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October 2014

Roadside Serenity

A random act of gardening

Photograph by Johnathan Esper

Ever had a stranger anonymously pay your toll or buy you coffee or leave an extra few hours in the parking meter—on purpose? At first you’re confused. Who? Why? Then you realize—reaffirm, perhaps—that people are good, that random acts of kindness really do happen.

Art Ford’s Serenity Garden will make you feel that way.

Pockets of settlements are scattered along Harkness Road, but this stretch from Au Sable Forks to Peru is mostly the pavement you ride to get someplace be­yond the Blue Line—big-box stores, the hospital, to work or maybe school in Plattsburgh. The road tunnels through forest, your mind wanders, and then—like the first fiery autumn leaf against a sheet of green—Ford’s sanctuary appears.

On an early summer morning, trillium, snapdragons, begonias, zinnias, dahlias and lupines pop from neat little beds corralled by rock walkways that lead to a beaver pond rimmed with water lilies. Ford, a 50-year-old logger from Au Sable Forks, is there too, headphones on, shovel in hand. “So many people get so much enjoyment out of the garden,” he says. “If you can do something to make other people happy, it’s gotta be a good thing.”

Since 2011, when he started working this roadside plot—part of a 55-acre parcel that he owns—“hundreds and hundreds” of people have stopped here. They pull over, stroll around, sit beside the bird feeders or beneath the crosses—structures Ford crafted from bea­ver-gnawed sticks. “I’m not trained in this stuff; I’m a logger,” he says. “But when the wind picks up and it’s dangerous to cut trees, I come here. It’s a spot for weary travelers to rest, a place to calm down. I really think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Visitors stop en route to chemo treatments, with kids who need to stretch their legs, to think or grieve or just be­cause they’re curious. They donate rocks, flowers, extra vegetables from their gardens and—if Ford’s here, working—share their stories. The garden keeper takes off his headphones, usually tuned to country western or opera (“you don’t have to understand it to appreciate it,” he says), and listens.

Nonhumans come too. The deer are respectful, sparing most plants. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, Baltimore orioles, hummingbirds and hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers “have all been here at the same time, having a party,” says Ford. And the geese make a daily appearance, today nine of them that have left behind their trademark mess. As he cleans it up, he says, “I’m not going to decide who can come to the garden and who can’t. I just wish they were potty trained.”

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