The form of the rocket ship only becomes a part of the landscape when something has gone irretrievably wrong.
Circle around it for a moment, listening, hoping bat-like that a stray noise will give shape to its unfathomably shrouded interior.
See the perforations. Areas in the fencing that have puckered outward or buckled inward. Exits and entrances. Like the moment where a candle held under an invisibly-inked letter begins to unspool an uneven but growing hole in the parchment.
The rest is covered in unremittingly occluding vegetation. Thick stalks knuckle out of the smaller gaps, flexing proudly against past-life domesticity.
And then, walk around to the other side, by the dry streambed, to where the gate is.
I had never noticed the gardens when clambering on the rocket ship, before the play-structure with its peeling red paint and empyrean aspirations was carted away, years ago, on the back of a flat-bed truck. It occurs to me that the height of the structure would have been sufficient to peer down and survey fully the thirty-six plots, still in use at the time, which crouch at the northern edge of the park, abutting the low edge of the Verdugo Foothills north of Los Angeles
Or perhaps not. Perhaps they were already partially covered by the incomplete canopy which is now the principal architectural ambition of a formerly cultivated garden now given over to new inertias.
Hanging on the gate is a laminated notice that the Verdugo Park Community Gardens is due for demolition on April 6th, 2020. Limbo’s two-step negation—left empty, and then left to linger amid more pressing matters.
Below the sign, more permanently, is a rusted warning against the Tobacco Mosaic virus. A reminder that nothing in this world has to survive whole and healthy. Yet the plants are alive—crushingly so. The intentions of the gardener seem struck by some mythical disease, some dancing plague waltzing through mad proliferations of plant-matter.
Shimmying through the gate, head weaving under a lopsided mailbox, one steps into the only fully clear portion of the garden. On the ground are propane tanks, a toy truck, a chair, and a filing cabinet lying on its side like some beached creature, with a shrunken purse and a few seed packets clutched in its open jaws.
There are several such filing cabinets and standing drawers scattered throughout the garden, as if this were a looted embassy of an erased nation.
Most plots at one point shared a majority of features. Waist-level fencing rings the outer plots, whereas the inner plots have taller wire fences, with shuttered garden doors in bright colors. Many of these inner plots have small sheds—though with their window openings, brightly-painted stucco, and cozy benches, they seem intended less for tools than for moments of respite.
The taller fences of the inner plots, plastered in leaves and vines, are walls now. Amber light from the setting sun flows in from above, pooling in the narrow channel between the fences, casting the shadow of the branches creeping across like aspiring arches.
Given enough time, the renegade plants may consider adding a complete roof. Perhaps it is uncharitable to think that resurgent greenery charges boldly for total reclamation. Perhaps it dawdles, arguing over palette swatches or the shape of doorknobs.
There is certainly a mystery to the new intentions created when human agency vanishes, leaving its tools and toys to others. The plots themselves have overgrown, intensified, saturated. What they started with—in circumscribed planter beds and splinted verticalities—and what they are left with—suitcases, cabinets, a lonely scarecrow—become a mingled medium, in which the priest-like gardeners have been overthrown in their imperial agency by the anarchic impulses of experimental growth.
The caretakers’ unconscious choices are, in their absence, taken to absurd extremes as echoes of the self, now grow wild and tattered and unrecognizable. Human concern hybridizes with new intentions.
I suspect that a former gardener, returning to walk through these thickets would meet with no less a feeling of alien-ness than I would, I were to look up through these gathering branches to see that eight-year old self still in the rocket ship, returning after all these years like the less-favored brother in an Einsteinian lightspeed calculation.
Getting to the far plots takes patience. The width of the path, narrowed by jutting branches and the odd fallen fencepost, is barely wide enough for one person. The pastel doors which lead into the fully fenced plots are hinged to open out into the path. Some have been left in this state, daring the trespasser to close them again if they are to pass them by.
But the far plots are also where echoes of now-distorted presence resound most loudly. Turning a corner to reach one of the smaller plots on the leftmost edge, the path suddenly widens, and you come to be regarded by a white armchair, regally high-backed and permanently fanned by the jesting frond of a dwarf palm plant. A few feet away is its cushion, covered in the same thin patina of dirt as the chair.
Scenes like this grant a fairytale sensibility to a place. As if told sleepily by a parent unable to keep the narrative straight; the plot fills with feral cacti, then a few paces later, it empties, save for a baroque table sunk halfway into the soil. Swat away low branches and vines to duck into a shed, the interior of which is papered over with posters of Roman vistas and “Snow World at SeaWorld.”
Artifacts of this latter variety underscore the suspicion that these sheds were never really for tools. Some even have teacups arranged on shelves. Most of them have mirrors either affixed to the wall or shattered on the ground.
Everything is buckling, as if under the strain of some unknown force which neither I nor the birds chattering above have any knowledge of.
In one plot, there is a breach in the wall of leaves, just large enough that the spell wavers, and one finds oneself peering out onto the playground a few yards away. You think about what you must look like, bumbling like a confused minotaur, lost in a labyrinth which was built for you, but has now outgrown your nature.
In the same plot, on the ground and half-covered by dead leaves, is a polaroid picture of some segment of the fence, with the green behind it mottling into splotched blur. Someone else has found this place worth pausing over. Attempted with a flash to make it his again.
But there is no catching up. As stand I amid it all, I feel it slipping away. I suspect I understand its purpose now as incompletely as the plants must have understood the accumulation of mirrors and postcards in the old days, watching with alien eyes the accretion of intimacies I have no access to.
This garden—which should have been demolished some time ago—seems to recede, as if viewed from the stern window of a departing rocket ship.
Walk out, circle around it again; you still can’t get back.
Limbo’s two-step negation—left empty, and then left to linger amid more pressing matters.