Well grounded

Stands to reason that a time of quarantine and enforced solitude would also be a time of neighborhood beautification and a spike in amateur horticulture, landscaping and hobby farming.

It’s a perfect storm of factors: idle hands, devil’s garden; food scarcity with apocalyptic overtones, distrust of supply chain and fear of the fomite;  stress and malaise of modern life finding, as it ever has, relief and redemption in the feel and smell of the topsoil, something atavistic and, yeah, grounding.

It’s about that sense of peace and meaning found in the ground.


I know it is real, but I am afraid it was ruined for me during the summer I turned 19. I went to work with my best friend at the time, a Cornell-trained horticulturalist with the skill set of a visionary if eccentric landscape architect just getting a business off the ground in the Hudson Valley.

Hiring him, you took on a mess of things, but you got your value on the back end. More often than not, works of real landscaping genius. Your garden variety, brute landscaper, working with the right angles of yews and walls, wrestles your property into the shape you think you want. M friend translated the will of your property, and it changed you.

I enjoyed learning about flowering shrubs and ground cover, and which plants prefer nitrogen-rich soil. I took part in the building of fine and ambitious freestanding stone walls, some of which still stand freely around New Paltz. The smell of bone meal will never leave my nostrils.

There were drawbacks. He was really meant to work alone — too visionary, too idiosyncratic. Your life had to sync to his erratic genius. He would prowl his work sites at night, claiming certain contours of the property were only apparent then.

He had little sense of or respect for the boundaries of another’s life or property. His approach to material procurement was unorthodox. The boulders that were a functional feature of many of his designs were rolled — by me — out of streams or picked off of farm walls. Ground cover like myrtle and pachysandra was harvested, by me, from choice spots off in no-man’s land off Libertyville Road.

Of course, it was some-man’s land, and I got caught in the act numerous times. Strangely, instead of getting reported or threatened, I got scolded, morally upbraided, coached in environmentalism. This is New Paltz, after all. It stung. But I was complicit.

Before that summer, I had never had back problems. Since that summer, I have never not.

My wife has discovered our property in a big way since her fledgling career as a background performer in film and television screeched to a halt. She is doing it alone, but this is all to the good. Her upper body and core strength are the best they have been in years. She’s etched a line of relief around the foundation and waged war against her nemesis, poison ivy. Questions about neurotoxicity and cures being worse than the disease have been asked, but she assures me she has this under control.

Meantime, hedges and shrubs have been pruned back like a fastidious bureaucrat’s fingernails. Channels of gravel and woodchips have opened. We are no longer the shame of the neighborhood, or at least no longer feel that way. Granted, everyone’s else’s property has kept pace, so the Burdick vs. Jones disparity is unchanged.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.