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Space Odyssey

Cartoonist Tom Toles puts a ton of garden into a tiny back yard

By Tom Toles
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page W28

Preparing to garden in Buffalo always put me in mind of Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."

You remember it:

A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria offers privacy in the far corner of the author's yard. (Tom Toles)

This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of it drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet, when he staggered and pitched headlong . . . Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.

There. I thought I'd get that out of the way first. When I moved to D.C. in 2002, whenever I would tell anyone here that I had a garden in Buffalo, I knew by the odd pause from the listener that this is what they were picturing. In fact, if I looked closely enough, I could see in their eyes a tiny image of me in overalls and ushanka (earflaps down), lurching forward into a snowdrift, sometimes even being set upon by the wooly tusked tundra bison. This is how Washingtonians always expect a gardening-in-Buffalo story to begin. Which is why I started here.

I have to confess that one season I did create an entire formal topiary garden, out of snow. With crenelated ice castle follies. It even had the bustled Edwardian lady from Seurat's "La Grande Jatte," complete with parasol to prevent melting in the sun. Like the Inuit, Buffalonians have 35 words for winter-induced behavioral disorders.

But this is not a story about gardening in Buffalo. It is a story about transplanting a gardener from a much-beloved, large, mature garden in frosty Buffalo to a tiny scrap of stubborn yellow clay on 46th Street NW here in the temperate tropics.

That story starts on a Monday morning in August 2002 not long after I accepted the job as editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. My wife, Gretchen, had purchased our house in haste, as is the typical pace of real estate transactions here, and my only sense of our new home was a little sketch she drew of it the night she asked me whether we should add a pancreas and gall bladder to our escalator clause on top of the standard arm and leg. The sketch had a door and window, and chimney with smoke coming out.

Then suddenly, here we were. And Gretchen's little drawing turned out to be surprisingly accurate in one particular. The "little" part. I noticed that if I took one step to the right, and then another, another and another, I had walked through every room in our downstairs. Outside, if I leaned forward and craned my neck around the corner of the house far enough, I could see the back of my feet.

Our car fit snugly in our little garage, after making the standard 723-point Washington alley turn to get into it.

So snugly that I had two choices if I wanted to get out of the car. Back out of the garage or crawl through the trunk. The garage door had a raccoon hole in it, the size of which suggested a raccoon pursued by a panda unclear on his conjugal role, as our pandas seem to be.

And then there was the yard. It was the amount of land conquered in a slow day in World War I. Standing back there, hemmed in by tall fences, felt like riding in an elevator with shrubbery, all of us facing forward, not speaking, waiting for a bell to ring so some of us could get off.

Someone once wondered what vision would be like without perspective, if things didn't appear to get smaller in the distance. What if whatever you looked at filled your field of vision and seemed only one inch away from your face? That's what our back fence looked like to me from our back porch. If I reached out from here could I actually touch it? Almost!

Some things don't get smaller in the distance. Certain memories, for example.

I still occasionally relive the fall afternoon when my grandmother asked me to help her in her garden. The task was simple enough for a 10-year-old boy. I had to dig up a patch of ground and separate the bulbs from the broken earth. I remember holding in my left hand lifeless soil, and in my right something I knew to have a beautiful flower mysteriously hidden inside.


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