When I was four and five, my dad attended graduate school in Chicago. We lived in a little 2 bed/1 bath high-rise apartment building. If I peered out the window of my parents’ bedroom I could look down on the playground lot. They had great (and deadly) teeter-totters and, I believe, a merry-go-round, swings and a lot of concrete. There may have been grass, but it left no impression on me. That may have been because my dad took a summer internship and temporarily moved us to a little, teeny town in upstate New York for the months that would have had some green about. Our rental house was on a typical suburban-size lot. It was a wonderful break from the big city and when the company offered my dad a permanent position after graduation, he accepted.
When we arrived at that second house, it was late. The house impressed me as being rather large, but as the goal was bed ASAP, I only remember not being able to see anything in the pitch black outside the windows (that was different from the city) and being rapidly bedded down. The next morning was like Christmas morning. I remember, first, running from room to room to room to room and then looking out the windows. Looking at the info on the house (the wonders of the internet), I can see that the lot was not even a full acre, but it looked endless to my little city-cramped eyes. Besides GRASS there was a tennis court surrounded by apple trees and with concord grapes growing at one end and (I will always think of the family that owned the house with immense gratitude for this) there was a large garden plot already planted and growing! My little sister was born in Chicago and my mother had never been able to get her to eat vegetables, but Chicago vegetables had little in common with what was growing there. She used to sit between the rows of peas and eat them right off the plant. I remember eating corn on the cob fresh from that garden, knocking Japanese beetles off the grape vines and the subsequent juicing of the harvest (concord grapes are STILL one of my favorite smells), picking and eating apples, then the apple blossoms and replanting the garden the following Spring, and of course Big Wheel bikes on the tennis court and lots and lots and lots of running and playing in that great, “endless” yard. We lived there for three years.
I spent the second half of my Junior year of college in London. At our orientation, one of the professors encouraged us not to be “prairie dogs”, popping down into the Tube (subway) at one location and only popping up when we got to our destination. He said we couldn’t really get to know the city unless we walked it. I took his advice. Actually, I really didn’t have much of a choice (I could either go to museums and plays OR ride the Tube, but not both)…but I would think of his advice when it took me an hour of walking to meet up with the rest of the class for a field trip, or Church, or wherever else I needed and wanted to go. I was ALWAYS out and walking around, which made it so odd when I attended a Church conference out in the London suburbs and came up out of the Tube station (I had to that time as it would have been about five hours round trip) and found myself standing in open space. I literally gasped. To NOT be completely hemmed in by buildings!
My husband accepted a job in California while he was finishing up his schooling and we went out for a house-hunting trip late that Fall. Before we got out there we had set our price range and were pretty confident we’d be able to find something great. The reality did not match our expectations. The houses we looked at were falling down, in crime-ridden areas, enormous distances from work. We re-crunched the numbers and determined we could inch up a little in price if we just lived poor for a while and went out for a final pass. Still, there were so many problems with them all and the daylight was fading on the last day of our trip. We decided to go to one that we’d decided against seeing before. It was a little starter home built back in the 50’s, single pane windows, no insulation, no central anything. The single-car garage had been converted into a room, but then had flooded due to faulty grading and had all the flooring torn out. The kitchen had about two linear feet of counter space, no dishwasher and very few cabinets, but as I stood there and looked around, I could see our kids running through it. My husband was shocked when I said I thought this might be it. He walked it again and then we went outside and looked at the yard. It was on half an acre of nearly flat land cut stair-step-wise into the hill. Because the hill was so steep, this meant that you could hardly see your neighbors on the adjoining parcels. We could see the roof of the neighbor’s house across the street from one of the front windows, but from all of the others we saw only our yard and surrounding trees. We put in loads of work on that house, replaced the siding and windows, insulated the walls and attic, lined the chimney so that we could run the woodstove safely, improved the drainage, installed wood flooring and a second woodstove in the “garage”, added lots of shelves, a portable dishwasher and a potrack to the kitchen, replaced a section of broken-up patio, and rebuilt the fence and gate. Of course, in that big yard we dug and planted garden beds and planted fruit trees and flowers.
We grew out of that little 2 bed/1 bath house at the peak of the housing market and, as my husband’s group was split between there and Oregon, we decided to see if we could find a bigger house for a do-able price in that market. As hard as I tried to be fine with the suburban houses we looked at, I hated looking out my windows into my neighbors’, I hated five other yards smashed up against mine, and those were the good ones! The Urban Growth Boundary laws in the area mandated certain housing densities before they would allow building to occur outside the line. IMHO, the mandated densities verged on the abusive. We drove through one of these neighborhoods on a Saturday morning–the houses were so close together it looked like a movie set–there were kids outside trying to ride their bikes on the 15 feet of sidewalk in front of their houses, dads nearly tripping over eachother trying to wash or fix their cars. If you choose to live in the city, fine, but people typically take on the additional commute and hassle of suburban life because they want a little more space and they could not get it! I had a friend who lived in one of these neighborhoods who said she couldn’t open her windows on nice days because she could hear her neighbors arguing and smell their cigarette smoke from inside their house. Her comment, was “I thought we had left apartment life behind us.” We ended up buying an older house on 2 acres a few miles outside that line, at the end of a gravel road, surrounded on three sides by a farmer’s fields planted in blueberries and various grains. When we asked our then five-year-old Biggest Brother what was important to him in a house, he had answered “sticks!” We had plenty of those, as well as dirt to dig in, trees to climb, piles of leaves in the Fall, gorgeous sunsets, cool breezes that blew in over the fields every evening and quiet broken only by the noise of the children playing. We dug garden beds, planted fruit trees, got our first chickens and a couple of little Nigerian Dwarf goats who never made a dent in the acre-plus we had fenced.
When we got ready to move here, land was the top priority. We didn’t want to build from scratch (codes and restrictions are ridiculous here) but we looked at tiny houses and the possibilities of adding on or putting up a manufactured home and keeping the first as a “granny flat”. We looked at seriously run-down houses and houses with odd room configurations and bizarre cosmetic additions, but always on land. I drooled over little nothings of places on 35 acres with riparian rights and houses where our dining table wouldn’t fit in the dining area but where you could see nearly to the State line from the front yard, but, honestly, none of these felt quite right. I found this place online one day–again at the eleventh hour. My husband liked the look of it and drove out during his lunch break and, circumstances as they were, we actually made an offer without ever have been inside the house. We came and saw it the next day. The house is enormous (built for giants, we used to say while we were trying to get used to it) and the land is great. Flat around the house, gently sloped where we are putting in the orchard, a pond, a valley that stays green when everything else has burned gold and woods in the back. And so we have begun here. A bit of garden bed digging, a couple of raised beds, a bunch of fruit trees, some grape vines and blueberry bushes started in pots in the front, a bunch of chickens, a couple each of barn cats, ducks and dairy goats and more of it to come.
I love the blank canvas of land, pointing and gesturing with my husband and my kids as we stand back and plan, re-think, adjust, at times fail and then go back at it again with a new vision. There’s a great part in Laddie (Gene Stratton-Porter) when the mother and father stop the carriage at the top of a hill overlooking their property and reflect on what they dreamed it could be when they first arrived. They remember with gratitude to God all that they’ve have been able to do here and marvel at how productive and beautiful it has become.
We shall see what the Lord has in store for us here.