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Everything has a past it seems. Some would say even a newborn carries memories. Objects, too. I’m not sure about that. But I haven’t dismissed it hands down either.
My house has a past. Not a good one. At least not all of it. It was about 50 years old when we got here. Fair to bad shape. Some had just used it without replenishing. Others tried to set things right. Didn’t know they were in over their heads.
Maybe it takes some trips around the block to understand the past of a house can be hidden inside the walls. Open one up or try to take one down, it’s ancestry.com real estate style. Whoops. It always takes more time and dollars than one planned even when one plans on it taking more time and dollars than planned.
The roughest thing about this house was not the house. Though the wreckage inside would fill a long and boring list it was the abuse outdoors that had me wonder about those that came before.
A solid wood fence walled a backyard of little more than a rectangular lawn of grass and weeds, an orange tree, and redwood bark. Behind that fence in a wedge-shaped canyon lay the real sins. Empty containers. Old wood. Dead trees. Knee high weeds. Construction debris. Bricks. Unused tile and shingles. Anything one could pitch over a fence that hid the story of carelessness and irresponsibility. People had been playing pretend with their personal landfill for a long time. They never had to look down the hill.
Took a while to haul all the garbage up from the canyon, creek and woods below. To prune the trees and create a CalFire defensible barrier. To clear the weeds. And last, to remove the wooden obstacle to viewing the wilderness area and build a deer fence. Just in case we were lucky enough to draw wildlife back to the canyon.
The front of the house presented a different issue. In proportion to the refuse in back was concrete and asphalt in front. If behind was cluttered, the front was austere and vacant. But standing in the middle, where it had no doubt been for more than 100 years, was a heritage cypress tree. A bit worse for wear, bearing some disease and signs of poor pruning, with a few small limbs hanging brown from its branches.
Everything has its past. But before all this, the use, misuse, mindless negligence, and best attempts at doing what was thought right at the time, what had this place been? What wonderful stories might it tell?
Someone had grown vegetables here. I found thin plastic stakes buried in the dirt and marked with varieties of beans and tomatoes. Children’s handprints tickled a cement walkway, and a name was pressed into it. Plastic beach shovels and bits of broken toys were scattered in what once might have been a flower bed; I imagined toddlers running across the backyard lawn. And further down in the soil, sea shells. Shards and whole from clams and mussels. Perhaps from the first California inhabitants? Ohlone Indians.
Now my remnants. My handprints. I’ve lived here with my husband for eight years.
It’s 6AM on a near-summer morning of a near perfect day. At about 3PM the wind will bend the indigenous grasses we’ve planted where negligence once crept. The Pacific Ocean, just over the hill, will attract the evening fog. The breeze will announce its presence. I know this land. I can tell a tale of what it was not long ago, and describe what it is now. Sometimes I know what it will do before it happens.
Why were we attracted to this place? I remember my husband and I barking at the realtor who showed it to us. Why would you bring us here when it needs so much work? ‘Fixer-upper’ does not mean ‘raise from the dead’.
Yet after we harrumphed and quickly left, we couldn’t forget it. Was it its past that called to my husband and me? Perhaps a beautiful surviving trace of long ago that stayed when all others abandoned. Did it whisper to us? You can do it. You can hear me. Bring this land to life.
Our time. Our money. Our energy. Our passion. Our imagination. Our skill. Our will. With all of that we have been interpreters of the past, and the future.
Tree-trimmers have been here seven times in the last five years. They shake their heads and remark they’ve never seen such enthusiastic growth. One said, "Fecund is what they call this."
Four-inch plants I brought a few years back have taken over and last month we removed half of what was planted. There are more oranges than we can use. A lemon bush bears year round fruit. Wisteria climbs a pergola and bloomed for five months from late winter through summer last year. Weeping cherries call out cold weather retreat and stargazer lilies break ground for brilliance in summer. Once quarterly we have help to cut it all back and it takes two trucks and our composter to remove what's pruned.
Deer roam the canyon and gaze longingly through the wire fence at roses, hosta, and other delicacies thriving inside. They spend late pregnancy in the shade of the oak trees and have their babies creek side near the canyon bottom. From fruit trees I chase black squirrels attempting to escape with tasty bounty. Unwelcome raccoon and possum come for late night visits and I'm sure tap their toes waiting for August and September tomatoes. Darkness brings frogs roaring a chorus till they're hoarse and daylight is summoned by a bird riot.
As I look out on this brilliant morning I hear a familiar sound. No longer a whisper, the land shouts its thanks by offering abundance.
Everything has a past. And I wonder. How many people and places have I written off, dismissed, or thought of as undesirable that might be different with care and time, and the ability to hear a whisper that came from another time? Some small spark that antedated current corruption. When have I missed the call to care a little more than I did? And maybe missed the adventure and satisfaction I found here.
The whisper we heard when we first came here, I'm sure it was a note from the past. It was also a summons to life.