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Tina Traster Headshot

A Hill of a Job

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Spring at my house is like a duel in an old western. My husband wields the Home Depot catalog, packed with tons of stuff for DIY backyard projects. My weapon of choice is the Crate & Barrel catalog, loaded with staged backyard idylls that make me want to reach for the lemonade pitcher.

Funny thing is, we don't really have a backyard. We have land behind our house; in fact, it's nearly three-quarters of an acre. But we don't use it. It's inaccessible.

Our old farmhouse sits atop a mountain that precipitously slopes westward at a 45 degree angle into dense woods. By Memorial Day, the unforested land between the house and the woods is waist-high in weeds.

From up above on our deck, we fantasize about yanking weeds, terracing the slope and planting perennial gardens. We envision rambling stone paths and an iron bench at the threshold of the woodland.

Our daughter could kick a ball the length of a soccer field if we grew grass on the flat part. There's a perfect spot for a brick patio near the forsythia right behind the house.

"How about we hire someone this year to deal with this land once and for all?" I ask my husband, knowing my pistol should be cocked.

"Why should we hire someone when we can do this ourselves?" he retorts, his back stiffening.

"Because these projects take forever," I whine, adding, "And too many remain unfinished."

"That's the beauty of our home -- it's a work in progress," he says, smiling.

Progress, to me, is hiring someone to tame the land while I buy patio furniture. Progress is watching deity-like men put up a stone wall in three days because they are on the clock.

My husband likes to putter, tinker, tool and fiddle. Deadlines are an approximate concept. Sisyphean tasks are therapy.

This spring, I agreed to let him tackle our "hill." I promised not to rush him, even though I know a landscaper with an earthmover could shred the weeds, groom the hill with top soil and spread grass seed in 72 hours.

In return, he gave me his blessing to hire a landscaper to build a stone wall and patio at the back of our house on a squalid patch of rough earth where nothing grows.

Operation Hillside Rescue got under way a few weeks ago.

We (and by "we," I mean him doing the heavy lifting, me cheerleading) started by deconstructing a mound of bad fill at the top of the hill that had been dumped several years ago by a shady contractor. My husband alternated between a rake and a hoe to scrape away layers of asphalt, chunks of concrete and other construction debris before he finally encountered anything an earthworm could live in. At the first hint of real soil, he said, "Ah, the good earth."

He kept at it for days, combing through soil and tossing large rocks beyond the tree line. He worked until sweat soaked through his shirt and his jeans were caked in mud. He used his rake and sometimes his gloved hands to sculpt the small patch of hill, as if he were molding a piece of clay.

Little by little, an eyesore turned into a tri-level tiered rock garden where he planted boxwoods, woodland shrubs and annuals.

"Good job," I said, gazing upon his work. "It's amazing what one determined man can do."

"I'm just getting started," he said.

Our hill is expansive. But my husband's patch of triumph has motivated him to change into ratty clothes every night after dinner and get back on the job.

One recent evening, I sat on the ridge while he pulled away layers of weed-pocked, degraded soil. In the course of an hour, he unearthed shards of a ceramic cup, a rusted horseshoe and parts of an old wagon wheel.

For 150 years, the former denizens of our house viewed the hill as a dumping ground, or at least as an inhospitable piece of earth. I had to doff my cap at my husband, who believes that he single-handedly can move a mountain.

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