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My Roots In Cleveland, Ohio

While visiting my hometown, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, this summer, I was struck by its beauty. Yes, you read that right. All you cynics who remember when the Cuyahoga River was on fire and imagine Cleveland like this:

Cuyahoga River Burning in 1969Cuyahoga River Burning in 1969

Need to reframe your image to something a little more like this:

Cleveland's Lit (and Functioning) Bridges (left), Cuyahoga Valley (right, photo courtesy of Tom Jones)Cleveland’s Lit (and Functioning) Bridges (left), Cuyahoga Valley (right, photo courtesy of Tom Jones)

When I returned from July’s visit, I posted a few pictures on Facebook and received many comments from Cleveland friends.  Some friends are scattered across the country and others have remained in the area yet regardless of current residence, the response was universal — there was pride (not surprise) in our hometown and genuine appreciation for its history, reincarnation, tenacity and beauty.

Most comments were nostalgic, proudly recounted shared childhood experiences and some ratted me out about antics we had, until now, kept under wraps.  I was struck by how many friends remembered exploring the numerous parks and recalled field trips to historic sites in Cuyahoga County.

We traded messages about “Pioneer Days” at an area camp (Red Raider) where we learned how to navigate with a compass, tell time with a sundial, build and cook over a fire, live for a week without electricity and identify native species. Many science classes were held in Cleveland’s Metroparks (www.clevelandmetroparks.com), teaching us about geology, botany and biology. On March 15th, many classes traveled to the Hinckley Reservation (part of Cleveland Metroparks –also referred to as the “Emerald Necklace”) to watch the buzzards return to “Buzzard Roost,” a natural phenomena that has occurred every March 15th since 1957.

The reactions to the photographs and ensuing comment string (which continues to this day) brought one central theme and message home: nature’s accessibility (formal, informal, educational and recreational) was an important part of our childhood and has influenced me (and I’m sure many others) as an adult. The memories are precious, often humorous, the lessons have endured and some of the feelings elicited are now reflected in my own garden and appreciation for nature.

One friend’s comment struck a deep, strong chord – after looking at the photographs and thinking about her own childhood in Cleveland, Tipler, said “ . . . after more than a decade in CA it amazes me to remember how gloriously green summer is in Cleveland”  – that’s it. She’s right – many of us have attachments to childhood locations and/or preferences for various landscapes but for a lot of us, it’s those childhood memories so intricately tied to nature that captures our hearts and stirs emotions. Cleveland was (and still is) gloriously green.

As my interest in gardening strengthens and reworking our garden is an ongoing project, I think my insistence for certain “vignettes” and preferences for specific plantings is a way of recreating some of the Cleveland feeling(s) and memories that resonate so strongly with me.

My grandparents lived in a lovely white Victorian home within walking distance of our house. With a deep wrap around porch and distinct turret, the house was welcoming, warm and beautiful.

My Grandparents' HomeMy Grandparents’ Home

Without much of a yard, the landscape had a lot of wild violets as groundcover and the walkways were lined with lush, deep beds of hostas – all with purple blooms on their scapes. For reasons that escape me, my siblings and I would approach our grandparents’ home and delighted in “popping” the purple buds before they opened.  What were we thinking? Moreover, it was like a contest for us and we rushed up the path, popping as many purple buds as possible. It was like bursting bubble wrap – we couldn’t help ourselves and yet, we were harming the lovely plants so precious to my grandparents’ landscape! I’m pretty sure my grandmother, as patient and loving as she was with us, was none too pleased. Maybe my way of correcting this childish behavior has been to include hostas with purple scapes in my garden. No – I don’t pop them. But when I see them upright and blooming, I smile because it reminds me of my beloved grandparents.

Hosta in BloomHosta in Bloom

During one of our many field trips through the “Emerald Necklace” I distinctly remember identifying plants with our teacher, Mr. McDaniels. He presented the lesson as a kind of nature scavenger hunt, arming each student with a clipboard and papers describing what we were looking for while walking through the park.

Looking for some of the plants (I have no recollection of the animals – probably I’ve managed to suppress those memories) was a lot of fun and I’ll never forget the delight in seeing Dutchman’s Breeches in bloom (I figured out why it was named as such), the May Apples were more delicate and subtle than expected and I was intrigued by the Jack in the Pulpit. When a plant’s common name aptly describes its bloom, it’s hard to forget those lessons.

breeches-and-buckeyesDutchman’s Breeches (left), Buckeyes (right)

We loved finding the brown, rough, pliable covering of a buckeye and when not throwing them at each other, we would peel off the covering to discover a shiny, rich brown buckeye – Ohio’s State Tree. Mr. McDaniels said the name was derived from the way the nut looked like a deer’s eye. That I remember.  The “real” name – Aesculus glabra – took a little more time.

