Category Archives: gardening

Jerry Ayers in Paradise

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Limbo District by Barbara McKenzie. Jerry in Hat

I have many fond memories of my 19th year, spent almost entirely in Athens, Ga. 1984. A particularly vivid one is visiting Jerry Ayers at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. I am stunned to realize this was 32 years ago, as the images retain piercing clarity. Now, with the sad news of dear Jerry’s passing, those days pulse even more.

I first met Jerry in ’83 when I was in Atlanta band Wee Wee Pole. We opened for his band, Limbo District – sexiest Athens band ever – at the 40 Watt. Later, when I moved to Cobb St to play bass in Go Van Go, Jerry and I crossed paths a lot. We often talked well into the night beneath a streetlight, or under an awning. I admired his sweet, lone wolf quality, sought to emulate it. In his presence, I felt recognized as I wanted to be recognized, accepted, appreciated – all of utmost importance to a kid alone in the world for the first time.

Jerry and I were avid bike riders, and frequently passed one another on the blacktop, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. We both sported straw hats. Sometimes, in the dark of a backyard party, someone would think I was him, which was quite a compliment. He was kind and nurturing, radiating energy, both elder and innocent. It was easy to forget his incredible history, in part because he was so interested in what was happening at that moment, which, to him, was always pretty fucking amazing. He could make a case for any quotidian moment being pretty fucking amazing. This perspective was contagious. You always walked away from him with more vigor than before. Needless to say, I would not meet anyone like him again.

In Autumn of ’84, Jerry was living at Paradise Garden in Summerville, helping rehab the long-neglected grounds, and writing grant proposals for Howard Finster. Thanks to REM’s championing, Reverend Finster was increasingly popular, but his sprawling, kudzu-wreathed, mud spattered, dawg-infested property was, to put it mildly, a mess of Biblical (literally and figuratively) proportions. Jerry was working hard to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, i.e. potential customers. This entailed much back breaking labor: shoveling, weeding, toting heavy, unwieldy, often crazy shit to a dumpster. Jerry knew international fame for Finster was imminent, and he wrote our mutual friend Cynthia Williams, imploring her to come partake of the magick, before Paradise Garden’s funky character was smoothed, before there was a gift shop, and, of course, while the still-vital Reverend still roamed the acreage with a liter of half frozen Coke, playing banjo, singing, and preaching on request. Prescient Jerry knew these times were not to last, in part because of encroaching renown, but also because Finster, a diabetic, ate almost exclusively junk food and never slept. Jerry said: If you want to meet a true holy man in his natural element, an art prophet, do not hesitate, come now. And if you can, bring money and buy art. (Incredibly, Reverend Finster would live 17 more years.)

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Reverend Howard Finster

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Paradise Garden

Cynthia invited me to come along. I had no gigs, and was not scheduled at Kinko’s, so I said hell yes. We drove to Summerville on an Autumn day. Jerry met us in the rutted driveway, handsome in red clay-crusted waders and mud spattered, billowy clothes. Grinning like a hillbilly pirate. Cynthia and I were stunned at the place. Like most, I’d only seen Paradise Garden in the hazy, dreamy video for “Radio Free Europe,” which was, like most of what REM did at that time, tantalizingly obtuse. Arty. But now, in stark detail, Paradise Garden rose, a collection of ramshackle buildings, a couple trailers, art everywhere, a car carcass covered in Howard’s distinctive religious characters and Bible verses, bicycle parts, scrap metal, plywood, and the aforementioned dawgs. Perhaps the happiest dawgs I’d ever seen. Assorted family members came and went, all smiles, conferring with Jerry about various duties, chores. It never occurred to us to worry that perhaps Jerry – a former Warhol Superstar, a decidedly unhetero male – would be in trouble around these God-fearing rural folk. The divinity of the art, the devotional work, rendered all of that meaningless.

Jerry was very glad to see us, excited like a little kid to share. He squired us around, and we marveled at the twisted tower of bicycle parts, the paths beneath the stately oaks, the painted faces everywhere, all spreading good news about salvation, about a world unseen, a world of love and poetry. Angels. Elvis. George Washington. Jesus. Howard himself, as a grinning young man, touching the ineffable, brimming with hope, eyes fearless and joyful.

Jerry was particularly struck by Howard’s preternatural energy. He said: the man is tapped into something beyond, something unexplainable, because all he eats is garbage. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Hostess Fruit Pies. And yet. Jerry told of waking in his room in the wee hours and looking out to the trailer where Howard basically lived, where the Reverend did most of his painting while the world slept. No matter the hour, the light was always on, an aura of creation radiating into the Summerville night.

Laughing, bespectacled Howard came out to meet us, resplendent in a polyester sport coat over a flannel shirt, ever-present bottle of Coke in hand. Cynthia asked if he would tell us a story, and he said yes. Like children, we sat on the floor before him in his trailer, and he told us of a woman he knew who put her son’s jacket on a hook when the boy went to Vietnam. She said she wouldn’t take it down ’til her son returned. And then Reverend Finster wept. He told us the jacket was still there, to this day. As he cried, we sat speechless. Then Jerry thanked him, placed his strong, lovely hand on the man’s shoulder, and ushered him back to us. Reverend Finster thanked us for coming, and Jerry led us into the late afternoon, shadows creeping.

