Native Son: With a Little Help from My Friends

10:05pm…and I am up for the day. My circadian rhythm, which is peculiar enough already, was sucker-punched by the Great Easter Power Blackout that rendered my trusty CPAP as worthless as bottlecaps on a bull. Amazing how the loss of just one night’s sleep can transmogrify me from a regular guy into a giant, wobbly amoeba…with a white beard.

The idea hit me in January. It came out of nowhere, like a snowball to the head thrown by your first cousin…or any 9 year-old kid named Derek. There was this ¾-acre plot at the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center…oddly-shaped… hmmmmm, like an amoeba (Twilight Zone music here). Fifty-five pine trees, four sweetgums, and a gnarly hawthorn poking up through a broad bed of pine straw. What a place…what an opportunity…what a perfect palette for a new garden!

It would require an inspired plan…I got that one. It would require some money…good thing I know a few people. It would require plenty of hard work…“Opportunity is often missed because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.” AND, it would require plants…lots of plants…lots of interesting and beautiful plants. Hello Southern Living!

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I meticulously drew up a design using only plants from the Southern Living Plant Collection. Scrumptious selections there…lots of lovely cultivars of holly, camellia, hydrangea, abelia, arborvitae, gardenia, and many other beauties. Great plants with intriguing names…Bigfoot, Dragon Prince, Olive Martini, Scent Amazing, Lime Sizzler, Soft Caress…I’m smitten already.

Then there’s that one second of pause. The design is drawn, plant list completed, letter drafted…and that little moment of introspection just before my finger presses down ever so slightly upon the mouse to “send.” Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Have I gotten too greedy? Is this idea really as worthy as I think it is? I feel like I’m 9 years old again…standing on the edge of the high diving board…and all the girls are watching…because Derek told them I would chicken out.

The Southern Living folks accepted the proposal without much fanfare; kind of like when a true friend tells you they’ll help you move. I was pleasantly flabbergasted.

I got a tiller. Two semi-loads of compost arrived. Stone arrived…fourteen pallets of flagstone for the pathways; two pallets of chop for the labyrinth. What was I thinking? How in the world am I going to do this?

Help appeared like magic. Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, and LANC board members all stepped right up. Community Service people came out of nowhere to do their hours and were proud to be a part of building something beautiful. It was my own little, “If you build it, they will come” moment.

With flagstone paths installed and shrub beds ready for planting, the Southern Living Garden begins to take shape at the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center.

As I write this, we’re about halfway finished, though the heaviest work…that flagstone path…is behind us. We’re building from south to north, with the paths running lengthwise through the middle. Plants are still arriving weekly, and the tiller is still chugging and bouncing. I finally conceded that a French drain along the north side is necessary. Who knows…maybe installing it will fun. Right!

Planted beds, looking west.

Like life itself, the original plan is constantly being tweaked to accommodate ever-changing realities. And, in many ways, the tweaked garden is turning out better than the original plan. I will repeat a mantra that I have come to live by, “When building a garden, an inspired field decision takes precedence over that paper plan every time.”

Shrub beds, looking east.

I did have one particular moment of solitary madness along the way. For some reason, I got the idea that I should install the labyrinth stones all by myself. The concept seemed logical; after all, walking a labyrinth is a solitary act. Figured it would be a great experience: fusing heavy physical exertion with silent meditation. Starting at the center and building the rings outward, I was feeling particularly at one with the groovalicious stones as I carried them into place. Felt kind of groovalicious myself…earth, stone, sweat, and silence…my own brand of Zen.

Though certainly traversable now, the Labyrinth still needs to be filled with decomposed granite for a finished look.

I was about halfway through moving the 4600 pounds of chop stone when enlightenment came upon me…I realized those groovalicious long pieces made the center rings look awkwardly angular, and they really needed to be on the outer rings. I hemmed. I hawed. I tried to get all Zen about it, but I knew I had made a boo boo…and I knew well that this boo boo would stare me in the face and mock me every day for the rest of my life if I didn’t fix it.

I can hear you already, “So, just fix it.” Well, I did…but those long pieces of chop that were on the top of the pallet were flat on the ground now. And being the longest pieces, they are also the heaviest pieces…and they don’t just float over to the outer rings. All part of the journey, I told myself, as I wrestled the first ones to their new home. My glorious silence was soon broken by the grunts and groans necessary to move the stones. The last ones even required a bit of scatology to get them to budge.

I was taking a short break to center myself when my own personal Zen Master arrived. She was about 8 years old and spoke continuously in one long sentence that never ended, fusing inane questions with unbridled commentary…her own brand of Zen, I suppose. Her mom talked on a cell phone nearby as the little girl gave me her sage advice: “What are you building…why is it called a labyrinth…what a goofy name…why are you so sweaty…and dirty…I never want to get that dirty…you must be a worker…you look like you need help…you should go to college…I’m going to college…when are you going to finish…I don’t understand why you have to get so dirty…” Her mom finally led the girl away. (Kid’s probably got a brother named Derek.) I felt like I needed 3 solid days with Dr. Phil.

In the end, the labyrinth looks great and I am at peace with the world again. There are evenings, when everyone else has gone home, that I walk the labyrinth. And if the air is calm and the birds aren’t too loud, I swear I can hear the stones softly whisper to me, “Groovalicious, Stevie, grooooovalicious…”


I would like to say thank you, my special group of friends, for your kind words and support. I appreciate your emails more than you will ever know. And a special thanks to Neil Sperry, for being a great friend to me for over 20 years.

My apologies to any Dereks who were offended by this article.


Just so you know…the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center is OPEN! Summer hours are 10am-5pm, Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday Noon-5pm. Come out and see us! Check out the progress on the Southern Living Garden and other areas of the Arboretum. Please observe social distancing at this time. And bring your own brand of Zen! 903-281-2181

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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