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Land & Environmental

Down to Earth | Drawing pleasure in gardening

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By Neenah Ellis

I’m a native Midwesterner with a love of wilderness, but I lived in Washington, D.C., for years.

One summer, my husband and I came here to do some research and rented a house. I took to riding my bike in the dark, pedaling slowly, up and down the streets, watching light pour from your kitchens onto your gardens. I wondered who you were.

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Years later, we decided to move here and found a place with a big window over the sink that looks out over a deep, shady yard, mostly lawn, and I started to grow things again, as I always had. In D.C. my gardens were always improvised at the last minute because I traveled so much. I’d grow tomatoes one year, herbs the next. One fall I planted 50 daffodils. Some years I planted nothing at all. Not one petunia.

One summer weekend, on a trip out of Washington, I found a field of Queen Anne’s lace in West Virginia. The plants were waist-high, the blooms were six inches across. I plucked them off, brought them home and planted the seeds in my garden, which seemed a little wilder the next summer and closer to my heart. I missed the Midwest.

Here in Yellow Springs, I have an artist friend who’s a wondrous gardener, with beautiful vegetables, miraculous berries and every year, more native plants, like the elegant queen of the prairie. She’s a good planner, too. We walk at Huffman and Morris Prairies and Pearl’s Fen.

She urged me to sign up for a live, online drawing class in the first summer of the pandemic. We needed conversation and inspiration and so we began, several of us, across many time zones, trying to draw loose and free. First pencil, then charcoal, then ink. Still lifes, portraits, trees, water.

I drew a lot, but everything came out as a “study” while our teacher urged us toward “compositions.”

All those months of pure looking shifted something in me, though, and I remembered the pleasure of drawing pictures for long, daydreamy hours as a child. And then, in the first fall of the pandemic, I started to imagine a new garden.

I would start over in my yard with native plants. I planned all winter with Catherine Zimmerman, and in spring we planted while cicadas crawled everywhere. My young trees had to be wrapped in white netting to protect them. They looked like bridesmaids walking across the lawn, their long dresses glowing at the golden hour. It was a promising start.

When winter came again, I watched the new gardens from the second floor window, seeing shape and color and meaning in the long blue shadows that crept across the snow. I drew them over and over.

Last month I read about Monet, the French painter, who was enchanted by color: he would paint, outside mostly, with many blank canvases ready, switching them quickly as the light changed, trying to get the color just right. He painted the same subjects over and over. I never could have understood that before.

He was a great painter, Monet, but he actually thought of himself as a gardener first and a painter second. Late in life, eyes failing and tired of traveling, he asked his village for permission to divert a small river onto his land. He wanted ponds so he could grow water lilies — so he could paint them. And he did, as we know. But Monet was also frustrated at how impossible it was to capture light the way he truly wanted. “How I suffer!” he said, and even destroyed some work, slashing the canvases, or burning them with dead leaves from the garden.

I feel no suffering when I draw. I have beginner’s joy. I didn’t make a garden in order to draw it, I’m just inviting back the plants that likely grew wild here before this was a small town.

I think I see more now. I still ride my bike at night.

*Neenah Ellis is the executive director of the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO. Her husband is Noah Adams.

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