I do not recall what or where we ate. But I do recall where we slept. Jerry was eager to show us the innards of a tower Howard had built with no architectural knowledge at all. Reportedly structurally sound. How did the Reverend do it? God told him how, that’s how. In the tower was a small shrine to the actress Lisa Whelchel, aka Blair on the Facts of Life; mostly clippings of her face from magazines, pasted to a kind of altar with a cross. It decorated a wall just outside the bedroom in which Cynthia and I would sleep on a terribly uncomfortable fold-out bed. I remember the dark of that room, the hum of a heater, the warmth of Cynthia beside me, a confusion of all that I’d seen and barely grasped. Yet also, a feeling of being lucky.

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The Tower

The next day, Howard was busy working, not to be disturbed. Cynthia purchased for me one of his two-foot-by-one-foot angels, a beautiful smiling creature covered in Biblical verse and exhortations. It pains me to write this, but somehow, in my months of couch surfing in Manhattan in 1985, I would lose it. It is the dearest thing I have ever lost. As I’ve come to know grief – the tax on a long life – I have learned not to grieve objects. Except for that.

I returned to Athens in 1987, while on tour with the Fleshtones, but I never saw Jerry again. With the advent of social media, however, we connected several times. Still, I never thanked him for his kindness on the streets of Athens, when I was a kid, struggling, for the first time, to be independent. Running from trauma. And I never thanked him for providing me with the experience of walking the holy land of art, where he fit in perfectly, where he made me feel welcome. But I think Jerry knew what he’d done for me. When I did not realize it, he knew I would carry that time with me for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Jerry.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, October 25th, 2016

Back to the Garden: How Digging in the Dirt Made Me Better

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Even though the last two winters were particularly harsh, I griped less about the weather. What changed? Mellowing with age? Hardly. One word: gardening.

Winters 2014 and 2015 found me looking at the snow-packed ground and easily summoning the sensation of soil yielding to my fingers. I’d actually felt that in my gardens, as opposed to talking/thinking about it and/or benefitting from someone else doing it. The memory, housed in my fingertips, bore me up. Spring was imminent.

Of course, like you, I always realized snow would melt, ground would soften, buds would bloom, etc. Even in the noticeable throes of climate change, Nature still grants us our somewhat predictable (although less so) seasons, particularly here in the Hudson Valley. But with gardening, intelligence extends beyond the head and into the hands, where it remains. I retain the feel of dirt in my palms, the muscle memory of digging, wielding a trowel, stroking stems and buds, the sweet snap of the bounty dropping into my palm. Like the music I’ve learned to play, the knowledge isn’t only in my brain; it’s in my flesh.

You think you know yourself, especially when, like me, you are smack in midlife. But no, I had no idea I’d love gardening as I do. I didn’t think I’d be on the verge of tears the first time one of my tomato vines fell from its stake and broke; I didn’t think I’d be elated seeing bees congregate on my plants, or blindly furious when an idiot dog figured my garden an excellent place to dig and defecate. Apparently, moments of looking in the mirror and saying, “Who are you?” never cease.

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It was a long time coming, this shift. When my wife and I moved with our four-year-old son, Jack, from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley in 2002, I had been a city dweller my entire life, an admirer of gardens, but a stranger to them. Arriving in Phoenicia, we fell in love with and bought a 1910 Victorian house on four acres of land, a significant chunk of which had been gardened by the former owners, the Teasdale family.

The Teasdales were intrepid, back-to-the-land techno-hippies (please check out Videofreex). They’d lived in the house for twenty-eight years, raised three girls, farmed the acreage, and done a lot of gardening. Vestiges were evident: fenced-in plots, long-dead vines among the loamy earth, and, to keep away birds, glinting aluminum pans hung from stakes.

The land called out, but I ignored her for about a decade. I didn’t quite get the language she was speaking, and I was too busy to learn. I was the hands-on parent of an elementary school kid, re-inventing myself as a teacher, attending to children, and spending my spare time playing and writing music. My nurturing energy was spoken for.

In times of stress and heartbreak, however, I found myself wandering into the back yard and talking to the land, regardless of the season. I’m not sure what gave me the idea, perhaps I just needed to get out of the house. In any case, I asked for signs, for solace, for clues. I received no clear answers, no actionable intelligence, but the mere asking helped. I sometimes felt like Chuck Noland, Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. [Spoiler alert!] Marooned on a desert island and desperate for connection, Noland talks to a Wilson brand volleyball that, like him, washed up from a plane crash. He christens it, wait for it, Wilson. While Wilson never answers (that would have made it a very different movie) the act of engaging helps stave off Noland’s madness.

Unlike a volleyball, however, the land is very much alive. I never felt this more than when I took my troubles to her and asked for help. We got further acquainted, the land and me. Just by being there, steadfast, all things respirating at a slower pace, she helped me relax in tough times. I was able to tap in to her rhythm, and this helped stem the flow of my cascading, dark thoughts.

Still, I wasn’t ready to go all the way.

