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Secret Gardens, and the Culture That Hides Them

As a reporter, it's best if you have a pretty clear idea in mind what your story's going to end up being about.But things don't always go according to plan, and sometimes the story you end up with isn't remotely what you thought you'd wanted. WMRA's Andrew Jenner has a story about... trying to get a story.

There’s an apartment complex in Harrisonburg where lots of immigrants from the former Soviet Union live. Over the years, they’ve lined one edge of the property with a fantastic, sprawling collection of gardens where many of them – especially the elderly ones – put in hours of hard work. It’s not just that these gardens are so big and well kept. They’re glorious in a ramshackle sort of way. There are fences and gates, drainage ditches, terraces, retaining walls – nearly all of them improvised from old furniture and scraps of lumber and other salvaged materials. It’s the sort of stuff we might call “junk,” but the gardens aren’t junky at all. It looks like The Shire.

This was supposed to be a story about those incredible gardens and the people who made them. But it’s not, because the gardeners wanted nothing to do with me.

LYUBOV SLASCHEVA: I knew that there would be a little bit of resistance and caution for setting up an interview, but I often forget what is underlying all that.

That’s Lyubov Slascheva, whose family came here from Kazakhstan in 1998, when she was five. Now she’s in dental school in Richmond. She was the one who first told me about these gardens and volunteered to be my fixer for a story about them – a translator, an insider who could vouch for my credibility. For more than a year, she tried to convince the gardeners to let me visit, but they wouldn’t budge.

SLASCHEVA: When we reached out to the gardeners, I did find it a little frustrating to receive their tenacious resistance, but I do understand where they’re coming from, considering their history.

Slascheva’s family, like much of the rest of the Russian-speaking immigrant community in Harrisonburg, belongs to a Protestant church. During the Soviet era, these people were marginalized and persecuted for this. To survive, they developed a close-knit, quiet culture, wary of attention from outsiders.

SLASCHEVA: As immigrants, we have maintained some of that attitude of separation from ‘The Other.’

That’s helped them maintain strong bonds in their families and congregations here, Slascheva says. But the classic intergenerational growing pains that many immigrants groups go through are also coming into play now.

SLASCHEVA: As younger people are assimilating into the culture and have a very different experience with both the workforce and the educational systems, that isn’t quite as menacing, that kind of separation is no longer as useful or makes as much sense.

That meant Slascheva herself was surprised by the older generation’s extreme reluctance to talk about something that seems as harmless and fun as gardening. After we’d given up on the idea, she took me to visit her grandmother, Natalya, at a retirement home in Harrisonburg. Natalya Slascheva isn’t one of the gardeners herself, but she’s one of their peers, and – with Lyubov translating – she explained their point of view.

[NATALYA SLASCHEVA speaking Russian]

TRANSLATION: Belarusians and Ukrainians had an especially difficult time during the Soviet Union times. As Christians they were oppressed maybe even more than my family was in Kazakhstan. I believe that that experience and the history in their families has really traumatized them to fearing any kind of publicity or the eye of the authorities.

I’d wanted to visit with a microphone and notepad for the very purpose of publicizing what they’re doing, and from their perspective, that just didn’t seem like a good idea at all. And so, no story. The gardens are there, they’re magnificent, they’re probably beginning to bloom now, and that’s all I have to show for a year of trying to report on them. It was certainly worth it; I learned a lot about the gardeners even though they wouldn’t talk to me. Slascheva learned a lot about people she already knew well.

SLASCHEVA: I think these conversations are worth having, and perspectives worth keeping in mind when we interact with any kind of immigrant community.

Happy gardening, everyone.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.