Out of Commission: Elk Rock Garden

Everyone needs a place of healing. You know what I mean – I hope you do. Not a place you go because it’s pretty, not a locale you merely love, but one that restores you to yourself. A well of strength you draw from when weakness – that invisible whining child – drags you down by the hand.

Churches were the obvious candidates, once upon a time. National Parks make excellent cathedrals in this age. But grandeur is not a prerequisite. Maybe your restoration waits at a favorite aunt’s kitchen table, or curled around a warm cup at the coffeeshop where you know all of the baristas and most of the other patrons, plus every item on the secret menu.

Wherever it is, name it. Appreciate it. If you can’t do that yet, look for it. Because you need it. Maybe not right now, but you will.

elk rock steps

A few weeks ago, I got out of the car after a shortish hike. I put my left foot on the ground and pushed off toward the grocery store entrance. Immediately, I sucked in my breath and curled my leg up protectively – like a heron, without the stateliness. I limped through the produce section and the checkout line, foot held stiff, and then I went home and iced it. These things go away. Instead, I dragged that foot through the next several days, periodically testing the knifepoint combination of pressure and bend at the main joint of my left big toe. I told coworkers it was no big deal, didn’t tell anyone who didn’t ask first, avoided friends who might question me. I allowed myself to worry just a little bit out loud each day: to my husband, in private. And by the end of a whole week off my feet with no end in sight, I was panicking inside.

The point here is not to tell you about my sesamoiditis – for that is what it turned out to be, and nobody needs to work up a lot of concern for my temporarily tender tendons. The point is that when you depend upon an activity, and then suddenly you can’t do it, your life flips upside down like an egg on a skillet, and the yolk breaks and slides off all over the damn place. Inventive swearing seems like the mildest reasonable reaction; panic is not out of place.

Someone at a workshop asked me once to define myself in one sentence. I declined the request at the time – how do you cram everything that’s important into a single utterance, unless you’re Charles Dickens? – but I’ve thought about it plenty since, and I have an answer ready. The last clause: “…a walker.” You’ll have figured that out by now.

What’s yours? Now imagine it’s taken away. Or maybe you already know what that’s like.

bricks

***

I’ve arranged to see my doctor tomorrow, but I have no idea yet what I’ll learn. Mostly, I think about something else. At this moment I’m driving home from work, and I’m out of audiobook. This means my mind is unfocused, presenting me at uncontrolled intervals with anxieties that range from the reasonable – It might be a stress fracture; What if I have to get crutches? – to the unlikely, and uncomfortably shouty: WHAT IF I CAN’T EVER HIKE AGAIN? I take a deep breath to drown that one, and then I swing the car to the left at a known intersection, plunging and swerving onto a steep residential street that ends in my healing place.

POP!

Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close is both rambling garden and large house, set on a bluff above the Willamette River’s west bank. If the name sounds a bit formal, slightly old world, it is: the original owners came from Scotland, and today the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon conducts its private business in the house, maintaining the gardens for public enjoyment. It’s just barely possible to stumble on the place by accident, but more likely you’ll live a half a lifetime in the area before someone tells you it’s there. Yet there’s no shortage of someones. It may not be a major tourist attraction, but Elk Rock Garden is clearly a place of quiet pilgrimage.

closer

It started off that way for me because I love grand old houses and formal gardens. My only regret in choosing to reside on America’s west coast is our comparative lack of them. Travel with me in England or France – or Virginia – and I’m going to drag you to at least one great estate.

This one isn’t large or stunning; there aren’t miles of path, there’s no challenge to a stroll here. And it’s not entirely a safe place. The slippery brick walkways behind the house, for example, are out for your blood; the paths that climb the bluff tilt perilously toward the river below. The road into and out of the tiny parking lot is either an accident waiting to happen, or an object lesson in the value of patience and acceptance as a general approach. First-time visitors sometimes seem bewildered; regulars are quiet, inward, content. Half the time, there’s no one else around.

