3. Underground Garden / by Leslie Seaton


  1. a bad year
  2. hubris

I’d planned 2014 to mirror the prior 2 successful years, and crammed it full of cheerful, wholesome, edutaining, stimulating activity. However, when an unblinking bleakness has begun squatting in your peripheral vision, cheerful activity becomes a chore.

So by late fall, with that in mind – and having learned an unrelated but relevant lesson on my prior year’s near-disastrous, novelty-seeking route – I decided to keep my annual road trip to Phoenix relatively simple. Straight down I-5 through Oregon, then over to Bakersfield. Two sight-seeing stops only: an underground garden in Fresno, and Slab City near the decaying Salton Sea. The whole thing seemed appropriately bleak. At some point you just have to lean into it.

I had to leave Ashland, OR early in the morning and drive with minimal stops in order to make it to Fresno in time for the last tour of day at the Forestiere Underground Gardens.

That name – Forestiere – with its connection to the idea of shade-dappled woods – and the two words “underground” and “garden” created in me a feeling of cool, cozy lushness.  As I parked, however, I saw that the reality was a bit more (yes, of course) bleak.

The gardens are right on a busy street, across from an In-and-Out Burger. There was a row of trees near the sidewalk, but because the attraction is, well, underground, my first view of the property was mainly just a beige and dusty-looking lot surrounding by a chain link fence.

This, the early rising, my rushed day, an unjustified sense of irritation at the perfectly innocent other members of my tour group, and – most problematic – my low blood sugar all merged to put me in an aggressively foul mood (a shade different, more acute, than the general malaise of this bad year).

So I’m not going to pretend that I felt anything but grumpiness as our tour guide led us around the underground complex. The tour, at the time, had no resonance for me; facts were delivered, and so I’m just going to set them down here like they plunked down that day.

Baldassare Forestiere came to America from Sicily in 1901 after a dispute with his father. He was fascinated by catacombs, and worked on underground tunnels in Boston. He came to Fresno with the hope of starting a citrus grove, but encountered both the hardpan soil and staggeringly hot summers of the area.

He went underground. He dug out rooms, a summer bedroom and a winter bedroom. He created skylights. He designed a structure that maximized beneficial airflow to keep his home cool in summer. He made planters out of the dirt he moved and planted lemons and oranges and kumquats and jujubes. He built a fish pond with a glass bottom so he could sit under it. He envisioned an entire underground resort as a getaway destinations for locals during the hot summers. Over the 40 years he spent on it, it grew to over 10 acres and three levels. He did this mainly by himself. 

After the tour, my bad mood and I drove on from Fresno to Bakersfield, where I was staying for the night. I settled in, then went out for a walk, trying to get in more of the ten thousand steps I’m supposed to be getting.

The La Quinta I was staying in was close to the Buck Owens Crystal Palace, but despite that regal-sounding neighbor, it’s not exactly the kind of area most women would feel an unqualified enthusiasm about strolling around solo at night. Normally that kind of environment doesn’t really make me too jumpy; that night, though – maybe it was that day’s bad mood or the year’s bad feeling – I was jittery as I made loops around the complex of sodium-lit hotel parking lots.

At some point, though, a song came on shuffle, and something about the rhythm of it and the angles and lighting of the external staircase of the La Quinta synchronized in my brain. It created an image of a character of mine – one I’ve been writing about on and off for almost 20 years with little actual result – in a new situation. The jitters left me as I continued the walk through the darkened parking lots, distracted by this development.

next part:

4. the big year