Many people who find their way to my garden, after crossing two state lines and passing through three counties in a remote rural area, ask me the same question: “How did you ever find this place?” Although I seldom tell the tale to people because it sounds a little too fanciful, the truth is that I had a dream about it.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was married, lived in a city, and had achieved what I thought everyone expected me to achieve. I had a family I loved, a business, and a house in the suburbs. One night I had a strange, disturbing dream in which I saw my wife and children falling out of the sky. It was terrifying, but directly beneath them was a hauntingly peaceful scene I’d never viewed before. In my dream I saw the edge of a wooded glade, an old road with a sharp turn, a gorgeous lake, and some native plants that I later learned were prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and compass plant (S. lacinatum). The dream was so unsettling that I warned my wife to be careful driving.
The two years that followed plunged me unexpectedly into a painful divorce. I was devastated, feeling my life was over at age thirty. Eventually I found a job in another location and began piecing my life together again. A friend recognized how depressed I was and tried to help. One day she said, “Why don’t you meet me after work and I’ll show you a very special place where I live. It’s a place you might enjoy.” So late that afternoon, Susie and I drove out of town along highways that curved and twisted to the dirt road where she said she lived. When we got to the top of a large hill, with groves of trees all around, my friend stopped the car and said, “Look at this beautiful view of the lake.”
Cold chills immediately ran through my body and my mouth hung open. This was the view I had seen in my dream. There before me was the lake, the cedar and oak woods, the little meadow, and the large patch of prairie dock and compass plants. There was no mistaking the leathery leaves of the prairie dock or the north-south-facing compass plant leaves with their shoulder-high flower stalks and half-dollar- sized, sunflower-like flowers. I was speechless. Over the next several months I returned many times to swim in the pristine lake or just hang out.
Susie, who was moving out of state to get married, asked me one day if I was interested in renting the farm. I eagerly said yes, and Susie told me to talk to her sister, Anne, who owned the farm. Anne and I met, I signed a lease, and I ended up renting the farm from her for several years.
Anne was an absentee landlady, and she said that I could do anything I wanted at the farm, even remodel the house if I wanted. I added on a large room where I hosted a number of workshops for people who were in turmoil as I had been. I shared this tranquil space with several people whose paths crossed mine and who needed a safe place to heal and reflect.
And I gardened. It was that first year that I began my culinary garden, and a healing garden soon followed. I moved some prairie dock into the garden. Prairie dock is not an especially useful plant today, as far as I know, but I enjoyed studying its folk uses, and it led me to other traditional medicinal herbs. I also found that people with lives in transition responded to working in the dirt and tending plants the same way I did.
All the while, Anne and I were getting to know each other by telephone, her only social outlet because of her disability. Anne was partially blind and was beleaguered by a lifetime of diabetes. Each week, Anne and I would spend an hour or more on the phone. I would tell her what was going on at the farm that week–of visitors, of progress of the new herb garden I had begun, of new plants I’d added. We traded recipes using the herbs I was growing.
One day Anne called me with a question. “Jim,” she asked, “would you mind if I were to leave the farm to you? I know you would take care of it like
I want, better than anyone else.” I was stunned and honored.
Anne’s condition continued to worsen until she was faced with the need for a nursing home. I arranged for Anne to move to the farm with me. With the help of family and friends, I took care of her for two years.
Those were two of the most rewarding years of my life. Some months before she died, I told Anne about my dream of years before, of the plants I saw and the view of the farm and lake. “I’m not surprised a bit,” she said. “This place has always been your home.” Her words were simple but spoken with conviction.
Today and every day I am grateful for the gift Anne gave me and for the strange dream of so many years ago. Prairie dock still grows in my medicinal garden.
Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or comments; you may e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tour his gardens at www.longcreekherbs.com.