Friday, August 1, 2008

Garden Paradise

Bishopville SC is about 50 miles away from Columbia, SC.

First picture is of downtown Bishopville, 26 May 2007; the next one is of Pearl Fryar.

A visit to Pearl Fryar's garden isn't a typical stroll in the park. Those who reach this tiny town in the heart of former cotton country will notice a live oak carved into a cube, boxwoods spelling out the word "love" and geometric shapes scattered throughout the three acres surrounding a modest ranch home. His dogwood – a tree that isn't supposed to be able to be made into topiary – looks like a pile of snowballs when in full bloom. And his signature piece – a Leyland cypress pruned and twisted into something resembling a fish skeleton – dominates his side yard. But what is most striking is that this piece of cultivated land is transforming Bishopville, bridging racial divides and becoming a source of inspiration for the thousands of people who visit it each year.

In college, Mr. Fryar joined civil-rights protests, during a time he now refers to as the "social revolution." After college and a brief stint in the Army, he worked for the National Can company in Long Island City, N.Y.

It was indeed social revolution. That is the other, the better, side of the Sixties so many people now denigrate.

In 1975, the company moved him south and eventually placed him at a manual-labor job at a factory in Bishopville. Even by the early 1980s, though, he found that the South of his youth hadn't changed as much as he had hoped. Trying to buy a house, he ran into resistance when his real-estate agent started inquiring about homes for sale. One resident, who didn't want to be his neighbor, told his agent that the problem was that blacks don't keep up their yards.


For more than two decades, Mr. Fryar has been doing much more than proving that objection wrong. He began his project with a simple goal: to win "Garden of the Month" honors from Bishopville's Iris Garden Club. He didn't know anything about gardening, though. He worked long hours at the factory and didn't have any money to spend on plants. Someone did give him a set of gardening books, which he leafed through only to discard. "If you do what's in a book," he told me, "it won't be yours. You'll just be following what someone else has already done."


He has created a sanctuary that has transformed not only the acres surrounding his modest home but also the community at large. Where there once was resistance to his purchase of a home, there now is love of his garden. His creation is one place in Bishopville where people black and white regularly interact. The town is even looking to revive its economy by encouraging people who come to see his garden to visit local shops. Several of his plants are now sprucing up downtown, too.

Proved the racists wrong.

"I knew I might have something here," he told me while standing in the shade of a cube-shaped live oak, "when people started to tell me I was losing it."

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