In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
Ten years ago this month, I was passing through some upheaval in my life. I was going through a divorce and finishing up a graduate program, and really I was trying to figure out how to reconstruct my life from the ruins. Instinctively I knew I needed to get outside of my own head, where things were pretty confused. I wanted to get involved in the community, do some volunteer work for an environmental cause. A friend connected me with the executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden Project, who was looking for someone to help out with their communications efforts. In many ways, over the next decade, Sally Wylde would inspire the Southern Urban Homesteader in me.
Sally called me up and invited me to lunch. We sat for two hours at Our Way Café over heaping plates of veggie comfort food (I love that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable in the South), and she asked question after question about my life history. Then she told me hers. A native New Englander who had made her way to Georgia to attend the Candler School of Theology, Sally was a seeker. She was an artist, had raised two amazing daughters, been widowed, had completed a master’s in theological studies at Emory, and several years before had remarried a wonderful Atlanta man and planted herself in Decatur soil. Her rural Massachusetts upbringing had cultivated in her a profound connection to the natural world. She had grown up knowing, as she put it, “secret wild spaces for children.” And that knowledge lay at the heart of her passion that gave rise to the Oakhurst Community Garden.
When Sally moved to Decatur in 1993, she witnessed a troubling phenomenon that to her emblematized the urban dweller’s increasing separation from nature. Every afternoon, children leaving a local elementary school cut through the yard of one of her neighbors in the Oakhurst district and trampled the neighbor’s beloved garden. Instead of involving the police, Sally and her neighbors invited the children to become caretakers of the garden. The children watched with delight and amazement as their plantings flourished and something ordinary turned into something special — a process they had never noticed or understood before. The group went on to create another garden in a nearby median strip. The children were honored for their work at a ceremony with the city’s mayor. And even after the work was finished, they kept coming back for more.
So the following year, Sally and her husband purchased a nearby, undeveloped half-acre lot that was at risk for development in the rapidly gentrifying Oakhurst. That piece of land became the Oakhurst Community Garden Project. As the Garden matured into an established grassroots nonprofit organization with Sally at its helm, the lot transformed into an urban oasis with vegetable and floral plots, a pond, art installations, beehives, animals, restored native habitats, and full program of environmental education for urban youth. For me, it was the endeavor that made Decatur truly my home. I found a loving, smart, energetic, optimistic community of people who shared an understanding of how a garden could unite people and save this stupid, beautiful planet.
Helping with the Garden’s newsletter and other communications was a wonderful way for me to learn its story and wisdom. And what was clear was that the Garden was really a manifestation of Sally’s spirit—radiant, colorful, inviting, fertile, imaginative, artistic, chaotic, spiritual, vital, visionary. It was healing work for me, and I fell in love. A year later, I joined the board of directors of the Garden. Another year later and I was board president. I remained board president for five years and after stepping down from that role, I remained on the board for another year still, two years after Sally retired from the Garden in 2005.During those years, Sally and I spoke on the phone almost every day. Often after work I would ride my bicycle to her house, where usually there was food. Sally had this way of feeding people. Once a month the entire Garden board would gather at her home, and unfailingly she would have some delicious meal prepared for at least a dozen people — some kind of stew and bread, or maybe pasta and green salad. Always with garden fare. Always fresh and delectable. It was nourishing in more ways than one, and I knew I wanted to embody that same spirit of hospitality and generosity in my own home.
I remember arriving at her house for one of those amazing meals and watching her make pesto from an enormous bouquet of fresh basil. I asked where it had come from, and she told me, “From Gaia Gardens CSA.” “What’s a CSA?” I asked. So went my introduction to principles of local, sustainable agriculture. And six or seven years ago, she took a group of us to the Southface Green Prints conference dinner. It was more than your average conference banquet; it was a sumptuous affair with multiple courses and wine pairings. But more than that, it was my introduction to what food could be and what it could signify. A full-immersion baptism into the ecology and geography of good food. We took our time eating and enjoying the conversation around the table. We were told where each dish came from, who the grower was, what the particular terrain of our region contributed to the flavors we were experiencing. In some cases we met the grower. We talked about why it was important. It was a revelation. I went home sated but hungry for more of this new way of thinking about food. I will never forget that dinner.
The first time I visited Sally in the Garden, she was weeding. Surrounding her were three hens, happy to help her dispatch the tasty green stuff and the insects she was unearthing. They were completely relaxed in her presence; her movements were gentle and unthreatening to them. Their soft, contented clucks and coos charmed me. This was 2000, and it was the first time I had ever seen chickens in the city. That scene took root in my own imagination, and four years later my neighbors and I had modified a shed in my backyard and acquired our first five chicks.
Sally taught me much about urban gardening — some practical, some aesthetic. She once told me that a garden needs something tall and upright in it — some kind of visual contrast rising up out of the earth. She had an artist’s eye for growing things. Mindful of that admonition I have always tried to erect something that towers in my garden. She also was a master at mulching. Before she left Decatur in early July to spend her customary summer months at her lovely family home in Massachusetts, she mulched her home garden deeply and well. Even weeks after we heard that the breast cancer she had been battling since 2008 had spread to her bones, liver, and lungs, and that she would not be returning to Decatur, her garden thrived through brutal heat and drought. It is still thriving.
Sally had more energy than anyone I have ever known. I’ll always remember the email she sent me some years ago after she ran the Marine Corps marathon: “I ran the damn marathon” was all it said. She was also a writer, a teacher, an activist. She took piano lessons. She got involved in an improv theater group. And illness didn’t stop her. Her husband used to joke two summers back about how the steroids she was taking to boost her immune system during her chemotherapy souped her up, and the result was the most elaborate garden she had ever grown. But even without the steroids, Sally just left life and beauty in her wake. One of her responses to her illness was to co-create a performance art piece titled “Lump Journey” with a group of friends. The performance at a local art gallery in 2008 was packed with friends and loved ones.
Sally died last Thursday evening, August 19. It doesn’t quite seem real to me yet. It feels more like she is still in Massachusetts until Labor Day as usual, and I’ll see her in the fall after she makes the long drive home with her husband and her beloved canine companion, Red Dog, and we’ll have lunch at the Universal Joint. Knowing the reality will sink in hard as time passes, I want to keep her essence alive in my own life — by sharing nourishing food and hospitality, bounteous gardens, creativity that inspires and transforms. Food, gardens, and art connect and heal us in a world that is struggling against its own toxicity.
After she retired from the Oakhurst Garden, Sally returned to her first calling and began making art again. I attended a show of her work and came home with this piece, which now hangs in my home. Sally had wings, and she inspired others — including me — to flight, too.