Alexandra Risen, Unearthed (2016)
Subtitled “Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden,” Unearthed is a gardening memoir that will appeal even to non-gardeners (like me). To start with, there’s the chance to vicariously experience taking an unloved, abandoned place and turning it into a magical place of refuge and healing — without having to actually get our hands dirty. When Alexandra and her family buy a house that backs up onto a ravine with traces of earlier gardening efforts, she can’t resist the project. Years later, after countless hours of toil and not a few misadventures, her dream comes to completion, and as readers we can experience her satisfaction.
Intertwined with that of the plants and animals is also a human story, of Alexandra’s growing up with her mysteriously distant Ukrainian refugee parents. Though her silent father is now dead and her mother sliding into dementia, as Alexandra works on her garden refuge she starts to find some measure of acceptance and understanding of her difficult memories. Her oasis in the middle of Toronto becomes a place to honor and remember them, with nature’s gift of peace.
Then there’s the way each chapter, named for a plant or element in the garden, ends with a recipe or project that can be taken up even if you have no land of your own. Often made from foraged or overlooked materials, they represent another way to create something of beauty and pleasure out of what might otherwise be considered worthless.
I enjoyed Alexandra’s voice in this book, as in spite of her painful early experiences she shared her story with honesty and also a quirky sense of humor. I felt that I was really working alongside her in a way, getting to know her personality along with the garden and its inhabitants. I loved her sense of wonder at the natural world, even at things to which we non-urban dwellers have become jaded — a single deer is no longer such a breathtaking sight when your garden is overrun with them, but Alexandra’s joy in the deer’s presence is infectious nevertheless.
So thanks to Alexandra Risen, her family, and all the trees, flowers, leaves, roots, raccoons, ducks, deer, and other creatures for sharing their garden with us. I’ll definitely be dreaming of my own “secret garden” now.