03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Genius of the Place

I can clearly see my house, or the beginnings of my house, in the far background of a 1903 postcard of the First Christian Church in Berryville, Arkansas. In those days my house was a small white box sitting on a bit of treeless ground. The ground looks like an over-grazed pasture and there are bumps and rocky hiccups thrown across it. It's a bit of a mess.

In the middle distance there is a long stone wall running between the house and what looks like a chicken coop or small hog house. It is late autumn or winter and the postcard is black and white and both the house and church look barren and New Englandy. I suspect Robert Frost would have written something a bit stern about it if he were looking at it.

Today, a hundred and six years later, the house is the color of a burnished cranberry and is surrounded by a high wooden fence. Previous owners added rooms and additions and a couple of dormers that dimly admit light for a few minutes each day when the sun is just so. Despite the money poured into it the house it is still as disheveled as a hangover. It is also sinking far more rapidly into the ground than I like. Yet ... there is no place like home.

From the southwest corner of my back yard I can see the First Christian Church. Between my house and the church is a row of mostly abandoned shacks, another, newer house across the street from the shacks, and then a line of trees. Finally, we arrive at the church yard and the Church. The entire distance is maybe the length of a football field.

In 1903, Berryville was barely fifty years old. Earlier, some folks had arrived and had built a pretty good town, but it got burned down by both the Confederates and Yankees. I guess they took turns. The author Donald Harington intimately details the salient characteristics of these early settlers in his fine novel, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (Tao Tao). If you read this book it will help you understand why things work the way they do around here.

Although the history of my house and the Church is interesting to me, what has caught my attention in the postcard is the empty space lying between the two. In the early postcard it is open space where members of the FCC parked their buggies and horses during services. Sometime in the 1940s or '50s the yet to be shacks filled in some of the empty space. Then, in the '70s, the house across the street from the by then emerging shacks was built and reduced the emptiness even further. Trees behind the '70s house eroded the emptiness even more. Each year the emptiness of the hundred yard canvass was filled in.

Last spring I joined a group and planted a community garden in the space flowing out of the tree line and into the emptiness behind the Church. The garden was a typical Arkansas garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, some corn, some beans. The big excitement was provided by three lengthy beds planted in annual flowers; these flowers were spectacular and the vegetables were no better or worse than any others grown in the area. The kids sold the flowers at the Farmers' Market, Loaves and Fishes (our local food shelf) got some of the vegetables, and Mrs. Heartbreak canned and froze the balance.

Plans are in the works to improve and expand the FFC community garden during the next growing season. This fall we planted some high bush blueberries -- a perennial plant that seems to connote a perennial garden--and laid a lot of mulch and human energy on top of several beds that comprise the productive area. It looks pretty good, even now in the messy period of the gardening calendar; I enjoy walking over in the morning to look at the oats (winter cover crop) growing in several of the beds.

Whether plans for the space work out next year or not depends on a lot of things, including the will to carry the plans forward, the weather, and so on. Alexander Pope seemed to have the best understanding of what it is we are to do with space, empty or otherwise:

Consult the Genius of the place in all
That tells the waters to rise or fall
Or helps the ambitious hill to the heavens scale
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale
Calls in the country, catches opening glades
Joins willing woods and varies shades from shades
Now breaks, or now directs the intending lines
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs.

I can hardly wait for spring.