Author Pat Conroy famously wrote these words in his 1986 novel, "Prince of Tides": "My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call." I've never forgotten this quote, although I think it's taken me years to fully understand it.
Is the landscape of our past, of our childhood, what truly determines who we are? What about landscapes that we experience as adults? I was fortunate, I think, to grow up as I did—on a small farm in southeast Pennsylvania with both sets of immigrant grandparents and scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins close by. The hilly landscape, lush and green during spring and summer, turned vivid red and gold in the fall. Old farmsteads surrounded by low stone walls lined winding roads that were once carriage trails, and every few miles at crossroads stood inns dating from the 1700s.
I grew up in the oldest part of the country, with people who were old. They were people with broken English, who spoke of the old country—who circled around us kids and defined our world as we grew up. We weren’t close to them, and we didn’t learn their language. They smelled of age and another century, but they were fixtures in our world.
Today, when I think about who I am, this is my wound. All the old people are gone now, and so is the farm and much of that landscape. Images of them come to me now in flashbacks when I try to sleep, vignettes of memory so vivid that I want to call out to them.
But when I drive up the hill from Phoenix, and catch those first glimpses of the Peaks, I have—I am—a new geography. When I'm out working in the field in Marble Canyon, I have a new landscape. It's jagged and wild and ferocious. It's barren and brown and wind-battered. I love it as much as I loved Pennsylvania. Yet one thing has stayed constant—my love of plants and gardening.
Everyone in my extended family gardened. Huge vegetable and flower gardens. They were Eastern Europeans, after all. I learned from them, and as an adult I continued the tradition. When I finally had a place to garden in Maryland, my mother gave me some raspberry bushes to plant that were the offspring of my Aunt Anna's bushes.
I'm still gardening, even though it's quite different here in northern Arizona. No more raspberries. Now I mostly plant natives, and encourage wildflowers to grow. My ability to grow vegetables is limited in Doney Park, and I can't seem to find the right place for my geraniums.
My grandmothers and my mother grew geraniums, here and in Eastern Europe. The houses that they lived in faced south to gather the sun, and they planted grapevines and geraniums and snapdragons in the front yards.
I must have two geographies, really—the old and the new. My old geography is "my anchorage, my port of call," and it informs the new. I will always grow geraniums, and I will always have a vegetable garden. But I will also always love the fleabane and the pinyon pine—the plants of my new place.