A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard. Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground. Mornings are not my sharpest time. It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.
Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem. A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street. The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years. I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners. Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.
My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before. The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world. Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house. Someone was paying attention. It was creepy. Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground. He gave up and planted something cheaper. Azaleas, I think.
John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies. He’s actually kind of a poet. For pirates.
“What do we do? Call the police? Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”
“I guess,” he said. “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.
“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”
“This is shitty,” he said.
It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police. I probably couldn’t identify my plants. I doubted they’d be able to. It was the perfect crime, really. I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition. Our street was a goldmine.
Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up). She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better. Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly. Also, I should know her name and what her rank is. Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.
Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working. She was from New Jersey. “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone. How much were they worth?”
John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass. “Oh, Jesus. Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.
“But those plants were already here,” I said. “Also, you love the garden. Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”
He shrugged. “True. I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”
As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks. It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen. Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy. I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine. Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like. But still.
As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid. Someone had been casing the neighborhood. What else in my yard had the chance of being taken? Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night? The windows were open. How could I not have heard someone digging outside?
I left that spot bare. Afraid to plant the same thing. Not sure what else to put there. I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.
A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods. There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy. What if those people were a bunch of kids? What if they lived off the grid? What would that look like? How would they decide what to steal? Who would be in charge? What else was at stake?
Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions. It’s a mess. It’s my first. The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together. It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything. Some days it feels like giving birth. Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.
Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves. I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.
I eventually did plant something in the bare spot. Grass. That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.