~

Finally, in 2013, when our son was fifteen, my wife and I began the process of stepping back as parents, letting him go in some ways. Obviously, you can’t parent a fifteen-year-old the same way you do a five-year-old or even a ten-year-old. Seems like a no-brainer, but this process is always rife with missteps and mistakes, a clumsy dance most families know well. Your kid has his own life, his own friends; his world is not yours. Staying engaged while backing off is a challenge.

You can talk about this stuff ad nauseam – I know I did – but luckily, in a quiet moment between conversations, I heard and, most importantly, heeded, the call of the land, which I’d begun to decipher on my stressed-out nighttime wanderings.

After a decade of living on it, I looked intently at our acreage, assessing the arc of the sun over the maples, the firs, the birches, the mountains. I listened to the Earth’s call resonating in the space where my need to obsessively care for something resided. Perhaps I was not only born to parent, but to garden. The time was ripe, if you will, to find out.

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That first season, I started late (timing is not my strong suit). I bought small plants and potting soil, Googled “starting a garden,” and built a raised bed from spare wood salvaged from a disused tree house I’d built for my son when he was tiny. I upcycled it into a square, about the size of a small table, and placed it in a sunny spot. I poured in soil, planted my tomatoes, lettuces, and cukes, added in some foul-smelling fertilizer, and waited.

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Garden, 2013

A late frost almost took out my tomato plants, but to my elation – and I do mean that – they survived and budded. I watched the bees pollinate, and the process captivated me. I’d never fully understood why sex was euphemistically called “the birds and the bees,” but seeing the insects burrow deep into the dripping petals, I got it. When the fruits and vegetables swelled from those petals, I really got it.

I tended my garden every day, loving the scent of it on my skin, the dirt under my fingernails, my actual red neck. (Not loving the ticks, which are worse every year.) I watered and weeded, pruned the plants, and talked to them like a crazy person, sometimes well past dusk. My family made good-natured fun of me, but they loved my little handful harvests. Meanwhile, I felt ever more like a hunter-gatherer, a little more ready for the grid to go down, connected to a shadowy part of my ancestry.

With regards to parenting, the garden, I think, made it easier to step back and better realize what I can and cannot control, what aids growth and what stunts it. Again – I knew a lot already, intellectually speaking, but not in my body. And gardening requires patience. I couldn’t force my plants to grow any faster, or bear fruit on cue. They did it on their own time, which I had no choice but to respect.

Thankfully, I couldn’t afford to muse overmuch on this stuff. (That’s what winter is for.) There was blessed work to do, always. The vines grew ever faster, and I hammered in stakes and old pieces of fence to keep them vertical. My tomatoes in particular thrived, yielding fat, juicy fruits, which I foisted on neighbors and friends, not unlike a new dad waving food in front of a small child. I could be irritating.

“Eat this! I grew it!”

“Could you not do that?”

The first time I ate produce I had grown, it tasted quite different from store-bought, which, by comparison, is virtually flavorless. From the moment the juice squirted from the skin, I was as hooked as a crack head.

Last year, I expanded to a space twice as big. Mysterious and tenacious blight plagued my tomatoes both years, but luckily it arrived at the end of the season, after I’d harvested a lot. The first year, the unsightly black fungus upset me, but last year, not so much. Humbled is a better word. As I put in my new garden I known I will fight it again, and the smart money’s on the blight to win. But fight I will.

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Garden, 2014

~

One of the biggest getting-to-know-yourself aspects of gardening has been my deeper connection to the natural cycles pervading all life. Through this, I realize now, in my body, that we, as a species, are screwing up the Earth. I’ve known it intellectually since I was a kid, but I hadn’t really grasped it until now. The media, of course, makes a lot of hay with the doomsaying and the screaming headlines and much-clicked-on posts. It all gets a lot of play, as it should. And it is upsetting, even more so now that I am viscerally connected.

What to do? Some of my friends just say, unequivocally, “We’re fucked. Or rather, our grandkids are fucked. Do nothing. You are wasting your time.” But I’ve discovered hand-wringing fatalism to be profoundly depressing and certainly no help except in a “misery loves company” kind of way, which I can’t really brook anymore.

Naturally, I hope there’s hope. I take heart that history, like life, is rife with game-changing, 11th hour saves; I hope something unknowable, but good, is in store for our descendants. But in the meantime, I asked myself, what can I, as an individual, do? What process feels right?

After years of consideration, I joined the Green Party. I’ve watched my Green Party friends expose and/or fight climate change deniers and/or outright rapers of the land, or those who would legislate in favor of the desecrators. I want in on that. I look at these foes like I look at my tomato blight. We may not win, but we will fight, even as they slime back into my (and your) plot. Also, we may win, or, at the very least, affect change.

Now that I’ve put my energy into the land, I really do hear the Earth’s voice, even when the snow is thick on the ground, and even when the many connections in my world crackle and spark with the noise of “civilization.” I hear her from within; she is, quite literally, under my skin. And despite her awesome power, I hear her call for allies.

She’s taught me and given me so much, especially in these last couple of years. Fighting her enemies is the least I can do.

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Garden, 2015