Our first walk on the land that was to become ours wasn’t so welcoming. The biting December winds had wilted any perky green things remaining, leaving crusty dirt clods and bare branches. We picked our way through the property—a tangled mess of iced-over shrubbery we brightly referred to as a “wooded backyard.” Then we stood on the sagging porch, where dried ivy vines clung resolutely to the bricks, and imagined what it might look like for our son to play there one day.
We put an offer on the house.
Come April, we signed the papers, and Lot 3 on the northwest corner of Wood and Church Street became ours. It was the first time I had ever owned a piece of land.
Spring had unfurled on our patch of earth by the time we moved in, making our modest landscaping plans seem overly ambitious. Who would’ve thought a less-than-quarter-acre plot could be so untamable? Mosquitoes teemed in the dank “wooded backyard,” making it less than appealing to be outside for more than 10 seconds, and the place had literally gone to seed with weeds, which sprung up higher than my head over the course of a month. Land ownership, I learned, is not for the faint of heart.
Yet, I’ve come to love my little patch of God’s green earth. In the months since we’ve moved here, I’ve treasured it the way a lover catalogs and cherishes the beloved’s eccentricities. Each tidbit I’ve learned about the land makes it a bit more precious.
Cleaning the kitchen cabinets, I found a sheet listing all the property owners since the land was first settled. Mary S. and Edward S. Winslow brought the property on May 16, 1849. The land then transferred hands several times until 1889, when it was split into three lots. Lot 3 was acquired by a certain Julia S. Chandler, who built a house on it, raising property taxes from $2.86 to $18.86. We have a framed picture of her in our dining room, cut from an old newspaper. In it, looking quite dignified in a high-necked white dress, she sits on a wicker rocking chair,—a newly built home behind her.
The list goes on, stopping abruptly with Maureen and Rodger Darling, who bought the place in 1969. They seem to have been the last people who put significant work into the house, given its rather neglected state when we bought it.
It’s in the particulars that we encounter the holy.
I feel an odd connection to these people, though my husband laughs at me about it, because we have all made this same piece of earth our home. Knowing their names and small details about them grounds me in the sacred specificity of this plot of land. After all, Jesus didn’t appear everywhere at once, but was born to a certain Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod. It’s in the particulars that we encounter the holy.
Knowing the names of these specific folks is also humbling. Each person once owned the land, built fences, planted flowers, and cut down trees—and now they don’t. My husband and I own it now, though we don’t own it the way someone owns a piece of jewelry and keeps it in a box. The earth has a way of asserting its own sovereignty. It is a living thing, teeming with chipmunks, woodpeckers, and beetles who let you know that they live here, too.
The sidewalk on the east side of the house in Julia Chandler’s picture no longer exists, probably covered by decades of humus from decaying leaves. Maureen and Rodger Darling’s railroad tie fence, built to keep their four kids corralled, has since fallen apart, leaving gaping holes and wood scraps strewn along our property line. We make our mark on the earth, and then the wilderness creeps back in, eroding what we built to last.
It’s a dismaying thought, but also a grace. It means that, eventually, rotting vegetation will neutralize the high levels of arsenic and lead in the soil (I had it tested to make sure it was fit for growing edibles), undoubtedly present due to human activity. Those unwelcoming winter dirt clods and the prolific weeds I so detested last spring serve their purpose. They remind me that, though I presume to shape the land according to what I think is best, one day when I am not here, the earth will continue wintering, growing, and bearing fruit, according to the design of One much wiser.