Those memories have prompted me to develop a “Woodland” section in the garden. As I watch the Jack in the Pulpit seeds ripen, I think about that clipboard and remember the delight in finding the plant  – the same is true as I watch many other plants come to life.

jack-in-the-pulpit-seedsJack in the Pulpit Seeds

jack-in-the-pulpit-bloomJack in the Pulpit in Bloom

The fields of trillium, turtleheads, butterfly weed, St. John’s wort, sedum, bee balm, wild geranium and more were intoxicating (as is defined through a 7th grader’s eyes) and I’m pretty sure some of my enthusiasm and preference for these plants is rooted (couldn’t help myself) in the informal and formal education received by taking advantage of the magnificent Cleveland Metroparks.  I notice how many of the plants I remember identifying in Cleveland’s parks now are incorporated into my landscape:

geranium-and-trilliumWild Geranium (left), Trillium (right)

A few months ago, as I sat on the patio with my father and looked at his garden, I remembered moving into that house and skeptically looking at scrawny trees planted in mud wondering if it would ever feel like home. It was NOT the home of my dreams – where was the big lawn? How could those puny trees ever provide shade on a hot summer day and what were my parents thinking when they left our first house with its deep porch and long backyard filled with fruit bearing shrubs and trees and plenty of area to explore?

Emily's-first-houseOur First Home

But as we sat there enjoying the morning’s cup of coffee and leisurely reading the paper together, I couldn’t help but enjoy the peaceful setting and look out at the lawn to admire how those scrawny trees and a yard full of mud transformed into a gorgeous, tranquil view:

father's-front-yardMy Father’s Front Yard

father's-gardenMy Father’s Garden

I was lucky enough to grow up on a unique piece of property blending old and new, using elements of a century old estate to enhance the “new” house, built in the 1960’s.  It’s easy to wander around the property and understand how big a role nature played for original owners and my family was fortunate enough to see it, daily, and create our own memories.

A century ago, the property had horse stables and bridal paths. Now those stables are used for storage but with the stone horse head clearly identifying its original use, it’s fun to imagine going into the yard, taking out a horse and spending the day riding around the property:

horse-stableHorse Stable

Old walls and ornamental structures, whenever possible, have been integrated and maintained. The landscaping, much of which has probably grown around the structures to accommodate the architectural details, seamlessly blend nature, history and physical structures.

urn-and-old-wallDecorative Urn and Old Wall

No longer using plywood over mud to walk through the property, paths are now established and beautifully planted. Mature trees bring warmth and the walks were established to accommodate their placement:

property-pathProperty Path

This sweet two-story house looks like something straight out of a childhood fable but I imagine that long ago, it was used as a play house for the children living on the property. We refer to it as the “doll’s house” – note the purple martin house in front:

doll's-house“Doll’s House” and Purple Martin House

These were the stone structures, original to the property, where I would go and “hide” when I stormed out of the house in an adolescent hissy fit. Originally they may have had edged formal gardens:

original-stone-wallOriginal Stone Wall

One of my favorite things on the property is this wrought iron arch, probably hand lit at night:

iron-bridal-gateWrought Iron Bridal Gate — Light On Top

My roots are firmly planted in Cleveland although Bethesda, Maryland has been my home for much longer than I lived in Cleveland. Yet whenever I return to Cleveland, and I continue to work on my garden in Bethesda, I realize – you CAN go home again (or at least bring some of it with you). The very things I treasured in nature as a child are the same I embrace as an adult.

No doubt about it . . .  Cleveland Rocks

rock-and-roll-hall-of-fameCleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame


Posted By: Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. You have captured a wonderful collection of memories, Emily. I grew up a country boy before coming to Cleveland to attend Fenn College. Nevertheless, I appreciated the wonderful resource provided by the Emerald Necklace. For me, the best parts of the Metroparks were 1) the amazingly-high canopy and clear understory of the climax maple/beech forests of the North Chagrin Reservation and 2) the stonework paths, walls & bridges, probably built by the CCC, which give South Chagrin Reservation its unique character. That same stonework can still be seen by everyday commuters in the walls, stairs & bridges that line the Cultural Gardens along M.L.K. Blvd. Even though I was not a science teacher, I used the Metroparks during spring, fall & winter as a resource to teach photography and writing. Today, my favorite local motorcycle ride on a sunny afternoon is the Tinker’s Creek Parkway in the Bedford reservation, where you could convince yourself that you were in upstate NY or central PA, not 20 minutes from an urban center. My dream is that this road would be periodically closed off to all but 2-wheeled vehicles, so we could race through the hilly curves as fast as we want! But that’s not exactly nature appreciation!

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment on “My Roots.” When educators (like you) use materials outside the classroom to reinforce lessons, it’s clear the information is more than enhanced – it becomes a memory, lesson and treasured era. I, too, love the Cultural Gardens and appreciate so many of the magnificent, natural and beautiful resources throughout Cleveland. I can only hope ALL educators learn to teach as you did and do – thank you. I’m all for racing through hilly curves on 2-wheeled vehicles if it gets someone into nature – do you have a sidecar?

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