Nature Nurture

Many years before we met, Tom bought a run-down property in Hammond. He went over the ¾ acre yard with a fine-tooth comb, removing the thoughtless hillbilly elements the previous owner left behind. The first thing to go was the oversized, above-ground swimming pool in the fenced-in yard between the front house and the back house, it left about two feet of walking space around its perimeter of the yard and nowhere to sit down. Visitors to the yard either had to get in the pool or stay inside.

There was an obnoxiously large satellite dish with a concrete foundation the size of a small car, buried underground, which Tom broke apart and removed to make way for a vegetable garden. 

The dream and possibility of providing a peaceful domestic life for his daughter, much different from the conditions he grew up in, inspired him; as well as the artist in him that valued process, no matter how long and hard he had to work to see things through to his vision. Any person in their right mind would have been turned off by the neglected property, Tom saw the possibilities of a cozy home, a tree swing in the apple tree for his daughter, a serene water fountain where the swimming pool used to be, and flower and vegetable gardens.

Tom learned about gardening from his Italian neighbors on the near north side of Chicago when he was growing up. They showed him the basics of growing and harvesting vegetables in their small backyard gardens. With seriousness and enthusiasm, he approached his artwork, he dove in headfirst into gardening, researching, and reading books on the subject. What could have been a relaxing hobby for him, became an obsession.  

He grew an heirloom vegetable garden in the field at the back of his property, multiple varieties of veggies grew from spring to fall; cold crops, hot crops, even State Fair, ribbon worthy 100-pound pumpkins, just for fun. He had the back house surrounded with delicate and temperamental heirloom rose bushes putting on a show a couple of times a season from spring to late summer. 

In my eyes, he was a master gardener. He knew the name of every plant and details about soil, composting, fertilizing, placement, pruning, and plant zones. He would dedicate a couple of weeks each spring to cleaning the yard and planting; I would stop by to see him as he was finishing up for the day and he would be absolutely glowing; fresh air and hard work made him happy. Soon I was able to see, he was self-medicating with sunshine to get through the dark places in his mind, he was an addict after all.

His visions and plans for his garden were always bigger and more expensive than he could achieve, and there was always an underlying dissatisfaction that would annoy him, but it never stopped him from trying to improve his garden, year after year.

When we bought our home in Dyer, we rented the Hammond houses to people who were interested in gardening and keeping up where Tom left off. It didn’t take long for Tom to see that no one would tend to the huge property with the passion he did. Each time he went back, over the next couple of years, he seemed more and more disappointed with the way the property was shaping up. The broken water fountain in the center yard surrounded by dog crap, overgrown flower beds, and the abandoned vegetable plot with the carefully groomed organic soil he left after years of cultivation. Finally, I assumed managing the property and arranged for the neighbor to mow the lawns with his riding mower every other week as the flower gardens were eaten up by weeds and grass. It was too painful for him to go back to the houses and see that his dream had been swallowed up by invasive weed trees and inertia.

Walks in nature have been a continued source of therapy for us; arguments, frustrations, losses of those close to us, financial strains, and rejections in the art world have been soothed away by the sun, the ground, and us walking together upon it. 

Many of our early days were spent walking at area nature preserves, Gibson Woods and Oxbow Wetland preserve in Hammond were our top favorites and were close, so we could easily go there whenever we had a little free time and wanted an escape. Every walking experience was completely different, the constant and inevitable changing of the seasons and what was happening in our lives brought on different feelings and emotions each time. 

It was a tonic on hard days when I was in the middle of my divorce, we would quietly crunch through the fall leaves and breathe in the crisp, woody smells. We’d stop somewhere along the well-worn path and Tom would hug me tight; I would look around at the golden light of the late afternoon and feel a glimmer of hope.

There were silent, cold, snowy, dark grey winter afternoons; we could see our breath as we trudged through the snow, holding hands. Afterward, we would go to the local Cracker Barrel and enjoy the smells of cinnamon and the huge stone fireplace; and the feeling like we were on vacation somewhere far from home. 

Spring was an exhilarating time. We could hear the sounds of animals and birds chirping and chattering loudly as they roused from a long winter. With a chill still in the air, we felt the warm sun on our faces; making plans for the future as we walked through the gray landscape with tiny fresh green signs of spring popping up all around. As the season progressed, the grass turned greener, trees filled out and flowers started to sprout and we would feel a growing sense of freedom and playfulness, which would lead to fun encounters out in the woods before the mosquitos started to appear. 

Our property in Dyer presented Tom with new and exciting challenges in the realm of yardwork. The previous owners designed and built the house in 1979; it was plain to see that the property was once their spacious dream home, on a four-acre, man-made pond, complete with its own peninsula that jutted far out into the pond. Their enthusiasm for the yard probably faded away as their kids grew up and their eventual divorce left her with the house and yard that were too much for her to handle on her own. When we entered the scene, you could only enter the house from the back door, the sides of the house were overgrown and treacherous with plenty of poison ivy and on a hill down towards the pond. The yard just behind the house was strewn with huge logs from a cottonwood tree trunk that surrounded a wide tree stump still in the ground with surface roots that made for easily twisted ankles as we walked around. There were overgrown bushes planted much too close to the house and ivy clinging for life to the wood siding. The wild and woolly peninsula was comprised of spindly maple trees and thick with invasive plants in a variety of species, it was eroded out in the far half, and when it rained, it would join with the pond, with trees growing out of it. It was nearly impossible to figure out where to begin the clean-up. The next morning, Tom went outside to start.

