Today I am sharing the second in a series written by talented writer and author Jackie Cangro highlighting people who live out their lives in an extraordinary manner. Please join me in welcoming Jackie to It’s Just Life and stop over at her blog to say hi there as well. Her first guest post can be found here.
Pearl Fryar lives in an average house in an average neighborhood in Bishopville, South Carolina. But tour buses carrying church groups and youth campers visit him regularly. They come from around the world to see his backyard. His garden oasis of topiaries contains more than 300 living sculptures, and it all started with one throwaway plant he found in a compost pile at a local nursery.
Pearl is as unlikely a topiary artist as you’ll find. His father was a sharecropper, and although Pearl was a good student, college was an improbable option for him in the 1960s rural South. Later, when he tried to buy his first house in a predominantly white area, some neighbors grumbled that he wouldn’t keep up his yard. He answered the naysayers by being the first black man to win the local garden club’s Yard of the Month award.
Topiary is not a hobby for people who want instant gratification. Most trees take years to train into the desired shape, usually an animal or geometric figure, though Pearl is partial to abstract forms. To turn a mushroom-shaped tree into a square one, Pearl worked for four to five years. He never uses forms or wire cages to assist in molding the tree. His work is freehand, but he goes in with a vision. “It’s a matter of perfecting it until I’m really comfortable with it,” he says.
To say Pearl is hands-on is an understatement. He tends every aspect of his yard on all 3-1/2 acres: planting, watering, pruning, mowing, raking, sculpting—he does it all himself. And he’s done it all with no formal training, except for a three-minute lesson at the garden center. Horticulturists are usually astounded at what he has managed to create. “They say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that,’” Pearl says, “and I say, ‘I didn’t know that.’”
Pearl’s wife, Metra, could be called a topiary widow, if there was such a thing. He has spent about 70 hours a week maintaining his topiaries for the past 30 years. Before Pearl retired from his job making aluminum cans, he would work in the garden from the time he got home until midnight or one in the morning, often by the light of his riding lawn mower. Metra serenely accepted this calling Pearl felt he had to answer. “I just waited to see what was going to come about,” she says. “When he’s in the garden, it’s man relating to nature.”
The neighbors, however, were a little nonplussed by the goings on in the Fryars’ yard at first. “You could always hear the lawn mowers going, the chainsaws. Something is wrong here,” one neighbor remembers thinking. “But years passed and you could just see the miracle happening.”
The garden is a meditation of sorts for Pearl and for visitors. Some people have made multiple return trips to commune with the topiaries. He doesn’t turn them away, nor does he charge an entry fee. He has a donation box for people who can afford it. “For people who can’t afford it, they are as welcome as someone who put in $100. Sometimes the very people who can’t afford it are the ones who most need to come,” he says. “It wasn’t important to me to create a garden. I wanted to create a feeling that, when you walk through, you feel differently than you did when you started.”
Now in his late sixties, Pearl’s passion has remained strong. Charles Holmes, an arborist, says, “Pearl spends so much time in the garden, he has an almost mystical communion with his plants. He talks with them—he’s almost like a plant whisperer.”
In every cone-shaped shrub, every spiraling pine, every square dogwood tree is the message Pearl is trying to communicate. “There are always going to be obstacles. The thing about it is, you need to be strong enough so you don’t let those obstacles determine where you go in life.”
Thank you, Jackie, for sharing this wonderful man with us today. What a gift and what an inspiration he is to all he encounters. I know I want to make a trip to see his lovely creations and am sure many of my readers will want to do so as well. Please feel free to visit with Pearl online at his fabulous website PearlFryar.com. You won’t be disappointed in what you will see there.