Opening the Green Door
An essay by Lainey Papageorge who now owns the exact green door that once hung in this stone wall, destined to become a part of the new Fernbank Outdoor Natural History Museum experience in Atlanta, Georgia.
When I was 7 years old I discovered a secret garden by walking down the south fork of Peavine Creek that ran through our backyard on Barton Woods Road in Atlanta, Georgia. Instant love and unity permeated my small scrubby being, as I soaked first shoes, then socks squatting in the creek to examine glistening pieces of mica gneiss and quartz. No one ever interrupted my play and I got braver and began to follow the creek up towards the top of our street where Barton Woods Road intersected Ponce de Leon Avenue. On each creek walk venturing a bit further splashing and ducking under twisted vines, I discovered a wide clearing above the creek bank. Emerging wet and wide-eyed into an overrun maze of pathways through old English ivy, I discovered neglected flower beds, still discernible under layers of weeds and fallen leaves. Yellow daffodils poked through the dark green vines lining the stone steps that led up to a small terrace partially encircled by a tall stone wall. As I sorted, discriminated and compared the rocks at my feet and in the wall, I felt something I can only describe as resonance. Whole days spent listening to the creek rocks had focused my visual discernment and empowered my artist’s inner voice. I could not know then that I was polishing the lens for my future profession as a jewelry designer.
Tentative steps took me farther into the deserted garden, and I discovered what appeared to be the nexus; three flagstone steps led up to a small terrace enclosed on one side by this oddly placed, solitary tall, curved granite wall, the center of which was a small wooden plank door painted bright pea green. The green door was flanked on either side by empty yet ornate flower pots on pedestals. The door was closed but an old fashioned push-latch handle begged to be opened. Respectful of closed doors, and a bit afraid, I decided not to open it, though I wondered where it led? Several years later and with great courage I tried to pry it open but alas, it was rusted shut. The door itself had been carefully hung from handmade iron hinges, also rusty but still screwed into several holes drilled into the granite. This niche had been created with meticulously hewn stones placed just so, to fit above and around the small door. All of this was laid into the large, curving granite wall that towered over me. The wall was mostly covered with the same English ivy as in the garden, plus a few fallen trees that rested over the top of the wall, hiding a small concrete cross that I noticed many decades later. I thus entered an enchanted interchange with the natural world that had taken charge. Peavine Creek had overflowed its banks so often that soft dirt now covered the hard clay court as I danced and spun on a sunny stage enclosed by dense green foliage.
I understood that I was encroaching on someone else’s property, but I was careful and quiet and left no trace. My excursions remained a secret, hidden from my older sister, my parents, cousins and friends. Each time I returned home dirty and wet I explained, “I’ve been playing in the creek.” And so it was that years went by and this protected garden remained my secret, solo playground. The small green door with its serpentine network of beautifully laid granite stone walls, intricate water avenues flowing in curved concrete hollows that wove up and down the hillside, obviously designed to direct rainfall to the creek ravine. The mansion was acres away, somewhere over the top of the immense tree covered hillside, forever hidden from my limited view far below.
I never saw or heard anyone except the nuns who lived at the Monastery of the Visitation on Ponce de Leon whose back yard bordered this garden. The two immense properties were separated by the creek, but a few times I heard people talking in the field beyond the dense bushes. They could not see me, nevertheless they terrified me. As I hid, peering through the vines I spied them sweating from hard labor in black robes and heavy headdress in the sweltering southern heat. I knew they had no hair and wondered if they had teeth? I did not know if they were female or male but I decided not to find out.
The green door remained my solitary focus, an enduring mystery because I had explored around and behind the wall which housed it, and was certain nothing except more ivy covered earth lay behind it. Viewing the back of the wall there was no trace of a door opening. I could never figure that out or what the door was intended to open into? After careful examination I had discovered no fallen beams or a foundation of any kind behind the wall, which I had expected to find like in the old greenhouses at Jekyll Island where my family and I had explored at a park where millionaires once lived. It made no rational sense, but it felt splendid to be near the enchanted green door and its adjacent gardens. It was a forgotten treasure, the obvious result of many hands over many years that had labored to translate someone’s dream into a once well-tended reality. Someone who had loved nature and flowers and the refuge of the creek as much as I did. But where was this person now? And where was the green door supposed to lead to, and why was it built?
The big stone wall appeared to be of particular interest as it ran the length of the slope. It was carefully laid into a graceful curve tapering from a few feet at the top of the hill to at least 15 feet high around the flagstone terrace with its mysterious green door at the bottom. I imagined that it once held great importance to someone and thus I became its new guardian with reverence for the little door, taller than me, shorter than normal, perpetually closed. Enchanted scenarios consumed many long hours of solo play. My artist soul was born there, and I am forever grateful to this place and especially to the door.
