One woman’s vision

It’s a hot Sunday in May, and my to-do list is filled to the brim — tomatoes and basil to plant, posole to cook, and concrete stoops to power wash. But all I want to do is sit on the porch and stare out at the hazy sky, coffee in hand. I hate that I saved all my chores for today. There’s way too much to tackle, and the more I consider the impossibility of finishing everything, the crankier I get.

Clearly the best thing to do is ditch it all and go visit a garden.

The celebrated, private gardens of Montrose are open to the public today — one of only two days in 2011. Usually I hear about these openings too late, but not this year. I don’t want to miss seeing them again.

I grab a wide-brimmed hat, hop in the car, and meander past meadows and cow pastures to the leafy environs of Hillsborough, North Carolina. This tiny historic town is the county seat and home to an annual hog festival, a reconstructed 17th-century Indian village, and a slew of notable authors, including Annie Dillard, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, and Hal Crowther. At the downtown pub, you might see bikers mixing with banjo players, blue-clad college kids beside farmers in overalls, or an ex-presidential candidate lying low among the locals.

I take a road that winds away from the town’s main drag, pass by an Episcopal church, and park at an elementary school. Montrose is next door. As I enter through the front gate, the cries of circling red-tailed hawks capture my attention. But soon the vegetation steals the show.

Trees of burgundy and green surround a lush expanse of lawn. I follow a gravel path to the front of the house, which used to be the governor’s mansion (back when Hillsborough was the capital). And from there, I visit garden after garden — some in shade, others in sun, each a riot of color and semi-contained chaos. Nigella and poppies have sown themselves into the pathways; their insistence and exuberance charm me as I step around them. I see banana trees, wicked thorns of barberry bushes, cast-iron urns spilling over with plants, roses climbing rustic trellises made of juniper, and a magnificent magnolia with crazy-looking blossoms larger than my head. Cats wander through it all, occasionally deigning to pose for a photo or two. Under some shade trees near a line of boxwoods, lemonade is being served. Its sweet tang takes the edge off the heat.

I head to the greenhouse to view the plants for sale and end up clutching a small conifer and a bright green succulent. A man wearing a worn cap over his long hair notices me and says, “You look like you’re having the time of your life.” I smile and move into the shade. He’s right: my mood has changed entirely. I no longer feel aggravated about my to-do list, the weather, or anything else. Somehow being here has catapulted me into another state of consciousness. Time seems to have slowed, and I’m filled with gratitude.

I walk over to a tent to pay. When I ask to whom I should write the check, an older woman replies, “To me.” Nancy Goodwin, Montrose’s owner and self-taught master gardener, is sitting in a lawn chair looking at me with a gaze clear and sharp. Her nondescript clothes and no-nonsense manner overlie a potent energy, charisma, and passion — as though Cleopatra were packed into a seed. This one woman has managed to create gardens at a nearly unbelievable scale, without power tools or irrigation and with only a handful of women to help. I’m both humbled and inspired by her vision.

I want to dream bigger.

Our creations have their own lives

I’m sharing coffee with my sister, an artist whose home is splashed with color and pattern. The walls are ochre, scarlet, and cocoa; bright green gingko leaves fill the curtains. Origami cranes peek out from under pots filled with jade and African violets. An owl made of acrylic and spare computer parts flies out of a canvas in the bathroom, and close-cropped photographs of wild mushrooms adorn the stairwell. All of this gets moved to new places every week or so. Her home’s dynamism is so different from the spare, cool aesthetic of mine, with its wooden floors, clear surfaces, and white walls. Once something is positioned in my house, it stays there. I thrive in a quiet, intentional environment, but I envy my sister’s color and verve. As I look at the walls of her kitchen, I wonder what color they’ll be the next time I visit.

I drain my cup as she wanders off. She returns with a bucket of clay, sets it in front of me, and says, “Will you help me make some cats, please? I have so many to make before next week.” She’s talking about figurines for the Lost Cats Project, a citywide hide-and-seek game she cofounded to promote not-so-random acts of creative kindness. After sculpting and painting the cats, she names them, gives them collars, and tucks them into hidey-holes in parks, galleries, restaurants, and museums throughout the greater Richmond, Virginia, area. Then she tweets clues regarding their whereabouts, sending groups of seekers into a frenzied search.

“So, will you please make some? It’s easy. Here, I’ll show you.” She rolls a hunk of clay into a ball and rapidly coaxes it into form.

I hesitate. I’m not so good with my hands.

“C’mon, I need to make 100 more. Will you help me? You’ll be my guest artist. It’ll be fun.” I take a handful of cold clay and roll it between my hands until it becomes supple. Soon I’m looking at a cat. This cat has a smushed head and a vexed expression, but she’s sort of appealing. I name her Isadora and ask my sister to paint her orange. For another hour, we sit together making cats. She’s right. It’s fun.

Some months later my sister sends me a stop-motion video made by a VCU art student who found Isadora. In it, we see Isadora come to life and go on an adventure. She wanders out of a building to a river, stumbles over the roots of a tree, and winds up on a bench, where her new owner finds her.

Seeing this video stuns me. I can’t help but smile — and cry a bit. I’m moved that the artist was inspired to fashion a beautiful, quirky little film in response to finding Isadora. (OK, it was a class assignment, but still.) Though he describes his video as “silly,” I’m reluctant to dismiss it. It’s brief, but it’s also potent.

What we create wanders through the world, sometimes with surprising results.