Shared Sanctuary

Debra Reeves

© Copyright 2024 by Debra Reeves

Photo by Rhododendrites at Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Rhododendrites at Wikimedia Commons.

We purchased the large tract of land to be an informal sanctuary for ourselves and for the wild creatures that we thought would wish to harbour there. Over the course of our lives, we had endured some painful losses from which we were still attempting to recover. Years before, my husband had lost a first wife and a child, but those events are not easily overcome. When we purchased the acreage, I was still recovering from the effects of a coma that left me with some disabilities. We both loved to garden so our dream was to build a safe and welcoming place of beauty.

Undulating expanses of moss-covered limestone boulders cover part of the property we purchased ten years ago. We fell in love with a house that promised self-sufficiency with geothermal heating. It had a well and a great water purification system so we thought we had the basics of a good life. The house was encircled with thousands of trees. It was not possible to see any other dwelling from the house or yard. When I looked beyond the house to the almost untraversable segments of the property I inhaled sanctuary and peace.

Huge boulders line our driveway and conduct those who have the ability and inclination to love to our door. In the winter, there are frequently tracks all the way down the driveway that eventually veer off into the woods. This is a place where nature is not just welcome, it is the reason behind our efforts. The creatures who choose to live on our land are our welcome fellow residents and we honour their presence and contribution to our lives.

We certainly ruffled some feathers when we prohibited hunting on our land. In fact, one neighbour showed up at my door to inform me that he had every right to hunt there because his well-connected family had once owned the land. Our discussion might have convinced him to never come back. Unfortunately, all of our neighbours are related to him and shunning is their usual response to newcomers.

Initially, we were disappointed to find almost no life on the property. There were some squirrels and chipmunks, garter snakes and mice but there was a disappointing silence and stillness. As we dug in the soil, there were few worms and, in the air, there were few insects.

In the first year we installed rain barrels on every down spout of the house and we collected rain water for irrigation.  We began to plant. In the first year our only permanent guest was a warty old toad who appeared to live on our back deck. Bumble bees came to inspect our progress from time to time. Three birds of prey seemed to do an endless search pattern over the property.

During the first spring, two pairs of robins moved in and they built nests right on the house. They or their offspring have returned every year. That year, I saw a single strange black newt among the rocks where I was planting. We did not give up.  We moved rocks and we dug up areas where soil was available and each year, we planted up to a hundred trees. We built raised beds where my husband planted vegetables and I planned and groomed flower gardens to attract the bees. We avoided any chemical pollutants and the only fertilizers we used were various forms of manure. Almost right away we understood that the secret to our dreams must lie in nourishing the soil so that life could build from the ground up.

We live in a place that is so rural that there is no garbage collection. We adapted by becoming avid composters in the summer, but the refuse did not stop in the winter. To my husband’s utter delight, I learned about vermicomposting and we purchased some red wriggler worms that we housed in a bin in our basement when the temperature dipped. We fed them well on kitchen scraps and with recycled refuse paper products which they happily converted into vermicompost.

As we continued to learn, we discovered the amazing properties of that black gold. By the following springtime, we had learned how to make our own version of a balanced soil mix and we inculcated each batch with the enzymes and nutrients that are endemic to vermicompost.  We dug our soil mix into any area where there was a deficit of soil and we transplanted a variety of plants into places that they preferred to live.

By the third year a man stopped to say that there was a group of foxes living on one corner of our land where we had never visited.  Closer to the house we were finding that there were significantly more earth worms. By midsummer, a hummingbird came to flit among the flowers in the deck boxes and it wasn’t until the next winter that we found its thimble sized nest at the front of the house. It still returns every year.

That winter we sometimes felt like we were living in a snow globe. Especially after ice storms the ring of trees around the lawn and garden area turned into something out of a fantasy world and we began to think we were living in a perfect bubble where hibernation and purpose made for a full life.

It is not easy to find a piece of land that hasn’t experienced the ravages of industrial agriculture, but those pieces are out there. They seldom appear as a feature in a brochure. They do not court the purely commercial. They might even be the neglected pieces of land that no one has noticed for some time. They are not the workaday segments that invite ploughing and fertilizing but they are hugely productive in ways that few have bothered to notice.

By the fourth year, we noticed that a mother deer was overwintering by the hay bales that we had stacked to stop the wind from whipping down the driveway. Every Christmas Eve we place a gift of corn on stalks and sunflowers that we have saved from the current year on the septic cover where the warmth allows the grass to stay green at that time of year.

In the fifth year we witnessed an unexpected flush of fungal growth. It started with the discovery of puff balls in the forest and then it went on to a variety of mushrooms both edible and poisonous. Everything that has emerged forced us to learn more in areas that we had never explored. We are learning at a rate that is equivalent to the most productive parts of our lives. That is saying something considering that we have a few academic degrees between us. In the summer, there are a wide variety of mushrooms, and their mycelia stretch for miles acting like a delivery service to the trees which trade sugars for vital nutrients. The underground highway of communication links the trees and the land. More microbial life thrives in greater numbers in the first six inches of soil than in all the land above. This land is more alive than anyone even imagines.

