THE GARDEN OF Dreaming
We are talking about dreams. We are sitting on the back patio in Popie Mohring's garden, between an ocean of gray stones and a river of blue, with a two-foot high Mount Olympus at our feet and a caragana tree casting its shadow over the crest of the mountain. The tree--at just over five feet, taller than Popie--is a weeping form. The clouds that rolled in last night, she tells me in her trace Greek accent, were weeping too, around midnight, and the caragana's pendulous branches are still wet and heavy this morning.
"Now I will tell you the story of how Popie's dream told her to bring that tree into this strange garden," she says, lighting the next of what will be a dozen cigarettes by noon. She closes her eyes, a few seconds of silence set in, and then the dream: "It was three, four years ago when I first saw a picture of the caragana. I said to myself, 'Popie, you cannot have that, it is too much and you would be crazy for such a thing.' I thought I should just shoot myself in the head for wanting. And then myself said back, 'Ah, but it is beautiful.' So the debate, back and forth, between what is practical and what is desire. The old, mortal debate. Always, it never ends. So I went to sleep. And in my dream, I began walking through a wood of caraganas."
Popie jumps up from her chair in a cloud of smoke and a does a quick little dance, arms akimbo, acting her dream-self out. "Then I was dancing. 'Oh,' I said in this dream, 'What satisfaction!' And the caraganas started talking to me. I said, 'You cannot do that, you are plants. You are not supposed to speak.' But they interrupted, 'We don't just talk to anybody. But we will talk to you.' What a stunning image the mind has spit out, I thought when I woke up. And so, one caragana came to this garden. It lives now in this landscape created by many dreams. It is like in the ancient mythologies, I think--the mind doesn't just wander around in sleep without a purpose. It wants to bring back shapes and angles, golden ratios, oceans, mountains--it wants to make order out of chaos. It seems to be this: It wants to dream up stories."
Weeping caragana trees speaking is to Popie the most usual thing in the world--an unremarkable occurrence, like having a conversation with the mailman, or the oracle at Delphi, or her dead grandfather (which happens often in her garden). Her garden, which fills the 30- by 300-foot lot where she lives just east of the river in Minneapolis, is not, by conventional measure, a garden at all. It is not laid in neat rows. It grows no edible herbs or vegetables, and is not, by that measure, especially practical. It is a garden that grew out of the argument between practicality and desire, in which desire won. And Popie's desire, when she first broke earth in 1991, was to make in her lot a narrative, a personal myth in which all the essential figures of her life--her children and their children, her friends scattered around the globe, her gods and their messengers--would be represented and close by. It is a symbolic oasis, populated by stones and plants that stand in for the dead and the living and that tells, as a whole, the intimate chronicle of her life, beginning in 1926 in a small Greek village called Schimatari near the Mediterranean sea, and is still without end, 70 years later, on the edge of a city that was meant to be just another station along her odyssean trip.
She turns her gaze back from the caragana, leans in, and says with amusement,"'What is that dream Popie had?' I ask this to myself, often when I wake up in the dark. Well, I will show you what that is. Come on. Let's go and walk through the garden and see what that masterful piece of engineering--the mind!--has dreamed up for my body to break its back over."
I know a pine tree that leans over near a sea, the Nobel-prize winning Greek poet George Seferis once wrote. In the evening the wind blowing through its needles begins a curious song, as though of souls that have made an end of death. On the boulevard strip, where Popie's garden begins, is a small island made of soil. It is surrounded by a lake of raked gravel, where fountains of wild grass shoot up all summer until frost kills the spray. The island floats on stone waves, in the shade of an old oak. This is where Popie--a nickname for Kalliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry--was born. It's inhabited now by her children, set out in stone along the shoreline, and her paternal grandfather, who stands against the wind in the form of a bonsai pine tree .Every pine tree in the garden stands for Popie's dead grandfather, and there is one at nearly every turn.
"I remember as a child--growing up in this place I've built again--when my grandfather would sing to me," Popie says, squatting down on a large white rock by the path. "Sometimes he and his friends would get together, have a bit of wine, and start to sing. His song went, 'A pine tree lived all alone in a big plain. And he was 200 years old, but stood straight as'--well, we don't have a word in English to mean this, but--'he stood straight and handsome in his youth.' So I put my grandfather, my pappou, throughout the yard where he can again sing this to me."
