July 5 2012 12:00 AM

Lynn Orta creates a garden universe in a west side parking lot


    Saginaw Street is a greased pole running sideways through Lansing’s west side, with four fresh black lanes and signals timed to get you somewhere else fast. You have to be alert to spot the cool green rectangle next to the Marathon gas station at 601 W. Saginaw.

    At 45 miles per hour, it’s an Impressionist canvas — a soft blur of color in an epic frame of asphalt and concrete. Slow down and you begin to see a complicated geography of tables, chairs and carefully arranged nooks.

    Slow down more and you receive a revelation.

    I biked to the spot last Wednesday, looking for a gardener.

    Eric Jones stops at the Marathon every morning on his way to work to play the mid-day lottery number, grab some coffee and pick up a pack of Newport Kings.

    Jones was in a hurry, but he paused at the door to talk about the garden and its sole builder and architect, known to the neighborhood as Lynn, the wheelbarrow lady.

    “I watch that lady every day, and she works hard. I saw her carry a wheelbarrow full of boulders, for real. Shit, she’s a workhorse.”

    For seven years, Jones has watched the garden creep slowly across the asphalt.

    “It’s a world outside of a world, especially in this neighborhood,” he mused. 

    There was no sign of the wheelbarrow lady, so I walked to the nearest house and found Rosie Griffith, sitting on her porch, next door to the garden.

    Every morning, Griffith reads her Bible and watches Lynn from her window. “We thought it was a job she had, but we found out it was just something she likes to do. Everybody around here, they know it’s Lynn’s garden.”

    I decided to wait in the garden. Good decision. It took about 10 seconds for the city around me to melt away like cheap wax. Revelation was at hand.

    A low cinderblock barrier wall from a long-demolished car wash runs like a sheltering headboard at the garden’s west edge.

    As I sat by the wall, the green rectangle resolved into a universe of paths, borders, flowerbeds, vegetable patches, chairs, tables, distinct worlds, rooms without walls.

    A guiding will spoke like water from every stone, stump, and seedling. I started to smell sun on wood chips and noticed robins hopping under the tomato plants. 

    My wall seat felt as solid as a papal throne, but like everything else here, it was made of scrounged stuff — wooden pallets and cement blocks, with a curved piece of driftwood for lumbar support. Urns of humble geraniums flanked the throne in royal red. Curlicues of spray-painted graffiti undulated on the wall.

    Did I say papal? Why think small? 

    Behind me, the broken end of an industrial wooden spool evoked the Throne of God, witnessed by John in the book of Revelations: “And there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.”

    The rest of the spool, turned on end, sat nearby as a charming tea table.

    How did I know about the God part? Presiding over the wall and the garden beyond was a plaster eagle, nested in a garland of dry vines, one of the four beasts that guard the throne of the Almighty in the book of Revelations.

    “The eagle stands for Jehovah’s wisdom,” came a soft voice.

    Lynn Orta was standing in front of me, dressed in a red tank top and black bandana.

    “A year or two ago, vandalism was a constant problem, but not from everybody,” she said. Her speech was deliberate.

    She was on trash detail. She picked a crushed plastic bottle from the asphalt, near a bed of peppermint and artichokes, and tugged a sodden black T-shirt away from the fluffy, moist soil.

    “They bring things,” she said, reaching into the birdbath.

    “I come out here one day and there’s a little glass fish in there.”

    While she’s working, she sometimes thinks about “Big Yellow Taxi,” the Joni Mitchell song famous for the words “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” That makes her smile. She smiles rarely, but for real.

    Most often, while working, she thinks about Adam and Eve. “They were put in a garden,” she said. “We’ve got a natural propensity for it.”

    She picked up a dirty paper cup. Her eyes patrolled the asphalt perimeter.

    “Or In Isaiah, it talks about how every man will sit under his own fig tree. It’s a happy state of things to be in a fertile, productive piece of Earth.”

    This summer, for the first time, Orta has gardened the entire car wash rectangle to its edges. She started the job in 2003.

    The garden really began in Orta’s back yard, a winding glade of shade plants with stone and log borders similar to the paths next to the gas station.

    Orta, 62, has lived across from the garden, on Sycamore Street, since 1987. 

    The only tools in her garage are a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a rake. No roto-tiller, no power mower.

    Getting started was the hardest part. The car wash bed was caked with crushed gravel. She chiseled away until the bottom of her shovel was concave and the handle broke. A neighbor gave her a new shovel and kept the old one as a relic.

    She started to gather dirt and leaves from around the neighborhood into a compost heap at the fringe of the parking lot. Gradually, she massaged the fertile mix into the loosened gravel.

    “The neighbors were a little skeptical, but they put up with it,” she said.

    The next spring, Orta bought a dump truck load of black dirt and expanded the garden. For paths and borders, she used hunks of crushed concrete from construction sites, logs from storm-felled trees, paving stones and other urban detritus.

