A Bridge, a Garden, and an Old Woman

Everyone knows the saying “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which has been repeated throughout history by Confucius, MLK Jr., Jesus, among others. Sure, I’ve always believed it to be true, but never have I truly understood it until now. Growing up,  my family and I kept to ourselves; we were good neighbors by respecting property boundaries and giving no reason for complaints. In college in Pittsburgh, the residents in my apartment were like ghosts.We’d hear muffled conversations through the walls and heavy bass music on weekends, but we didn’t hang out. Nothing but head nods in the hallway.

In the country of Blue Heron, it’s a totally different world. Forty years ago, a group of four people with little money bought these 65 acres of land with a goal for sustainable living, for the land to feed and support children and grandchildren. Now, doors remain unlocked, pets play everywhere, porches and fires and gardens are open to all.

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A couple days ago, Taylor and I helped the matriarch of Blue Heron and one of the original four, a feisty ninety year old woman named Barbara, fix up her garden. In her time, Barbara was a single mother and feminist activist. When we first met her she screamed, “Did you know Oklahoma had an earthquake and the earth sunk into the ground?!” Neighbors describe her as blunt; an example being when Taylor said he was from Maine she said she would guess, he looks like a moose.

Despite her hearty sense of humor and whit, her body is less with it. She needs Taylor and me to build a bridge over the creek by her house so she can drive her golf cart to the pond. The next evening, we returned to her house to show her the blueprints and estimated costs. When we arrived, her house was dark, so we waited in her garden.

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Taylor and I walked through, tasting different leaves. She has parsley, collard greens, lettuce, broccoli, kale, rosemary, cilantro, garlic, and more. We sat until dark, watching the bright yellow sun fold into an orange hue cast over the bare oak trees. The black and white cat, Smudgy, walked back and forth between us stroking her head into our palms. Once it was almost too dark to see, a car pulled into the driveway and ten minutes later, inch by inch forward, Barbara appeared at the front door with her walker.

We broke open a bottle of wine in her cozy living room stacked with books and CD’s. “This used to be a slave house,” Barbara said. Like most farmland in North Carolina, the land of Blue Heron used to be cotton and tobacco fields. When she found the shack-house it was falling apart, practically unlivable. Glancing up in the corners, at the chipping paint and hundred year old creaking wood, I could tell it was ancient. But the frame was made out of strong oak, and that was good enough for her. Every five years she made an addition to fix it up. She added a porch and a bedroom and a food closet. She worked all by herself up into her seventies.

Within those years, she and her neighbors grew a garden in her backyard. When she was seventy, she was down on her hands and knees working away in her garden until one day she couldn’t get up. No one was around to help her. Damn it, she thought. Stranded on the ground, her body failed her in a way she could no longer ignore. Her mind raced to find a solution. Giving up gardening was not one, hell no. She scooted her butt all the way to the porch and pulled herself upright. That’s it! She must find a way to stand and garden! Standing garden beds!

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A nice Russian man staying with her at the time built circular brick beds. A few years later, another neighbor instilled even higher beds out of wood.  Now here Taylor and I are, fixing them up.

As long as you have something to give to the community, anyone is willing to help you. For Taylor and I to build Barbara’s bridge, neighbor Andy is letting us use wood from his yard that he’s currently using to make an extension on his house. We help Andy build his house in exchange for wood for Barbara’s bridge. In exchange for our labor, Barbara feeds us delicious lamb burgers and hot soup and an abundance of fresh greens from her garden. See how it works? There is so much trust and openness, it’s almost a cultural adjustment.  A simple one at that. Love thy neighbor is at the heart of living sustainably and cheaply. It’s about finding success and happiness in craft, trade, nature, giving, food, and each other. To renounce false definitions of success that stress money and material wealth in order to realize that your only place in life is to help those around you and help yourself.

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