Thus, our first commitment is always to feed and build the soil in order to build the life above. I have seen flowers growing here in their thousands that are never featured in a garden centre.  Trees of strange and twisted form adapt to the parts of the land where many would think that no tree could survive. They capture carbon as they grow. The deep fissures in the limestone conduct the water to underground reservoirs cleaning it as it trickles through. The freezing and thawing reduce the rock to smaller boulders and the moss consumes the large expanses micrometre by micrometre. The fallen crimson leaves of maples and the golden leaves of oak and ash rot between the cracks until a fern can take root.

We watched as our original toad friend disappeared and as a variety of frogs inhabited the land. We remained vigilant as terrified frogs leapt for their lives ahead of the lawn mower that cut the reduced area of lawn. We congratulated ourselves on this evidence that the land was gaining in health. And then as nature does, it demonstrates that it gives and it takes away. We had an early warm spell one spring and the spring bulbs in their hundreds began to bloom. With the patio doors wide open one evening we heard the riotous chorus of mating frogs. It got so loud that we finally closed the doors.

There was a frost that night and we haven’t seen a frog on the land since. Every time the bulbs come pushing through each spring, I check the date for fear of an unseasonably warm spell. As silly as this sounds, I still miss those darned frogs. I still pray that some will find their way back to us. They would be oh, so welcome.

At some point we gained a fat and happy groundhog. We only realized that he was there when he decimated my husband’s bean crop. That groundhog exposed me as an unsupportive wife, though. When he destroyed my husband’s carefully nurtured bean crop, I laughed until I cried and my wounded husband asked how I would feel if he had power eaten through my foxgloves or irises. I am quite certain that I would not have been pleased by that but the saucy fellow, (the groundhog not my husband) is still here somewhere. I think he has moved further from the house but he comes to roundly scold us on summer evenings. Covetous of his beans, my husband found a sonic tool that he uses to hedge in his raised beds so that we do not have to share that produce with the greedy groundhog.

Year-round the local crows come to watch our efforts and they caw to warn other creatures that we are scratching at the earth and moving trees around again. They clearly believe that we are the interlopers.

By the seventh year, turkeys discovered a sanctuary somewhere on the land and now it is not surprising to awake to discover a turkey or two or a deer or three nibbling the lawn.  It never ceases to be a thrill for each of us, though.  We delight in how healthy they appear to be.

One year, and I don’t know when it was, dragon flies began to visit us. They now come every year to wing through the yard and pause on the deck railing.

Having experienced a coma, I find myself thinking of things that others might not consider. I think of being bed ridden and I think of what I might like to view should that ever happen again. That makes me think of my gardens in a different way and that way of thinking might explain why I was in a position to see something that I am not even certain I can properly define.

After looking out of our bedroom window, I had decided to put a new garden bed in the back yard. There was a small dip near the path that we call ‘Katness Way’ that leads into a seldom used area far behind the big garage. I thought it might be a spot where our eyes might land if we were ever bedridden so I was inspired to give our future selves something of beauty to look at should that day ever come. As a lover of perennials, I had divided a number of hostas and some other plants, and I had purchased some allium bulbs with the goal of filling the spot.  The wind must have been just right and I must have been sitting there for a couple of happy hours weeding, digging and planting behind a few naturally growing shrubs when I saw it. I still wonder if I saw what I thought I saw. I stared at it for almost a minute before it noticed me and dashed away.

It was a stocky beige/grey cat with tufted ears and a short tail. It was ambling down Katness Way as though it did not have a care in the world. Its coat was clean and soft looking, and it was bouncing on padded feet. I tried to mentally measure its height and it was far too large and broad to be a house cat. Its tufted ears would have reached to my knees if I had been standing. I was sitting on my bottom on the grass at the edge of the backyard and there were some shrubs blocking me from its view. The coma cost me my balance so I always garden from my bum. I must say that having been reduced to that secure position, I have learned to see the world from a new perspective.

This time I watched, so awe struck that I held my breath much of the time.  I watched trying to turn up my eye’s ability to suck in information, trying to absorb every detail. One moment it was bouncing along on a path that would have led it into the rear yard and the next it saw me.

The eyes that I think were yellow green turned to focus on mine. The next moment it leapt to its left and disappeared into an area of the land that is so fraught with cracks in the limestone and moss that we never go there. It did not seem to run away. In an instantaneous reaction, it leapt to its left and streaked and it was gone the moment it knew that we had seen one another. I have never seen it again.

If my whole life distils down to this piece of land, I think I am okay with that. I once told my husband that this is my idea of heaven. I said: “If you told me that I had died three weeks ago and that this was really heaven, I would be grateful and happy.” The work that I pour into the land is purpose enough in itself. I wish I could say that everything I’ve planted thrived. It has not.

The failures make me more- keen to get it right next time and I continue to learn. Our greatest successes have been realized in the areas where we left nature to her own devices. The limestone ridge harbours not just the moss but it is dotted with bear’s breeches and trilliums every spring. The way tradesmen laughed about my love of the rocky terrain in the early days of our residence here makes me wonder if people understand the word beauty any more. They say it is in the eye of the beholder and if so, my eye fills my soul to the brim with beauty. Small clutches of trilliums have turned into vast swaths with bear's breeches with ferny foliage dotted among and around them. To those stalwart volunteers we add flowers and trees who contribute more riotous colour, shape and form. They also contribute more life supporting oxygen to our property and beyond.

No human hand could paint that canvas to such perfection.


Debra Reeves is a handicapped wife and mother, who achieved a skilled trade, 3 degrees including an MA and an MBA. She started writing after a coma.

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