Willow Wood, Chapter 9... How to Begin a Yard Project

Updated: Oct 24

If you are blessed by a yard, you are also cursed by it. They go hand in hand. The only way to get around the curse is to hire a full-time gardener, and no one does that anymore. The blessings of a yard are innumerable: space to be outside and call it your own, a place to relax in the sunshine, the smell of flowers blooming, the feel of grass under your feet, the solidness of a tree trunk on your back, the mingling of leaf and sunlight and wind above you. The curses of a yard are also innumerable. Weeds. That’s all I have to say about that.


The seasons had gone full circle, swinging through fall like a catapult, followed by the slow downward drift of winter, until finally spring had crept up and started the cycle over again. The grass was just starting to get the color back in its cheeks, and the sun was going from pale to vibrant yellow. I was carried away by the excitement, and was pacing back and forth across the yard, doing with a measuring tape what measuring tapes are best suited for – as with stepladders: dreaming.


In my few months living as a homeowner, I had come to realize that stepladders, tape measures, or a combination of the two, almost always bode for an overwhelmingly massive project in the near future. The problem is that these items seem to have a spell about them which makes you forget this foreboding while they are in your possession. The result is, no matter how hard you try not to, if you pick one up, you will have by default committed yourself to a home or garden renovation project for the next several months. The moral? Stepladders and tape measures are dangerous. Use them sparingly.


This most recent tape-measuring incident resulted in what seemed to me a brilliant plan (which was, of course, drawn out painstakingly at proper dimensions on a sheet of paper, labeled, and colored in appropriately). You see, in the back of the house, there was an unused space full of pebbles and a few small trees which were in the process of going feral, hedged in by two sheds and a tall fence. It was doing no good to anyone like that, and if one instead installed paving stones to create a rustic patio, hung a hammock, lined the edges with raised garden beds, put in a fire pit, and draped garden lights through the tree branches and along the fence, it would become a paradise on earth. I’ve included the design below:

After much deliberation, calculation, and map-drawing, I revealed my magnificent plant to J. He was impressed. But not in a good way.


“Where are you going to find that many rocks?” he asked.


“I’ll look around. I’m sure plenty of people want to get rid of rocks.”


He scratched his head. “Here’s the problem. When you say you want to collect rocks to make a patio, that ends up being me driving around collecting rocks to make a patio.”

I assured him he was under no obligation to help whatsoever unless he happened to have time that weekend to help me start moving pebbles.


For those of you who don’t know, pebbles are DIFFICULT to move. Once they’ve been planted, they like to stay where they’re at. They will fight against any attempts to be moved using shovels, rakes, hand tools, and even hands. It’s like trying to pick up soap. It would almost be easier to move the blasted things one by one. Whoever first decided it was a good idea to dump pebbles in the garden… well, I’d like to have words with them. In the three hours we worked that afternoon, we only moved one bucket of pebbles. Lewis was watching the whole affair with interest. He has a too-cute-to-be-irritating love of watching people work and could watch someone do the dishes for hours. But we had had enough. Discouraged, we gave up on the project.


But it had been started now, and it would have to be finished. This is where birthdays come in handy.


In the face of insurmountable odds, where you may despair of ever finishing the project you’ve started, comes the glorious birthday, where it is obligatory for people to treat you well and give you gifts of money, energy, and time. And if you ask simply for help finishing a yard project which you started and didn’t have the ability to finish… well, who would refuse you such a small gift?


As stated before, it’s imperative you make it into a Party – let there be food, music, fun and games for those wonderful people heaping upon you their birthday blessings. And blessing it is. To not have to move all those rocks was a relief too great to describe.

Nonetheless, it took all summer to complete that project, things being what they were, and soon the leaves fell and the snow accumulated, and it was the next spring before I began to pace the yard again with my tape measure. I wasn’t sure where to find flat rocks. I had assumed they would be ‘around’, but I came to find that the Bozeman terrain was not conducive to yielding flat rocks. There were square rocks, round rocks, giant rocks, and triangle rocks, but no flat rocks for miles. It was going to be more challenging than I thought.


