Place: A noun signifying an area with a specified border; a transitive verb defining an act; a modifier to describe a finish in a race. So many ways to use such a simple word: The place is packed with weeds; place the cup on the table; my horse did not place in the race. But when used as in, “My place….” ownership appears, and things get personal.
Mary Ann and I are selling this place, our home on Lake Norman; but it is much more than a place, a distinct area where we have lived for almost six years. This address is more than a specified area on a map or a group of photographs on a realtor’s website. It is more than all of that because it bears, for better or worse, our mark, our signature on this postage stamp of earth. Over those few years we made it ours by adapting to its confines but also by rearranging some of its parts. We joyfully planted, and we reluctantly removed; we built, and we repaired; we watched sunrises, and we marked sunsets; and then it was time to go, to leave our little slice of lake life.
Our place has the shape of a funnel-wider near the road and narrowing as it slides toward the lake, thus there is ample room for forty-two pine trees in our front yard. I remember the first summer we were here and the work I did to remove layers of pine straw from the edges of the driveway and around the trees; under which I discovered forgotten stepping stones. As I worked to stack stones and create piles of matted pine needles to haul to the transfer station, I thought about the cost to remove some of the trees. I thought then that to thin the trees a bit would be a good thing, but while enough stones were found to create borders for two flower gardens in the back and the matted pine straw was hauled away, only three of the pine trees were eventually removed-and that only after a storm four years later. The magnificent pines had changed my thinking.
Having forty-two pine trees meant that we could not install a sprinkler system to water a lawn of fescue grass. So with some nurturing our place eventually took the look of a small forest with a high canopy of green and a dappled sunlit turf, not like several of our neighbors with their overly sprayed and fertilized lawns. Each day as I picked up fallen pine cones and wind-blown branches, I grew to listen for the sounds of our forest: The softness of a breeze moving across the green needles high above me; the calling of Carolina chickadees as they chattered in a feeding of insects hiding in the pine bark; the hammering of woodpeckers seeking grubs and beetles; and the barking of an angry squirrel scolding me for my disturbance in its wood. I came to understand our front yard as the community of plants and their dependent animals that it was; and my daily ritual of gathering pine cones became a time of contemplation when I listened to our front yard forest, heeding the words of Thomas Merton about wind, pine trees, and God, “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”
Now the “For Sale” sign is in our front yard; but it’s white, plastic post and decorative blue sign look out of place under the forty-two tall pine trees. Eventually a transaction will occur, and the new owners will change things, as we did, as we all do. Like the artisans in the ancient halls who stamped an identification mark on the bottoms of created wares to show the world who made the item, we mark our new homes by changing colors, replacing light fixtures, tearing out walls, putting in fences, and more. We spend money, time, and energy to show that this newly purchased place is now ours. It is all as Billy Pilgrim often repeats in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes”, his reminder to us that some things in life, like new owners of a place altering it to their style, are inevitable.
But as the new owners select their own paint colors and different styled kitchen cabinets and more modern floor coverings, I hope they pause in the front forest long enough to hear its vibrancy, its life, and realize the joy it will bring to their place on Lake Norman.