me a windmill to tilt at and probably help me avoid too much middle-aged spread...

Kanani said...

Well, there are people like that. You usually find them out in the country, where they have what seems are borderless days not framed by anyone else's version of standard time!

It sounds beautiful, and it's always a marvel to find someone who has done this to a house, a garden.

But she must really love whatever it is that she's tending to at the moment, that's why she does everything so well.

Katie Alender said...

That sounds incredible. I love the fairy garden! I have no talent for gardening... but I'm a great demolisher! I wonder what that means, ha ha.

Carole said...

Dina sounds like a wonder. Perhaps she is taking a vacation soon to St. Louis Missour? I would be happy to put her up in exchange for some ideas.

However it is great to have at least one friend who does really well at most stuff. You can utilize her brains and everyone will think its yours. Or at least that's what I do.

Next time you go visit, take a digital camera and give us a view of her place.

Brian said...

When we left Dondingalong , Mary , I left the lantana behind . But I still get the shudders when I see it in people's gardens-- though it is usually the speciallly bred non-invasive type there. Still smells to me of rabbit piss though !
I doubt that Dina could really have done much over the 25 acres we had up there on the Mid North Coast -- unless she was willing to tackle the other hundreds of acres infested by the stuff all over the neighbours' properties.
It is so common now the authorities have given up on its declaration as a noxious weed all over New South Wales .

The red lantana -- pretty -- is poisonous to cattle -- but the birds are happy to spread it far and wide . And they do !


Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- Dina is also managing a degree in art/textiles (up to this point, she has been self taught), is a registered carer, sheltering people who cannot physically care for themselves or who cannot be left alone, and has provided foster care for any number of children. She can get more done in one hour than I can in six. Until I met her, I fancied myself efficient...

Katie -- Demolishing is half the skill of gardening! I am beginning to see that if you can dig, weed and rake, all demolishing skills to some extent, the other stuff is a breeze. But gardening is the sort of thing people tend to get into when they are out of their thirties. No need for you to rush into it!

Carole -- Dina travels out to Canada occasionally (her mother was Canadian), and if she were ever out your way, she would definitely be happy to give you pointers -- I don't even have to ask her! I'm not handy with digital cameras, but the next time we go there, I will definitely take pictures of everything and try to post them. I'll have to get the kids to show me how to do this, though...

Brian -- TWENTY FIVE ACRES? Dear God, you had your work cut out for you! I remember lantana as being a pretty shrub with variegated flowers that smelled -- distinctive. It is odd to think of it as a noxious weed. But I have heard that Montbretia has been classified as a noxious weed in Australia, and if Australian Montbretia is anything like the tenacious stuff I have in my garden, 2.5 acres of it would just about do me in -- forget about 25.

kathie said...

Dina must be done away with at once! She sounds amazing and we can't have that, can we. Seriously, what a tremendous body of work and love. So lucky you can share it with her.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Kathie -- You're right: we are lucky to know her. I will pass these comments on to Dina, who I know will be pleased, though she will say that what she does is nothing, that lots of people can do it and do it better, too. This is nonsense, of course, and I think she secretly knows it.

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