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27 March, 2011

A Failure

Once upon a dream, I started a business. I'd had one before, and it had worked. This one ended unhappily, but not forever after. I'd forgotten about it until Spring gardening season rolled around again.

The idea came to me during the Virginia years, a time frought and fucked as any I've survived. I'd go do a field project in Hawai`i for a few months, then come back and write it up. This made better financial sense than the full-time job I was offered locally; weird world. The work I did was exciting and rewarding, and I was allowed to control how it went for the most part. But it also meant missing out on my family, and each trip made it clearer that we'd never be able to afford a decent life if we moved back to the islands.

So I considered going into contract archaeology on my own in the Old Dominion, quickly dismissing the idea as a doomed foray into a hyper-competitive market already full up, not to mention having start-up costs way beyond my means. Then one Spring another idea lit.

Maybe in restrospect, I'd begun grasping at straws, but at the time it felt like I'd discovered a way to weave threads of my experience and interest into a tapestry. Old things, dirt, plants, history, gardening, ethnobotany, sustainable land use... I would invent and occupy the niche of landscape designer/household archaeolgist/... Living in the first American watershed settled by Anglos, I'd charge their descendants to visit their places, learn what had come before, restore it if they wanted, or design a landscape that would testify to their presence long after their kids and kids' kids had become wastrels.

To be sure, landscape architects with expertise in historic gardens exist, but they operate only in the thinner reaches of the statusphere, where the blood runs blue for lack of oxygen and exogamy. There are archaeologists who know something of historic gardens, but they are occupied with their jobs at presidential and plutocratic estates, and spurn the dirty world of digging for hire. The Heritage crowd can be woefully ignorant of the millenia of plant knowledge that preceded Jamestown settlers, and native plant enthusiasts would sooner dine on Cicuta maculata than plant an English-ish cottage garden. Any number of people could grasp a thread tighter than I, but only I would have the tapestry.

There was no time or money to get a Landscape Architect degree (no prob, I didn't want big commercial jobs anyway), so I set to stacking up what creds I could. I was admitted to the UVA/Monticello Historic Landscape Institute, I took a class on the HIstory of Landscape Architecture, I became certified by the state-wide organization as a Landscape Designer (did an end-run on that one, avoiding the usual class-load by re-packaging my anthropological, planning, and cartographic skills into a portfolio that passed muster).

One reason I'd chosed this garden path was that it could be done without employees, without investment capital. I had my body (still relatively strong) and a shed full of archaeology and landscaping tools. My wife got a gig that she generously transformed into a pick-up truck.

And I was ready.

But Virginia wasn't.

I ran through connections quickly. A couple referred to me by my sister, and better yet her boss and his River Road Mansion. My college room-mate with his new spread, who bought a design and paid me to implement it over a year or two of seasonal visits.

But otherwise, not much. Even the work handed to me amounted to very little money in my pocket. I kept taking Hawai`i work to keep from starving my family, which interfered with being able to focus on the landscape design business. I managed to have one good job that I got on my own, designing and making a Japanese style garden in Church Hill, complete with rustic timber frame tea house.

I did learn a lot in my efforts to get work, meeting prospective clients and walking their properties. For instance, even the most ignorant and inexperienced people think that they can plan a lasting landscape (why did you call me?), because one time they grew a great bed of those, uh, you know, the yellow ones. Of if willing to concede that I had some expertise, obstinately insisting on a landscape that would at once be sublime, maintenance free, instantly mature, drought-proof, deer-proof, and death-proof. Oh, and extremely cheap.

So many faces of cheap. Like the people who call for a consultation, a price estimate, and are obviously just milking you for ideas and knowledge with no intention of ever hiring you. Or the ones who will hire you for a basic conceptual design and then ask if you can just real-quick-like whip up a detailed plan and materials list and specifications for nothing. Or who string you along before dumping you to have your ideas done by one of those "landscape designers" whose qualifications amount to having a diesel truck and a trailer full of lawnmowers and leaf-blowers and illegal aliens. Or the old money in their brick and stone mansions that are taken aback that you won't work for what the colored people did back when they were colored. Or the new money in their opulent McMansions, mortgated to the hilt and wanting the patina of age and class instantly with sale plants from Home Depot that have been withering their driveway for a week.

I was getting to despise people. Even more than I had before.

It didn't help that the big dream--that I could do landscapes that would grow into something that would persist, that might feed generations yet unborn with beauty and fruit, with a tableaus of older worlds--was revealed as an impossibility. Because a yard is so personal, people cannot help tweaking it. They plop down some ugly-ass ornament, or if not ugly, definitely not part of the tapestry I'd woven in my mind. And to say so is to insult the customer, which means business is done. Then they get thrilled at some find at a plant sale, and place an invasive bully in the bed. Or they love some certain plant that is wrong for the place where they just know it would be perfect. Tell them it cannot take the heat, cold, wet, dry, or even that it will get too big and damage their house, and at least half the time, even though they may nod their head, their eyes reveal that they think you are an idiot or just too difficult.

At one point I groveled to my mom. Dad's will left everything to her, and she was sitting on a pile of money larger than she needed while her kids ate beans and rice and never ran the heat. If I could have enough to cover living for a year without having to keep running off to Hawai`i, enough to get my name out there where it would do some good, then I was willing to keep trying. But, no dice. I was disappointed, but not mad. It was her money, and she was already helping us financially. I was asking too much to say, "Support me for a year in case this crazy plan works out."

Maybe someone else will make a go of it. There are plenty of Virginians in the strata between the Monts (Vernon, -icello, -pelier) and the middling types that would be willing to pay enough to learn about the secret history buried in their soil (part of the plan was to do some archaeolopgy that would enrich the history of the owner's place, and maybe provide something cool for the mantlepiece), to have a garden matching the period of the house, or maybe to have a landscape that would feed the body and soul for a long time. If I'd been able to stick with it for years, it may have become a going concern. I still believe that a decade or two into it, I could have become The Name that people would pay real money to attach, that I may have been able to become part of the competitive consumption and display of the statusphere.

But then, it's best that hunger won out, that I looked elsewhere, and found a job doing something very different, very far away. Working for richers made me itchy and cranky. My friend was the only one uninterested in chiseling away at what I made (truth be told, the whole landscape thing with him may have been his way of spreading the wealth). Had I become a fulcrum in the one-upsmanship game, it may have broken something in me. More likely, I'd never make it up that far, some moderately rich bonehead would set me off, I'd refuse to do stupid things, and would limp along, maybe making ends meet, but becoming more and more misanthropic. My kids like beans and rice well enough, but is it fair to ask them to live with a broken dream and it's disgruntled dreamer?

Nah. Better the route taken a few years ago. Not a dream. Not a preconceived notion of what will work, trying to force the warp of my interest onto a weft of commercial success, notting nothing true. Epiphany may not be the right word to describe what has happened since I decided to admit failure as a landscape designer, but it is interesting how doors suddenly opened. Letting go of the dream let me try something else, ride the flow to a new place.

Where a life I never dreamed of is turning out to be better than most of the scenarios I would consciously imagine. I get to learn whole new plant communities, different ways of gardening in a strange climate, a rich ethnobotany, unique archaeology. Having the landscape design business, being my own boss, allegedly, turned out to be the least independence I'd had for a very long time. Paradoxically, working for a state government, keeping things right with laws and regs, has left me free.

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