How I Landscaped Upon the Stage - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
June 11, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — I'm not a performer by nature. Given a Briggs-Myers choice between getting up and doing a song and dance in front of a crowd and undergoing a colonoscopy — well, at least the latter involves only the physician and the anesthetist as witnesses to one's discomfort and humiliation.

But sometimes the stars line up, and the spotlight is on and there you are, helplessly awash. It can happen anywhere, even in the normally bucolic setting of the garden.

Awhile back I lived in a house on a narrow but fairly busy arterial, and I began dreaming up scenarios to transform a dull slope of grass running from the front yard down to the street.

I was keen to mount a beautiful and dramatic retaining wall on this very public part of the yard. But I was dismayed, too. All the projects I saw in landscaping books seemed so confidently prepared. The materials were so abundantly provided. The photographs showed groups of people working together. All these — preparation, materials, help — if prerequisites for success, seemed obstacles for my own plans, which I can best describe as solitary improvisational scavenging.

I intended to use only pieces of limestone I found strewn about my yard. They were a motley bunch, but there were a lot of them, and if it turned out I really didn't know what I was doing (of which I had only a strong suspicion at this point; as yet it hadn't been objectively demonstrated), my failure would be cheap, at least.

Though I might avoid committing a lot of money, I couldn't escape committing my person, my self. Cars streamed by almost constantly. Every ill-seated stone, every awkward line, was on view to all. It was a bit frightening, like confronting a sell-out house at the first day of acting class. Yet I jumped right in, giving a spirited interpretation of a man moving earth and laying base stones — the standard first act of any well-made dry-set retaining wall.

The early reviews were succinct. "You do lousy work!" one critic shouted from a passing car. Others were more personal. A young woman's voice sang, "I see Paris, I see France..." Another wag registered a drive-by hatchet-job, wittily tossing a half-empty Burger King orange soda cup, missing me, but hitting my car in the driveway.

Yes, it was half-empty. Such was my mood.

I shrank from the stage. I left the mutilated hillside with its sad, inexplicable piles of stone and just walked away. Those anonymous, cowardly catcallers wouldn't have me to kick around anymore.

But after awhile I couldn't go outside without feeling censure in the eyes of couples walking by the aborted production. Young mothers pushing carriages would hurry on, repelled by the irresolute remains of a dilettante's dream. Older men, possibly veterans, shook their heads and muttered, "Now in my day..." I imagined it must have been similar to the disapproval of the residents of Wiltshire when the Druids allowed Stonehenge to fall into disrepair.

So after many sleepless nights I resolved to make a comeback. It was a fine morning in early June. The traffic was light, which encouraged me. I hitched up my pants, thoroughly, and marched out to the stage to face my demons. I hauled more stones. I moved more earth. I plumbed, pried, leveled, sweated. I committed myself. I paid dues. I was the wall. Dennis, the mailman, said, "Pretty ambitious," as he did every day. I smiled at him indulgently, as if he were the Herald of the overconfident French, come to offer surrender, and I, Henry the Fifth, rallying my men at Agincourt. I knew how to win the day.

Course followed course. Scene followed scene. A gentle curve formed naturally, like an apt speech, at the north end of the wall. Cole Porter never felt such pleasure devising a rhyme for "Garbo's salary" as I did finding the right stone for its place. I was swept up in the play of character, the individual personalities tempered, smoothed, within the formal structure of The Wall. Rather unremarkable as leading players, each stone became part of a mosaic, cast in the ensemble role it was born to play. The houselights went down. The audience faded away. The catcalls stopped. The cheers began.

"Yah, looks great," allowed a gentleman jogging by. A woman hauling kids in a blue mini-van halted traffic on Lexington long enough to yell, "I've always dreamed of doing this in my yard!" I had a hit on my hands. Finally, a short, red-faced, cigar-wielding impresario strolled up, put his arm around me and said, "Kid, I'm doing a new production of Aida. How'd ya like to do the stonework?"

At least, I thought he was an impresario, offering me a shot at the big time — the pyramids no less! But it turned out to be a trolling realtor, offering his congratulations for increasing the value of my property by .0024 percent. And in this market! "Sold!" I said, before my surprise success tempted me to adapt my simple wall into a blockbuster waterfall and pond production, complete with fishing pier, rainbow trout, and a succession of German baritones singing "Die Forelle" during drive time. No, better leave that theatrical improvement to the next visionary mason. It just wouldn't be me. I'm not a performer by nature.

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