Tom Nuernberger and his wife both came to last month’s neighborhood board meeting, which is always a rehearsal of restrictions and property lines. Tom, of course, wore big overalls over his hoodie. When the meeting was over, I asked Mrs. Nuernberger about her new greenhouse, and she showed me pictures of plants climbing the windows, which looked out over their trees and pond. Another picture was taken from the house, of yellow lights in the greenhouse windows at dusk. I was hoping she’d invite me over to see it, and she did.
Every time I walk to the highway and back, I peek at their property from the road. There’s a green door and cedar planks framing the greenhouse windows. I can see the edge of their pond, too, but I don’t know it like I know Papa Jay’s pond, because I haven’t walked its circumference a hundred times— over the moss, across the rocks, under the cedars, and over the bridge.
Papa’s gate is, in part, our gate too. It sits at the corner of our yard, tucked among the honeysuckle, like a door to a garden that isn’t so secret. Just today, I opened the latch and walked over the threshold to see leaves littering the water, bordered by burning bush and shedding oaks.
There’s a sense of knowing that comes with walking a property like Papa’s again and again.
Up on the hill at the end of Edgewood Road stands the skeleton of a new house. Trent is helping Jeff (the owner) build it, and Jeff’s family are members in our church, so they don’t mind us walking the floorboards to see how things are coming.
Trent, Janaya, and I drove to the hilltop one night last week to see the sunset lighting the West, over the pasture and pond and bones of the house. (I hope they don’t mind, but I’ve already named the place Sunset Hill.) I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets and walked down to Jeff’s fence line. On the other side is a farm with cows, all congregated in the twilight. When they saw me, they spooked and mooed.
The light was leaving as we crossed the gravel lane in front of the house and walked down into the lower field, which Jeff bought along with the house lot. Crossing that property line is something I’ve dreamt of doing for a long time, even before the cul-de-sac was dug out and surfaced. Dad, Mom, and I would end our walk standing on the hill, gazing out and down into that sunny glade of grass. Back then, there was an electric fence for the cows Mr. Davis kept.
The fence is gone now, and though I miss the cows, there’s a new sense of openness and welcome on the hill. In all my years living here, I know it better than I ever have, and it’s because I know the people who own it— rather, who belong to it.
I just read Andrew Peterson’s new book, The God of the Garden, and he talks lovingly (and often) about the footpaths in England that allow strangers to wander the wide lands:
“Footpaths were once how people got around in England, and though they’re mostly recreational nowadays, they’re still a reliable way to get from one town to the next. We have just as many rivers, creeks, and waterfalls [in America], but our individualism has cut us off from the best things about this continent: the land.”[i]
I walk Edgewood Road nearly every day, and there’s a lot to notice, but there’s also a limit to how far I can see. Edgewood is a paved streak that slices through the land, fencing us off from each other. Mom remembers running through a field that’s now the Pates’ backyard. She remembers when a barn silo stood on what’s now Lot #40-something— Dave Halls’ place. Before Mr. Argyle bought it up, this neighborhood was a farm that belonged to one farmer. Papa Jay was one of the first to build, and he knew Mr. Argyle, so Mom and Uncle Mark roamed his fields and forests.
Yes, there’s a sense of knowing that comes with walking a property, but it also happens after you’ve come to know a person— a landowner— as a friend.
I discovered this when I started up a neighborhood gardening business last spring. The best thing about it was being welcomed into peoples’ spaces— into the gardens and yards I’d only seen from a distance.
I got to know Mr. Bill’s trees at the crest of Edgewood, as I spread mulch around them. I spent hours in Mrs. Brenda’s little English garden atop her retaining wall, where I weeded and watched cars go by. And I trespassed Mrs. Betty’s beds, deadheading flowers for her, working under pine boughs on the backside of her beautiful, old Tudor home. From there, I could see a tea set in the window, framed by blooming hydrangea, and across the way was her wide, green yard.
I remember when Mr. Davis started allotting his land on the hill and selling it off in slices. The gravel road was extended into a cul-de-sac, and the basement for a house was cut into the field. We were walking to go see it one evening, when we passed Tom Nuernberger and his wife in their truck. They wanted to see the new place, too, and to mourn what seemed like the desecration of it. Tom joked about spinning some gravel right in front of the house. We laughed together, because we shared a deep sense of care for this land— our land—and a new home means new people who might not love God’s creation like we do.
But a new home also means new neighbors, and I’ve learned that knowing a person better inevitably leads to knowing a place better. The person is what gives the place its name. They inhabit it, and it doesn’t just become theirs, but they learn to belong to it— just as Adam and Eve found their place working and keeping the Garden of Eden, naming its creatures and trees. And just as we’ll find ourselves at home in the New Eden, dwelling alongside the people we were cut off from in this world of fences and property lines.
In the meantime, I’ve found that neighborliness has a way of crossing those fence lines to open on a wide field of shared belonging.
[i] Andrew Peterson, The God of the Garden, (2021: B&H Publishing Group. Nashville, TN), 128