Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Buried History

Digging has its purposes - to turn the soil, to kill the weeds, to aerate - but the real motivation is much simpler: to find things.  I dig in the soil to find out its texture, its rockiness, its depth, its fertility.  I dig in the yard to find, and to destroy, all of the Bermuda grass roots that threaten my future garden.  I dig along the sidewalk and driveway to reveal the rough edges of cement and the knobby grooves that harbor Bermuda rhizomes.  I dig in my yard to discover the history of my property, as told by bits of buried garbage and treasure.  If I am lucky, I find something unexpected or revealing that tells me about the homeowners that came before me.

My house, built in 1951, has had three owners.  The original owner was also the builder of the house, and of many of the houses on the block.  He raised a family in this house, adding a master bedroom and expanding the kitchen as his family grew.  My neighbors tell me that his wife was an avid flower gardener.  The second owner modernized the house, adding air conditioning, fans, and carpets, painted the walls an awful, greenish shade of off-white, and then rented it out.  I am the third owner, and, every time I work on the house or yard, I peel away layers of neglect, accumulated during the rental years, to reveal the property of the original owners.

Hidden under the brush that took over the yard in the rental years was a double layer of bricks, the edge of a three-foot border that once surrounded the backyard.  Along the sides of the house, under the shrubs, and hidden in many corners, were more bricks, mostly grey, concrete bricks with a few red, clay bricks in the mix, that I have piled into a stack in the backyard.  Behind the barbecue structure (another edifice of brick), buried under a few layers of leaves, I found hand prints and names, Don, Valore, Edith, and Dan, signed in the cement, reminding me that this spot was once their territory.  Farther along the fence, in front of a gate leading into the neighbor's yard, a stone pathway across the border was also buried under years of leaves.  The wide pathway, and the lack of privacy shrubs along that side of the backyard, spoke of a long friendship between the two households.

Digging up the front yard, I have discovered many artifacts.  Mostly, I have found garbage - rusty nails, cigarette holders, and soda can tabs.  But I have also unburied relics that remind me of my childhood in the eighties, like cat-eye marbles and ponytail holders, the kind that have two loops with a colored, plastic bead on each loop.  Near the front walk, I dug up two huge, rusty machine screws that may have been used when the sidewalk was built.  This morning, working on the section of lawn that is closest to the front porch, beneath the planter holding boxwood (Buxus microphylla) shrubs, I uncovered a mini-patio of bricks surrounding a water spigot.

Bricks are useful treasure of themselves, providing raw materials for garden paths, edges, borders, and, possibly, walls.  But, even more than I like finding a new supply of bricks, I enjoy the uncovering of something, even just a flat area around a spigot that no longer works, that speaks of the history of the house.  These corners of buried history remind me that there was somebody who came before that cared about the house and the property very much, somebody who had pride in her gardens, her yards, her neat edges.  Somebody who, like me, appreciated boundaries and straight lines and having a flat, clean spot to wind her garden hose.  And, in knowing that this small plot of land was cared for in the past, I become more resolved that it will be productive again in the future.

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