By the end of the day, he had cut down and removed all of the bushes surrounding the back of the house and dragged them to the front. A saving grace for us was the city service that came by every other week in the spring and fall to grind up our never-ending supply of yard debris. 

Later that fall, Tom methodically rolled each of the almost 50 cottonwood logs over to the peninsula and placed them upright along the shoreline to stop the continuing erosion. In the dead of winter, Em’rynn came over to help Tom shape up the peninsula. They identified and cut down all the unhealthy and dead trees to allow the healthier and appropriately placed trees to flourish. The following spring Tom ordered 20 cubic yards of dirt equaling a mountain, that was placed in the street in front of our house. Over the next month, he wheelbarrowed all of the dirt out to the peninsula; morning until night with breaks for breakfast, lunch, dinner and sleep. When he was done, the peninsula was a foot higher and had a tightly protected shoreline. 

Tom was greatly influenced by Em’rynn’s teachings about the types of plants that were native to our area, and how important it was for the birds and animals to have the right species of flora to thrive. Tom purchased books on the subject, and we found a company that sold native plant seeds for our area. I complained that the seeds were quite expensive, and Tom patiently explained to me that harvesting seeds from the wild was far more difficult than purchasing the easily collected seeds from domesticated garden plants. 

When the seeds arrived, Tom carefully broadcast the seeds into the new dirt; making sure that the shade plants were in the shady areas, the wetland plants were along the shoreline, and the prairie plants were in the open sunny areas. I was excited about the prospect of having this nature paradise of wildflowers the following spring. He told me that it could be years before we would see any of them, wild seeds needed time and certain conditions before they could sprout.

In the meantime, Tom started to focus on the rest of the yard; unearthing a red brick path that led from the side of the house all the way out to the peninsula. It had been buried by overgrown grass and dirt and forgotten. Tom dug up every brick, cleaned them, redesigned the path and relayed each brick creating a beautiful pathway around the yard and borders for future garden beds.

Each year, spring was greeted with a new project and improvement. Tom would assess the garden and realized that he had placed a bush or flowers too close together and would move them around like rearranging the living room, their relocation usually resulted in bigger, healthier plants. We would walk around the yard together and visit the new flowers blooming each day. Just like his art, he wanted the garden to entertain and put on a show for everybody. Thinking the garden looked perfect, I would want to invite people over, and Tom would say, not now, a big show is coming up in a couple of weeks when this plant or that would be in bloom. By that time, I would have forgotten about entertaining and just the two of us would see the glorious blooms of the buttery yellow Gram Thomas Roses.

The garden was a complete extension of Tom’s artwork, it’s a continuation of movements and ideas; a symphony of color, shapes, and sizes, numerous varieties of flowers purposefully planted to have something new blooming every single day, full of life and humor; as well as struggles and disappointments. 

It was a constant battle against invasive plants and grasses on the peninsula that would swallow everything up in the blink of an eye, if not tended to, there were a couple of years when we were very busy in the spring or summer and it took over like wildfire and we had to start almost back at square one. I was in charge of applying Em’rynn approved herbicides to those grasses and would cover up and walk through the thick and identify Reed Canary Grass, Cattails, and Purple Loosestrife.  

We would be sitting at the kitchen table early in the morning to look out and see a deer chewing the big delicious leaves off of one of Tom’s precious native plants, the leaves slowly disappearing into the deer’s mouth as we watched. I couldn’t help but laugh on the days each spring when he would discover the loss of his young sunflower plants, many of them gone and some of them pulled out and left lying there for Tom to find. The scene resembled Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny cartoons with Tom, the frustrated gardener losing his mind over his missing flower seedlings as a chipmunk sat nearby laughing. He would then spend the afternoon making the most elaborate contraptions to keep the animals out, which never really worked. Even with my blessing and encouragement, he was never willing to venture into anything lethal. 

Many years after spreading the seeds for the native plants on the peninsula, we started to see them appearing in the mix of other plants and grasses Tom planted over the years. Bright red Cardinal flowers growing amongst a variety of Milkweed and Monkey Flowers; attracting bees, dragonflies, and butterflies in droves. The beautiful ecosystem that Tom had dreamt of for years was flourishing right before our eyes. If we sat in the yard all day long, depending on the season, it was possible that we could see or hear, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Woodpeckers, Hummingbirds, Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, Robins, Great Blue Herons, Kingfisher, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Canadian Geese, Caspian Terns diving for fish, frogs, squirrels, a mink swimming across the pond, turtles sunning on a log, chipmunks running this way and that. By this time many of the logs Tom rolled to create the shoreline were disappearing, and early spring rains were flooding the far end of the peninsula again like they were when we first moved in.