During the surge of adolescence, I visited my secret garden less frequently, but always when snow fell and school closed. When white magic covered the known southern world, I ventured back to the creek crunching along the sleet covered forest floor, brushing aside tree boughs laden with ice. Winter walking was easy because no thorns pulled at you, no poison ivy threatened, only a crystalline world of silent, lacy trees dangling frozen vines. I could walk without care through the exposed landscape into the bare skelton of my sacred ravine and tumbling creek that led to the hidden garden. In this way I was careful to nurture reverence for the acute awareness I continued to experience around the green door.
One winter year in my early teens I was inextricably led up the magical steps with purpose. Without much consideration, but with the considerable strength of a swimmer”s nubile body, I pulled open the green door. The rusted latch was freed by my strong thumb, and with the hinges still creaking, I freaked! There was absolutely nothing there, not a smidgen of space for a broom, rake or shovel…nothing except huge granite boulders laid into the immense stone wall that loomed an inch from my nose. There was zero room to enter and the granite was so close I could smell it! Adrenaline surged, I slammed the door shut and ran down the steps towards home, dumbfounded by what I had suddenly accomplished and laid bare. Questions hammered my brain: Why would someone build a door that opened yet led nowhere? Who and why? My fascination with the green door only grew.
I returned each year to the green door well into my 30’s even after it had fallen off its hinges and I had moved to Alaska to begin my profession as a jewelry maker and designer. By then I had to lift it from the ground where it had fallen after its hinges rotted off, to prop it back up into its opening in the wall. When I returned in the mid 80’s knowing the land had been sold to build the new Fernbank Natural History Museum, the secret garden had become an unrecognizable mess. Fallen trees and a general mass of thorns and invasive species covered the flagstone terrace. It took a dedicated search to find it, but I knew where to look as I carefully dug the door up. The planks were so rotten it barely held together and intricate wormholes has created a beautiful pattern on its surface. Vines had almost made it one with the forest floor. My, it was heavy! My good friend, Lucinda Bunnen offered to help and we returned several months later to carry it out on top of our heads.
The Green Door became an altar of sorts, faithfully erected in every backyard my three children and I resided in as an adult, living on Oxford Road in the 1980’s, then moving to Carman Road in Trumansburg, NY 1990-2000’s. Everyone knew my story. The green paint had faded grey/green and the planks had begun to fall apart, an ode to the verdant vines that had once pried them apart on the old flagstone terrace-become-forest floor while still in the secret garden. The blacksmith forged handle and carefully wrought hinges were lost along the way, but the door’s memory in my mind remained sacred, cloaked in moments of transcendence.
After I moved from Atlanta to Ithaca, NY the old weathered planks were stacked in a horse barn that I was slowly remodeling to become a jewelry studio for me. As I explained why I could not throw them away, my fine carpenter friend, David Granish, totally understood the gravity of my attachment and generously offered to salvage the green door and make it open again. He imagined that to enter my jewelry studio, one would have to enter through the old Green Door. I was intrigued, edgy with gleeful anticipation as I had never been able to actually walk through the green door, never in all the years I had stood at its front. It was a door that no one could enter. We carefully placed the stack of old planks containing someone’s vision, the one who had created it and whom I would never know, plus my dreams into the back of his car. He hauled them away where they lay in his garage for several more years awaiting his attention.
Several years passed before Mr. Granish arrived unannounced with the green door lovingly refurbished and inlaid into a new handmade outer wooden doorframe. Four ancient planks were artfully placed to form the small green door from the actual secret garden, with one rotten plank carefully cut and inland into the back of the doorframe. Tears flowed in gratitude. I then commissioned a local blacksmith with fine talent, Durand Van Doren, to forge a push-latch handle and two old-fashioned hinges, drawn from my early memories of the green door when it still hung from its granite-hewn niche. Today the Green Door opens into my studio gallery in upstate NY where I design and meet with jewelry clients. The sign outside greets visitors, “The Green Door Studio: Gold and silver finely laid, broken keepsakes with care remade, with love and skill and gentle hands…such stuff as dreams are made on. Lainey Papageorge”
Dreams indeed! Thus this exact same green door has remained with me as a relic, an opening into the greater mysteries of life, and especially my life as an artist. The miracle of creativity emerges each time I am in its presence, rediscovering the free flow of time, palpable, present, available. When I am about to begin a new series of jewelry designs, I return to the memory of that impenetrable stone wall, gathering the courage to cross the threshold into my inner creative mind. And each time I am slightly afraid, afraid that nothing will come to me, that I will have lost the ability to pierce the stone wall of my intellectual mind, to reveal the beauty, creativity and inspiration that is always present in the gemstones, when I can remove my own veil of forgetfulness. It is then that the resonance I discovered during childhood play begins to reverberate. There are many pathways to creativity, as many as those of us who seek, each in our own way. Mine is found in the natural world, as will be countless others who visit the new Outdoor Gardens at Fernbank Natural History Museum. Once upon a time I had been able to open the green door, only a crack, but enough to reveal the pure wonder of not knowing. That discovery infused me with absolute electric ecstasy. As Leonard Cohen sings, “there is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in.”
My desire is that others will see the wall and wonder where that little opening that once housed a small green door leads?
By Lainey Papageorge 2016