The first step, if you are looking for anything, is to alert everyone that you know, friend or acquaintance, that you are in the business of flat rocks. The word spreads after that, and if you are lucky, someone will just so happen to be wanted to get rid of the thing you are looking for. Or at least know someone who knows someone who might have a lead for you. The first rocks I found were from a friend who also owned a mobile home, and someone had set pavers down as a stepping-stone path years ago. Decades had passed and the grass closed over the rocks, leaving only tiny holes at the center. My friend was irritated about the tiny holes in his lawn, and upon investigating, found the paving stones and gave them to me. Ten rocks down. Two hundred to go.


I let things be and waited patiently. If you do so, you’ll find that it won’t be long before the thing you’re looking for turns up at your doorstep. Sometimes literally, but more often figuratively. My figurative doorstep was occasioned by a holiday. It was a long weekend, and with the extra time off, El and I decided to visit her parent’s cabin five hours away in the mountains north of Missoula. Deep in the winding roads, there is a town of 500 residents, and if you drive another three quarters of an hour through switchbacks and rolling pine hills, you will come to her parents’ place, a small cabin tucked into the hill and overlooking a green valley. The instant I stepped out of the car, I noticed a large stack of flat rocks.


“Are you going to use those flat rocks?” I asked El’s father, almost before remembering to say hello.


“Naw, they’re just sitting there. They’re all over the property. I try to pick them up when I can.”


“Can I have them?” I asked.


“Take as many as you like.”


And that was that. Sometimes it really is that easy. Although, I will say it was not so easy to get them into my small sedan, balancing the weight between the trunk and the backseat so as not to make the rear too heavy. We were able to fit a hundred in all and the back of the car was almost pressed to the pavement before I was content. We had to drive half the speed limit on the way back because the car simply would go no faster, but it was worth it. These were good stones. Not limestone or shale, but good, hard rock that would last and not crumble. The extra gas was a negligible cost.


When I arrived back home, the first thing I did was unload the paving stones and lay them out where they would go. I stepped back and gaped, feeling the breath escape from my lungs. A hundred rocks was barely an eighth of what we’d need. I shook my head and wandered inside in a state of shock. After a while, the shock wore off, and a sense of sheer determination replaced it. I was going to find the rocks, because the patio needed them, and there was no two ways about it.


I poured over Facebook and Craigslist. I asked everyone I knew to tell me if they found flat rocks. I searched high and low in the streets and roads of Bozeman. And finally, I found something. In a town nearby, there was someone with a rock patio who wished to get rid of it, and they were giving away their rocks to anyone who would haul them. J and I jumped into his truck and drove off to collect them (J reminding me again about how my projects invariably turned into his projects).


This lady had a lot of rocks. Almost the entire back yard was covered in them, and they were all shapes and sizes. There were plenty of flat rocks, but mingled among them were rocks shaped like squares, hockey sticks, and even Texas. We dug through them, sorting the flat from the otherwise, and heaved them into a rickety wheelbarrow, stacking them in the bed of the truck.


“It was a nice patio,” the lady was saying as she sat smoking a cigarette and watching us work, “but let me tell you – it has been a pain to get rid of.”


J gave me a look. I ignored it. He would understand eventually.


We filled the truck with as many rocks as it could handle, but there were still so many left that we went back the next day for more. Then we laid them out on the back yard area and stepped back to look at it.


Never had so many rocks filled so little space. They look like far too many stacked up, but as soon as you lay them out, they seem to shrink in size tenfold. We still had half a patio to go. J shook his head and went back inside, and I got out my measuring tape again.

Later that summer, we found some cement block pavers (which I am fundamentally against, but sometimes you have to sacrifice to finish a project) and we conscripted the family to come down and help install the rocks. A couple days of dirt digging, rock fitting, and a comical amount of stone-stomping, the patio was now a patio.


I strung lights through the trees and along the fence, just like I had imagined. The blue and white hammock fit perfectly between two trees and when you laid in it, the leaves and the sunlight mingled as birds flitted on branches you could reach out and touch. A porch rocker and some chairs went around a patio table, and in the evening when the stars flickered, the patio was a refuge of amber light, seeming to suck away the stress and demand stillness and quiet reflection.


It was perfect. And J finally came around once it was finished.

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