By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
It's taken years to design this text, which reads as much like a map as a book--Popie's autobiography, fashioned from an alphabet of rocks and perennial greens. Along the front rises the Sangre de Christo mountains, recreated in red granite she picked up on a favorite trip through New Mexico. And at the feet of that range, the Minnesota River, married at its headwaters to a river in Greece that Popie remembers from childhood, runs for 10 feet and over the curb. The materials are ordinary, found stuff--rubble and shards she's summoned up into vistas and peaks that, after more hours down on all fours than she could count, have taken on a semblance of order. "You can see now what time has done--the growth and erosion," Popie points out as we head toward the back part of her garden. "But where did it all begin? It began as every creation myth begins--in chaos."
In 1989, following the pine tree's advice, Popie packed up and left the country to visit old friends scattered around the world--Singapore, France, England, Greece. It was a desperate departure, she recalls, at a desperate time--at loose ends, fed up with the small politics of a faculty wife's life, with few intimate companions, her children grown and gone. During her time away, city inspectors stuck a notice in her mailbox: Clean up this yard or else. Her husband, Herb, got out the hacksaw and whacked through the tangle of sucker trees and dead elm stumps, piling the brush for firewood in the back lot. After Popie got home, "with my ghosts not such a pain in the neck and myself not so crazy," she went out back one morning and saw the half-tamed chaos in heaps on the ground. It was like a mind stranded between entropy and order, she recalls--a mind stuck in conflict. So, to begin, she ate the compost pile.
"This was the big high that kicked the whole thing off," Popie says, planting herself near Mount Olympus and launching into an account of the Dionysian meal. "I had three drinks, scotch! It got me drunk and I loved it! There was all that garbage, years of debris and molding waste cooped up in chicken wire and rotted boards--a metaphor? Yes. Ah, it stunk. It looked like hell, spilling everywhere. So I said, 'Popie, crawl in there and clear out the mess.' It took an eternity. I say I ate it. I was drunk and stuffed and satisfied. And that chaos, it just vanished!"
And in its place?
Over time--10 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months--an ocean. And rivers running into Ireland, which in Popie's terrain floats beside the desert southwest. Two massive rocks that, in the right light, at the right angle, turn into a turtle and a crane beside another grandfather. Paisley shapes made of pachysandra. Splayed tree branches made of hostas. A funky Miro-esque mosaic of triangles and circles, ringed by vincas and what's called a "walking stick" tree, gnarled and dead and kept anyway. Patches of hibiscus and vines, and a stand of silvery artemesia, named after the Greek goddess of the hunt. A waterfall, broken now, running down into an aqua pool that could, in this story, be the Waters of Memory--the sacred oracle that kept travelers from forgetting the past. Flowers everywhere, intoxicating the air after a rain. And rocks, heaved from one place to the next in a never-ending Sisyphean exercise--gravel, boulders, far-off companions at hand in every crevice, like some kind of crowd gathered for a festival.
This summer, Popie and her son Steven, whose weathered steel sculptures rise out of the ground with a coating of rust, started excavating the north border for a rock garden of mythological creatures. The turtle and crane are this zoo's first arrivals. "I haven't yet dreamed up my stories for this spot," Popie says, pointing to the bare dirt from where we stand at the site of her figurative last supper. "I don't dare to yet. The idea is to leave things open so the mind can go about its work of composing. Something appears--maybe you're driving, or you are asleep dreaming when it hits. We are after the sort of order that can't be devised by planning too much. In all this time and this struggling to make my place here, I think that is the trick. Not just for a garden, but for a kind of life that will matter. The Greeks say, know thyself. And that is terrifying. My god, you might have to change how you are going about living! Why else would we put up such a fight against ourselves?"
Seferis, the poet, also wrote, Wherever I travel, Greece keeps wounding me. And Greece, in the myth of self-creation Popie's garden enacts, is always present. Schimatari, transplanted into this back sanctuary now, was what she calls a typical Greek village of 70 years ago. Men discussed politics at the one coffeehouse, everyone slept in the hot afternoons after lunch. The residences were like small compounds--a house, a stable, a building for storing wine. The sea was just far enough away to not hear it. Strangers were rare. When the calm broke, Popie was 15 years old, just finishing, she recalls, Crime and Punishment for the first time. Mussolini's troops attacked Greece from the Albanian border that October. The government in Athens refused to surrender, and several months later, Nazi soldiers invaded Schimatari. All the girls were taken up and hidden in the loft of a barn. The Greeks, Popie says, with their wars in Turkey in mind, supposed that the Germans would rape all their girls.