My Yard

A Chappaquiddicker evolves along with her land.

When I first saw the Chappaquiddick land that would become my home one day, it was covered with low brush and scrub oak. Along one side of the acre and a half was an overgrown peat bog. Up a rise from the bog was a small clearing with a few white and red oaks growing around its perimeter. Beyond the clearing, down a hill, was a grassy valley with four gnarled apple trees. I thought: I’ll put my house there in the clearing on the rise facing the bog, with the oaks on three sides and the apple trees behind. There was a gawky young chokecherry tree in the clearing that I didn’t want to cut down – I didn’t like to cut down any tree – so I sited the house with the cherry right off one corner of the front porch.

Growing up, I spent all my summers on Chappaquiddick, most of them in a house my family built on a bluff overlooking Cape Pogue Pond. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, summer homes were primarily situated around the edges of the island and we almost never went as far inland on my family’s land as the lot that became mine when I was twenty-two. The overgrown fields and woods were full of ticks and poison ivy, and except for blueberry picking expeditions, there was no reason to go back there. Life revolved around the ocean and along the dirt roads and the horseback riding trails.

In 1973, after five years of traveling, living, and working in many places, I started to build a house here during the summers. At first, I didn’t do much in the way of landscaping – I thought of that as something people did to their yards in town. When I was a kid, many of the Chappaquiddick summer homes were old hunting or fishing camps with small lawns of the kind of grass that grew in the old fields – tough vegetation that turned brown with the heat of summer and revived again each spring. As for flower gardens, people generally didn’t bother cultivating the sandy soil except for a few hardy perennials.

Initially, I claimed the area right around the house on two sides for a lawn. I cut down a few bushes, and since there was already some grass in the clearing where I built, I just kept mowing until a lawn appeared. I planted some daffodil bulbs and later dug a flower bed at the edge of the yard and a vegetable garden in the valley behind the house.

A couple of years later, I met my husband and we began to live here year-round – in just a shell of a structure. I was happy to be moving back into the woods, away from civilization, and I began to spend lots of time working on the house and growing vegetables and then children. A friend from the city, who was always looking to rent a house near the shore, asked me how I could stand living away from the water where there was no open vista. I never noticed the lack of a view; I think I was always looking toward my house. Like a turtle in its shell, I felt protected by my home surrounded by the woods, away from the big world.

My husband was new to the Island, but I had very particular ideas about what a Chappaquiddick yard should, or should not, include. Besides a small lawn, lilacs were all right because they were a traditional rural New England bush. My neighbors gave me some lilac suckers from the bushes next to their farmhouse, and I rooted a branch of a small climbing rose that grew near another old house on my road. I thought flowers belonged in flower beds, so the only ones that I allowed in my vegetable garden were nasturtiums and calendula – working flowers that could repel bugs and be eaten too.

I didn’t want any forsythia, even though I loved that first spring burst of color because, to me, they were town bushes and you didn’t see many of them on Chappaquiddick. I didn’t believe in buying perennials either. I would buy a few annuals, but otherwise most of my flowers arrived as thinnings from my family’s or friends’ gardens. I liked plants to have a history, like a family genealogy of the places they had lived before my yard.

At the time I started building my house, people usually only cleared an area big enough for construction. Later, especially when more houses started being built in the woods, lots were often cleared of most of the trees and bushes that grew there. When I first heard the term “native species” used for the bayberry and beach plum bushes that were being planted around the new houses, I couldn’t understand why people would purposefully plant those common bushes that were already growing everywhere.

Over the years, the island population grew and changed and many island yards became the domain of professional landscapers, who planted the kinds of highly cultivated flowers and bushes that I associated with gardens in town. New people changed the look of the island and the island worked away on me, changing what I liked and valued.

Six or seven years ago, I was visiting my parents off-Island when I saw some forsythia for sale in a neighbor’s yard. They were basically sticks in pots of dirt but I bought them on a whim and stuck them into the wall of brush at the edge of my yard. I figured if they grew, fine – if not, fine. They were mowed over a couple of times but then suddenly a few springs ago, there were about ten swooping branches of bright yellow blossoms.

Hostas were another town perennial I had never allowed in my yard. For one thing, they were old-lady plants – I wasn’t the only one who thought this. But now, approaching age sixty, I’ve taken to them and have a few different types tucked into flower beds at the edge of the lawn, next to the lilies of the valley under the oaks. I planted a dogwood and some kind of sweet-smelling mock orange tree that I dug up as tiny sprouts from a friend’s yard in a suburban off-Island neighborhood. And now in my vegetable garden (moved to the front yard), phlox and iris and gladiolus grow next to rhubarb, onions, and beans. Thirty years ago, I would never have imagined such a thing.

A few years ago, I started to notice I was feeling claustrophobic as I drove down the narrow dirt road to my house, between the walls of brush with the trees arching overhead. And my yard began to feel too dark and small. The oaks had grown so big they filled the summer sky in the front. The chokecherry tree, now covered with great burls, crowded up against the porch and, like an overgrown warty adolescent, sent its gangly branches up over the roof, blocking light to the skylight and rubbing against the roof shingles. The scrub pines in the driveway were shading a big part of the yard in the mornings. Things were feeling too closed in!

So I went on a rampage and tore up invasive bittersweet and honeysuckle vines by the roots. I chopped down all sorts of native species to clear a view in front of the house out toward the peat bog. I hired a crew to cut down the scrub pines and trim the low branches from the oaks. The radical pruning initially dismayed my family, but I went ahead and had all the limbs cut off the chokecherry tree next to the porch. Now the trunk stands like a seven-foot-tall sculpture – one that my husband claims he’s going to carve someday.

Every time I drive into my yard these days, I’m happy to see the big patch of sky where the pines used to be. With the oaks trimmed back and the view to the bog, the yard feels open in a way it never was before. Last May the lilac bushes, which had never done well, were covered with blossoms – due to all the new light, I think.

Although I’m still happy my house is back in the woods, I find I have more of an interest in what’s beyond my yard now. After all these years of living mostly close to home, I began to travel again. I went to Ireland, which, like our Island, is cozy but has wide-open vistas, and I brought back tubers of the bright orange Crocosmia that grows everywhere in the hedgerows along the narrow lanes, and I put them into my vegetable garden where they bloom next to the wild arugula whose seeds I brought back from a trip to France.

My yard has always been the place where I interact with nature, where my relationship to plants nourishes me and gives me pleasure. I’m glad for the way my yard and I have grown and transformed over the years – we reflect a view of the larger world now. The forsythia, though, is still on probation!