All around the island, day lilies and malvas are in full bloom, fleshy and a bit reckless. The traffic along River Road runs steady, with an occasional car slowing down to look at Popie's island. She's back there, 5 years old again, before the war and before her self-styled exile. In a dream not long ago, she tells me, "there was my grandfather's hand, huge and bent by arthritis. He was sitting like a pine tree under our mulberry bush with his cane, maybe eating some bread and milk. On the next stone, I was sitting, and we were talking together about everything on the earth. Then I saw an image in the sky with his face, but at the same time, I was seated, a girl, in the palm of that huge hand. And he was telling me, 'Popie, you had no choice.'"
The choice Popie is talking about has haunted her for years. In 1951, she came to America on a Fulbright scholarship to study genetics at the University of Michigan. At that time, she says, educating a girl in Greece was thought to be like throwing money into the sea--foolishness, and a waste. But she'd ranked first in her high school at Thebes, which caused a kind of alarm in Schimatari. "They threw up their hands and sort of wailed, 'Heaven has fallen, and the school has been bitten by a girl from a village!' Well, I had, as they put it, taken the letters. Popie Marinou was a smart one, which posed a conflict. My father was a farmer, well off, but he wanted a son who would earn a living sitting on a chair. What they got was Popie, a sorry state of things since God, they thought, had only a limited amount of rain and God had rained on a girl."
There were 5,000 applicants for the Fulbright, she recalls, and only a dozen prizes. During the month before the exams, she read, slept, and ate English, which was not taught along with French, ancient Greek, and Latin in school. And in the late summer of that year, after winning a scholarship, she got on a boat at Pireaus, waved to her grandfather on the dock, and set off for a year abroad. "That year," Popie is fond of saying now, nearly a half-century later, "has turned out to be a very long year."
In the meantime, she married her husband, now a retired economics professor, and eventually earned a Ph.D. after a long hiatus from the academy spent raising three sons, one of whom designs and builds pyramids, sculptures, and zoos for Popie's mythological stone creatures in the backyard. What has haunted her, and what her grandfather meant to chase away in the dream, was the common enough and terrifying idea that by keeping with the times--staying home with kids, suspending her education for the sake of her husband's career--her life would come up short of its promise.
"What woman doesn't know some version of this?" Popie muses, bending down to yank a weed from the path we're on. "For me, here I was--the girl who was told she could walk on water, alone in a house in Minneapolis with my head and my history, having the waking nightmare. It was 1989. I was over 60 years old. I had abandoned my country. Everyday the ceiling stared back. There were stacks of newspapers everywhere, unread. I could find no work to fit my training. And there was not enough joy brought to me by the life I had composed. Regrets? Many. But, according to my nature perhaps, I had had no choice. Now, though, it was time to go and find some healing. All along, I have heard that the dead do not speak to us. But on the advice of my dead grandfather, who you see is now a pine tree singing in the wind, I went."
And that trip by way of Greece and beyond, Popie says, rising from the stone she's been sitting on and nodding toward her miniature island, was the genesis for this symbolic adventure she has now embarked on in her strange garden.
"How did it all begin?" Popie asks, to no one in particular. She sweeps back her gray hair and lights up another smoke, leaning against a massive boulder a neighbor brought over as a gift--an offering--from the discard pile in his yard a couple of years ago. She calls it "Picard's Throne." Most mornings, residents from the senior center down the street walk by, and many stop to rest here, on the throne Popie's strategically placed for their use. Like the entire garden, this spot is as public as it is private--no fences, no thorn bushes. Many of the thousands of stones she's dreamed into meaning have come from friends, and many more from strangers who happened by one day and then on purpose the next, bearing crates of Japanese rocks, volcanic lava, quartz and geodes and agates from their travels. They've been metamorphosed into mountain ranges and rivers, cairns and grandchildren and memories and, crawling on its belly for a good 20 feet across the lawn, a quirky dinosaur christened, on a hot day's whim, Popiesaurus Rex.
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.
"So we were hidden there, on high, but I would look out the small window in the morning and watch the Austrian soldiers washing themselves, brushing their teeth. 'How many gorgeous boys like you are going to be killed by gorgeous Greeks?' I wondered. What stuns me to this day is this story: Here one morning was a soldier listening to music. We knew something serious was happening because the Gestapo had been brought to town. A German soldier had been killed in the next village, and all the men there had vanished when word of some retribution came. So, here is this soldier--the enemy--and I am around the corner, unseen. He is enraptured by Mozart. Soon he stops. He gets up and goes to that village and kills 150 boys under 12 years old. He comes back in the evening and turns on the Mozart again! To me--my god, such joyful music after such a slaughter! What on earth?
