Keeper of the Garden

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
Federico Fellini

Some of us, precious few historically, but more perhaps in this modern age, dare to call ourselves artists, out loud. We’ll talk about how much we appreciate artists and their work. We’ll admit to dabbling in art. We’ll sometimes admit that some of our creative endeavors have an artistic bent. But “artist” seems so lofty and pretentious for the unambitious among us.

Call Lynne Millies an artist, and she’ll laugh a short, throaty laugh and look off in the distance as if you’ve told her that you think chances are pretty good she’ll be picked up by a major league ball team. “My sister is the artist,” she’ll say. “She knows what she’s doing, and she’s great at it. Me, I just play.”

She’s a playful sort in general. In her early 40’s, with medium brown braids tinged with a just bit of gray, Millies is an energetic woman with a contagious chuckle who gets up at 5:30 each morning to run with her lab mix, Zola, before tackling homeschooling with her 3 equally playful boys, ages 5, 9, and 12.

One of their favorite subjects is art, and their walls are proof of this. The rustic style walls (in a home Millies built two years ago with her husband, Mike) are covered with a generous mix of the boys’ art, her sister’s fabric arts and paintings, and even collaborations between Millies and her children. The result is a whimsical, touchable, living tribute to creativity.

Millies’ true love and creative outlet, though, is her garden; an ever expanding living canvas that stretches around her house and into the 10 acres of woods that separate her and her energetic brood of boys and dogs from neighbors. A mix of the edible and the beautiful, Millies garden is a combination of hundreds of different plants, some gifted by friends and neighbors, some bought at local garden centers, and some picked up after being thrown out and left for dead by others. Natural looking deer fence surrounds the whole thing, culminating in a gorgeous gate constructed by her husband with fallen branches, and decorated by Millies with pieces of brightly colored glass.

Throughout the garden, which includes Magellan sunflowers, bee balm, butterfly bushes, raspberries, snap peas, basil, tomato plants, lavender, and plants the names of which I’ll never remember, colorful mosaics, pinwheels, rocks and branches with interesting shapes, and small pools of water pop up at the ends of winding paths.

“This is where I’m most happy, out here in with my plants and my boys. Avery (5) comes and helps me [small ride-on tractors, spades, and toy shovels show up in unexpected places to evidence this help]. I love that the boys can just come out and snack on a snap pea or cherry tomato.”

Millies’ garden, as might be expected, is done organically. She has been tirelessly replacing the topsoil that overzealous contractors destroyed in the process of building the house, adding truckloads of organic compost and literally tons of leaves. Even surrounded by woods, Millies can never have enough leaves for her needs, so she often gets them from others.

“Yes, I’m that crazy lady on the side of the road, shoving bags of leaves into the back of my minivan. My kids are like, ‘Mom!!’ I’m sure they’re embarrassed to be seen with me, but hey, they like the garden, too.”

Along with her garden art and plants, Millies’ passions include her newfound hobby of beekeeping. She took a class in beekeeping last year, and now has two hives on her property, housed in brightly colored boxes decorated by her sons. Millies is serious about her bees, and her normally smiling face turns equally serious when I ask her if she’s keeping them for honey.

“If we get some honey, that’s great, but really, I’m doing it for the bees. They’re having such a hard time right now, with all of the pesticides we’ve used and how badly we’ve treated them and overworked them. They need our help now, and we have to change how we handle them before we kill them all. We need the bees!”

Millies and her son, Avery (who has his own kid sized bee suit) have been watching over the bees since their arrival last summer. This spring, Millies was fortunate enough (and badass enough, in my opinion), to capture her first swarm and settle it into an empty hive.

“They’re doing well. I just hope they can survive me and my learning curve. I don’t want to be the reason they don’t make it!”

This isn’t likely, as Millies tackles all of her projects with great passion, good research, and a healthy amount of creative improvisation. She rolls with things, and stays aware of everything that happens in her garden. Like when she found a long black snake tangled in some deer fencing that she had mistakenly left out.

“It was a cold night, and I came out and found this poor girl all wound up in the netting, not moving. I tried to get her out [this in spite of her great fear of all snakes], but she wasn’t budging. So I sent the boys for a pair of scissors, and we slowly started cutting her out. I even had to open her mouth and pull the netting out; I never thought I’d get such a close up view of the inside of a black snake’s mouth!”

Millies settled the snake under some leaves and a tarp, and hoped for the best. Sure enough, they found that the snake, perhaps thankful for their help, decided to stay in the garden, now living under their porch. She comes out on sunny days, distinguishable by the criss-cross cuts the netting left on her skin (though otherwise no worse for the wear).

“I’m still learning. I make mistakes, but I try to make them right. That’s all we can do, I think.”

This is true in life, and in art. We should not be afraid to call ourselves artists as long as we’re learning, growing, and striving to tap into our creativity. Lynne Millies is an artist in every sense of the word. I’m willing to bet that you are, too.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/jumping-the-shark/keeper-of-the-garden/