    “She walks all over the neighborhood,” neighbor Rosie Griffith marveled. “She’ll ride her bike. She’ll find bricks, she’ll find bushes, she’ll find vines. And then she goes out with that wheelbarrow. I’ve seen her carry logs bigger than her.”

    In 2005, Orta learned that Marathon was trying to sell the property. “They said they had prospective buyers and I’d have to move everything out,” she said.

    Orta put the word out in the neighborhood and people came and took plants and dirt. When it became clear the sale wasn’t going to happen, she started the garden all over again. She saved up to buy an outdoor water meter and ran a hose to the garden from her house. She laid out paths and beds as materials came her way, with no master plan in mind.

    “I’ve looked at a lot of magazines and people’s yards,” she said.

    To her pleasure, she found that the criss-crossing paths formed an “F.V.” in honor of her fiancé, Fernando Valenzuela, who helps her cope with the heaviest objects.

    Some of the garden’s most conspicuous and beautiful plants, like the Jerusalem artichokes, Virginia creeper and trumpet vine, sprang out of the leaves and dirt on their own. The black walnut tree that towers over the garden is only 5 years old. It probably sprung from a nut dropped by a squirrel.

    Neighbors and well-wishers donate a lot of plants. In June, Joe Drosty of Giving Tree Farms gave Orta 70 tomato plants. She easily fit 50 in the garden and gave the rest to a neighbor.

    The family picnic table where Orta sat as a child centers one of the garden’s many rest spots. Orta grew up on the rural west fringe of Lansing, on Canal Street, and went to school in Grand Ledge. 

    She has been married and divorced three times and has three adult daughters, aged 36, 24 and 22. The oldest is from her first marriage; the younger two are from her second.

    Her first husband was Kim Horrocks, of Horrocks Farm Market. Together, they ran a truck farm, hauling produce to the Lansing City Market. After that, she spent some tough years working minimum wage jobs at Quality Dairy and other places. She got used to long hours of hard outdoor work in the fields alongside migrant workers at farms in Jackson County.

    She planted onions in frosty ground in May, often by hand. There was hoeing and weeding all summer and picking until late October. She remembers wading in a field covered with “ice water” to pick turnips.

    In 1990, newly divorced from her second husband and pregnant with their second daughter, Orta started taking nursing classes at Lansing Community College. She worked in home care and long-term care facilities until she developed health problems of her own, including skin cancer and frequent respiratory ailments.

    She went on disability for a while, but her energy picked up and she got a job at Peckham in 2002. She retired in May.

    Now she is happily engaged to Valenzuela, an immigrant from Mexico City, now a cook at MSU’s Panda Express restaurant. They met at the Cristo Rey Community Center and have been together for three years. 

    The hard times are easing for Orta. Valenzuela helps her with money and Social Security just kicked in.

    “My retirement started this morning at 1 a.m,” she announced Thursday. “The first payment went on my card.”

    For years, Orta was active in Lansing’s Peace Education Center, despite growing up among Goldwater Republicans. “I was a Romney girl at 11,” she said. (George, of course.) “I went to the fairs and parades. Later, in the Vietnam era, I started to see things differently.”

    She saw Martin Luther King Jr. and Joan Baez when they visited Eastern Michigan University and lived in the tent city protesting Michigan Gov. John Engler’s cuts in social services.

    She’s still sympathetic to calls for peace and social justice, but she has come to the conclusion that there is “no governmental or political panacea for the problems that we’re facing.” For her, the garden is a humbler path to revelation — or perhaps a grander one.

    “I’ve learned to enjoy being meek,” she said. “When I first started this garden, it was so I could have something more for me. The more I open it up to other people, the more bounty seems to come of it.”

    At the gas station Thursday, Eric Jones was back for his coffee and mid-day number.

    “I’m pissed off,” he said to gas station owner George Jabrail, behind the counter. “I missed that number by one yesterday.”

    Jabrail tossed some change under the bulletproof barrier.

    “No, you keep that dollar,” Jones said. “I’m gonna get me some coffee. I know it’s too hot for it, but I’m getting it anyway.”

    Jabrail shrugged when I asked him about the garden.

    “The only thing that bothers me is that I’m paying property tax for nothing,” Jabrail said.  “A lot of people like it, but it’s empty, you know? I have nothing to do with it.”

    If a buyer came along, Jabrail said, he would sell.

    “It’s commercial,” he shrugged again.

    Orta knows that could happen. If it did, she would invite neighbors to take what they could, as she did a few years ago, and thank God for her time in the garden.

    If Valenzuela goes back to Mexico to study as a detective, as he plans to, she might follow him there or shuttle back and forth from Lansing. It’s easier to be driven from Eden when you can make another one somewhere else.

    “The best part is knowing that if it can be done here, and done by me, it can be done anywhere by anybody,” she said. She slipped a slick copper-mouthed hose under a butterfly bush and let it soak while she looked for more trash.