Live And Learn

Hoping for a happy ending for Tess and Freddie


Just a bit of earth.

That was all 10-year-old Mary Lennox wanted from her uncle in "The Secret Garden," the classic children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her uncle, a wealthy landowner in 19th-century England, was puzzled by her request. Such a strange child, he thought. No toys or pretty dresses? Just a bit of earth?

"If it was out of the way and no one wanted it, no one could mind my having it, could they?" Mary asks, afraid to reveal just what that place was.

Mary, who had just lost both her parents in far-away India, had been sent to live at her uncle's manor. Left to entertain herself, she had stumbled into a forgotten garden on the estate that seemed to cry out for loving care. Like Mary, it was a neglected orphan. That was the "bit of earth" she wanted

Her request is granted, and, as the secret garden comes to life, lonely Mary, her ailing cousin, Colin, and her unhappy uncle also blossom and heal a happy ending.

Tess Johnson and her adult-dependent son, Freddie, were homeless, destitute and grieving the recent death of their husband and father. They took refuge in the national forest south of Payson. In that wild, dry, tangle of rocks, manzanita and juniper, Tess saw the promise of a garden.

It was land that was "out of the way and no one wanted it," Tess must have thought, like Mary. And so, though it was illegal, they turned their secret bit of earth into a modest shelter and a thriving Eden, hauling water a quarter of a mile by hand across the rugged high desert to keep it alive for three and a half years.

One can imagine that Tess and Freddie blossomed, like Mary, as they labored day after day, building rock walls, lily ponds, and lavishing loving care on their tomatoes, squash and pumpkin plants. There's a kind of magic in making things grow in partnership with Mother Nature that is healing to body and soul. We know, from reporter Mike Burkett's poignant story in last Tuesday's Roundup, that Tess did find the strength to fight an alcoholic addiction and renewed her will to survive.

From there, the real-life story of Tess and Freddie departs from the fictional one. U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and Gila County Task Force agents discovered Tess' garden. And like a movie running backward, it all had to be undone, restored to the wild, dry, tangle of rock, manzanita and juniper, according to the law.

Not a happy ending.

I have the good fortune to own a bit of earth. And like Mary and Tess, I'm trying to create my humble version of paradise. So, I haul rocks to build walls, scratch and dig in the gravelly soil, water and weed as I nurture my precious garden. In return, it nurtures me.

And while I work, I think about Tess and her garden that is no more, and the wrenching pain she must have felt as she ripped from the soil the growing pumpkins she'd watched over for months. I glance at my pumpkin patch where a half-dozen future jack o'lanterns grow rounder and a deeper orange each day. Such satisfaction it gives me to dream of the coming harvest.

Tess and Freddie won't have their harvest. But it's my fervent hope that they will find another "bit of earth," one they can nurture without fear of loss from anything more than wilting heat or hungry javelinas.

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