For all of those reasons, I return. I’ll ignore the place for months a time – easy months, usually. I have a long history of coming here in difficulty. I’m drawn back to wander when I am hurt or listless, when the effort of walking somewhere more challenging, more public, is too much. Anxiety, grief, or injury awake in me a desire to be alone but not confined at home, to be outside and yet feel enclosed. I also come when I am heavy with gratitude. Attendance here is a particular species of prayer.

It's like they're TRYING to kill you

Today I am alone, limping along the gravel paths at a banana slug’s pace. The deeply wrinkled skin of tall old oaks provides a textural anchor in this muddy watercolor of a winter day. Everything is gray, green, brown, yellow, orange. I choose one and try to focus, but it blurs into its neighbor: brown-gray trunk, green-brown lawn, yellow-green leaves. There’s a soundtrack to the watery visuals: distant, rushing highway traffic; in the midground, crow and chickadee chatter; in the foreground, drip, drip, splat. Everything is messy. Nothing blooms. The bench I’m seated on grows wonderful furry moss in stretching seastar shapes, and flaky mint-green lichen. I have time today to notice very small things.

From late January to about July, the garden pops with wonders: face-sized magnolia blooms; wisteria thick with bees; madronas with their smooth limbs like human muscle shifting beneath lime-colored skin; the closely-packed, mysteriously-scented blooms of the winter-bare Paperbush. By late summer it’s full of spiders, like the rest of Portland, and perhaps they feed on the garden’s tidy beauty: by the time they’re gone in November, they’ve left the place a leaf-littered mess. I come back anyway. It’s not about the beauty.

don't fall

Though that’s discoverable, if you’re looking. I am, especially now. Experimenting on lonely garden paths, I’m looking for a graceful way to move with this new limitation. I need to stop often, and, still looking, what I find is my own error. Hidden low down, a single fuschia flirts its flamenco skirt at me, baby pink and royal purple in petticoated layers. Instead of smiling and moving on, I rest, and there’s another, and another, behind a screen of green-gray foliage. I rise, slowly, and tiny pink roses on spindly stems meet me at eye level, tangled in the low branches of a tree. They’re fluffy and delicate and strong, growing from a pile of orange-brown rotting leaves.

***

There is no resolution in coming here. I don’t find answers, help, or God. Or I do: it’s all the same. What I find, I define as healing, yet my hurt is not less. It is only that I am deeply comfortable here, in a way born of familiarity and routine, and that comfort eases the cramp and clangor of anxiety in my heart.

Perhaps the word is ‘ritual.’ Life is chaos; we each do what we must to anchor ourselves in that storm. I tie my ribbons in the branches here, trace my own footprints down the same paths, over and over. I’m anchored like kelp, planted like a scrappy winter rose.

Grounded, I endure.

hazel maze
***

Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close is accessed from Highway 43, between Portland and Lake Oswego. Turn sharply riverward on Military Lane, then immediately right onto the first street. Follow it to a set of black gates at the end of the road. They’re open 8am to 5pm most days, and although no one will greet you, you are welcome to enter. Park as directed by the signs, and be very careful; the single road is not wide enough for two cars. There is no entrance fee, but they do ask you to sign in (you’ll see the signs), and if you have a few dollars in your pocket, there’s a box for those, too. They’ll be used to maintain the garden. Please don’t bring your dog or your picnic.

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3 thoughts on “Out of Commission: Elk Rock Garden

  1. Having been there with you many times, in various seasons and weather, this speaks to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections, and the pictures. I found myself walking along side you, seeing what you see (as I have so often), quietly talking, mostly not. Observing, enjoying and loving the beauty and solitude. The crocus-carpeted lawn in the very early spring is a favorite of mine, with the dark gray house in the background, the brick walkway covered with a beautiful slippery coating of moss, the colors of flower, lawn and house blending and accenting each other.

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    1. Thank you! Healing has indeed been swift, and pretty thorough. (?) This essay is a little out of order, so its present tense is a couple of weeks ago, when I was super not-walking. Once I started improving, it was fast, which has been my experience with tendonitis in the past. Once I knew what it was, I knew what to do with it. But it still feels nearly as scary in retrospect as it was at the time. Thanks for your thoughts and good wishes!

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