I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but my dream bedroom growing up was a courtyard. When I spoke of it, I would describe how the ceiling could be pushed aside like a sheet and open the room to the sky. Or how the floor was made of earth, so plants could grow free from the confines of pots. I would sleep in a hammock draped from trees. Of course, my favorite story book was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted my room to sprout like Max’s, only more so. His was a tidy forest full of unruly monsters. My imaginary bedroom had walls built to keep out the monsters while I slept. I still suggest cutting holes in the concrete floor slab of my home from time to time to plant a garden. My husband, a practical man, usually counters with bugs, knowing he can keep the discussion brief and in his favor if I am made to think about bugs. “Besides, the plants prefer living outside,” he’d add, knowing I always go along with any plan a plant would prefer. It’s true too. Air-conditioned desert houses make lousy plant habitats.
So instead we’ve built a courtyard in the front of our ranch style house with a floor cobbled from the old driveway concrete. When we ran out of our supply, a neighbor let us pick through the remains of his old driveway before trucking it off to the dump. The trees just outside the courtyard have been extending farther each year, fashioning a ceiling from their canopies that fills with leaves each spring and shades the court and then drops the foliage in winter to let the slant sun in. A better system then the sheet I imagined as a kid. Unlike my dream bedroom, this garden court has walls only three feet high, enough to hide the cars parked on the street and give the plants shelter. The fountain echoes against these low walls, masking the traffic that hums along a busy street nearby. We built a wall and bench from river rock unearthed when we tore up the drive, remnants of a landscape design buried under sixty years of dust. When those stones ran out, another neighbor let us quarry his fake dry stream that ran through his front yard in exchange for trimming his tree. I’d revise the old edict twice quoted in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” to say that good gardens make good neighbors.
My childhood dream bedroom emerged from an early love of plants, a desire to make my room into a habitat for things with roots. Perhaps that’s the attraction, the roots. How plants, for the most part, figure ways to stay put. A few species drift about in water, but most plants anchor themselves to the earth and then make do with what comes their way. I admire that level of commitment, especially in trees since they outlive everyone. The oldest living thing on earth is a tree, the ancient bristlecone pines that cling to the rugged slopes of the Inyo range in Eastern California. Methuselah, the eldest in this forest of ancients is thought to be nearly 5,000 years old. Groves of clonal trees, vegetation’s version of the Borg, have had their DNA traced back twice that long, but as single living things the bristlecones take the longevity prize.
The last time I had a chance to walk among these old trees, I carried my daughter on my hip. I was making the final field visits while finishing my book A Land Between and had brought my daughter since she was still nursing. My husband had built a corral of sorts in the back of my truck to keep her from crawling off while I wrote in the field. It might have worked had she not just learned to scramble out of her crib and been actively seeking any and all opportunities to hone her free-climbing skills. When I carried her along the bristlecone trail, she waved at each old tree we passed. Much more social than I can ever hope to be, my daughter recognized a life akin to her own in these trees and so greeted them as friends.
That was nearly fifteen years ago, a blink for Methuselah. I’m more treelike these days, tending to linger in one place and make do. It’s my daughter now who conjures her own dreamscapes, one’s far away in exotic places like Sweden, where unbeknownst to her the oldest clonal tree, a spruce named Old Tjikko, has lived for nearly 10,000 years. My daughter has outgrown waving hello to old plants, adolescents have far more subtle greeting gestures, but it gives me comfort to know she dreams of places friendly to trees nonetheless.