"Later in the war, I thought I would be a doctor, you know, and go to the medical school. Until, going by everyday, I started to see all the dead who were killed in the middle of the night, piled up there on a truck for the medical students to perform anatomy on. Everyone was killing everyone--Greeks killing Greeks, the communists, the noncommunists, the occupation forces, brothers against brothers." Suppose, Popie goes on, more subdued now, that in your next life the Archangel says, "OK, you have been such a good one in your previous life, what country would you like to be born back into? Who can say? America, Greece--every kind of paradise has its way of wounding. Anywhere, the chaos can come loose, and death follows."
To put these kinds of memories into a garden is, at the least, a psychic risk. But the other risk--that of forgetting--has its own lessons in ancient Greek mythology, which Popie knows by heart: Orpheus, the son of Calliope, was married to Eurydice. One day, she was bitten by a serpent and killed. So Orpheus went down into the underworld to retrieve her. It was said that his beautiful songs could charm wild animals and make rocks and trees dance, so he sang one to Hades as a bribe for his wife. In turn, Hades agreed to release Eurydice, but on one condition: that Orpheus was not to look back as he was carrying Eurydice to the surface. But just as the couple reached the upperworld, he forgot. And so his lover slipped back into the fire. Later, Orpheus was attacked and torn to pieces by the Maenads. His body was thrown on the rocks and his head into the river where it floated away, still singing, and still inconsolable after his tragic act of forgetfulness he could never forget.
"For a long time, I didn't remember my dreams." We are sitting again on the patio, talking about the river of black stones nearby that runs into the roots of an old tree. "So I gave up on Freud. All those theories just caused the dreams to slip my mind! I said, 'Popie, that way, you are stuck wide awake with just a tangle--no images, no landscapes, nothing to represent.' So, no stories. And so, a kind of death."
What you must keep in mind, she tells me, is what the Greek tragedians taught us, especially about the gods. The gods, remember, were each stuck with a fatal passion. They were done in by hubris. Think of Apollo, she says, as if mentioning the name of a pop star everybody knows. "He was a high and mighty aristocrat who was brought down by a nobody, Hermes, the thief who stole all his cows. Ha!" Think of Zeus, who wasted his days entangled in nymphs, giving birth from his thighs to mad baby demi-gods, and suffering for his lascivious deeds into eternity. Think of Hera, wild with envy. Or Dionysus, drunk to the gills. "Or Artemis," Popie goes on, "who, and I agree with her, thought men were a pain in the neck, but did she really have to shoot them all? The concept of balance, humility, common sense--it's not there in these myths for us. But in the presentation of nature"--here in the garden, say--"what might be more useful is to come down off those heights and make stories out of ordinary materials." Like dreams. Or rocks. Or memory.
Popie's view of the gods, be they the ancients or in their modern, American incarnations, is as irreverent as the design of her garden--floating here on an urban throughway where most plots follow the conventional: the requisite border of marigolds and spirea, set down according to some landscape architect's formula. What kind of dramas could they ever tell? Certainly not epic ones, not ones that rhyme or remind the gardener of what Popie calls "the strange love affair between the self and that old Achilles' heel"--the mind.
"I always remember," she says near the end of my last visit, "what happened on Mount Olympus here"--pointing to the small rock at our feet. The pantheon of original gods was said to live at its summit, where they spent the better part of their waking hours gulping ambrosia, screwing around, and basking in their immortality. "Well, I put this here to remind myself of a story. In this one, Olympus, like the many mountains in the Olympic Peninsula of the American northwest, rises thousands of feet above the ground, high in the clouds. One time I was there, towards the end of the day, looking at the path winding up it. I said, 'Popie, you are acrophobic. What on earth do you want with going up there?' But I went, up and up, as if in a dream.
"As I travel, I turn around and see the white clouds below--so beautiful. And then: fear. Unadulterated fear, for the second time in my life. So here I go into the ordeal, descending. Things below look smaller than they are. And the path is narrow, all in ice shining. If I slip, nothing can save me. I go down onto my knees. I begin to crawl. I am about to shoot myself in the head. 'What a crazy thing--you must come down from here!' So, I get near the bottom and begin to vomit. It all comes out, all the fear comes pouring out. And then, the clouds burn away and I see the slope leading down to earth and it is gorgeous, dazzling, covered in alpine flowers like a Persian carpet. So I say, 'Popie, let the gods stay up there. You come down and save yourself.' So I did that," she says, brushing a few late summer leaves from the foot of Olympus, "and you see what has happened--this mountain is just a rock, here in my garden. With a bit of help, even this 70-year-old woman could move it."
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