I’m thoroughly convinced that every so often God smiles more favorably on one of His children and offers him or her to the world as an inspiration, and I have been blessed to call one of them friend. Among the many things he is called – father, friend, husband, artist, gardener, engineer, mentor – the best attribute that comes to my mind is the happiest person I know. You can simply call him Pearl.
This summer I spent time back home and thought it would be educational to take my son to meet my charismatic, 77-year-old friend and see one of the most fascinating gardens in the South – a topiary garden at 165 Broad Acres Road in Bishopville, South Carolina. In the late 1970’s Pearl and his family moved to the sleepy, Southern town of Bishopville, where as an engineer he helped build a can-making plant. He invested in land and turned where once stood a corn field into a topiary wonderland.
To hear Pearl gleefully tell his story, his topiary garden started with the desire to win yard of the month. I don’t know if it was like this in most parts of the world, but here in the South during the 1980’s, extreme gardening could be quite elitist – you had to know the right people, belong to the right garden club, and plant the right things. Needless to say, Pearl didn’t have much luck until he came up with his specialized topiary art and gardening practices.
With no gardening or topiary experience, he carved abstract designs often likened to what adorned English gardens during the Elizabethan era. When Pearl reveals to visitors that he had never heard of or seen such gardening art, it just came to him, what he has created becomes even that much more amazing. Just this past May, he won the National Garden Clubs’ Award of Excellence.
Our paths first crossed when I managed my family’s garden center in the 90’s. By then Pearl had come to be quite the regular at our store where he was always hunting for the scrubbiest old thing, root-bound in a pot that he could find. Most times my father would tell him, “Pearl, just take that poor thing – it’s days are numbered in that pot.” Equipped with a chainsaw, heavy duty cable ties, an artist’s spirit, a joyful heart and an incredible imagination. Pearl trimmed, shaped and tied these plants into wonders. His organic method of gardening, allows him to take care of his garden with no pesticides, fertilizers or irrigation system, more of a blessing now that age has slowed him down a bit.
Personally, at times, I wonder if Pearl watched A Field of Dreams one too many times – as if he heard the whispered voice say “If you build it, they will come.” Because man-oh-man do “they” come and from all around the world to see the garden Pearl built. I wanted to beat the heat that day and went early. Pearl was already driving around the property on his John Deere Gator, and after a huge hug and a few minutes of remembering “back in the days,” other people arrived. As he greeted them, he always asked where they called home. Just in the short time I was there, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio were represented.
This is how Pearl spends his retirement days now Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm, year-round. The passion for his art is evident. Along with the topiaries he has also blended in his signature “junk art” which enhances and reverberates the messages in his garden: peace, love, and goodwill. Another passion he reveals with a smile is to encourage young people.
To hear Pearl tell it, he was literally a sharecropper’s son, one born with an overactive imagination and creative spirit and often punished as a child for cutting things up. Despite his family’s limited resources, Pearl went on to attend and graduate college before being drafted for a tour of duty in Korea. He came back and started a career in engineering and a family.
He’s led a blessed life and wants our youth with limited resources and challenged backgrounds to have a fighting chance. With a wink he says, “And I don’t mean those A students. I’m looking for the C students. Those are the ones who have untapped, God-given talents.” Pearl backs these words with a scholarship foundation he created to help inspire mediocre students find their special place in the world and encourages others to donate as well. To learn more, click here.
With that my son asked if he could join Pearl on the Gator which was an optimal time to snap a quick picture for memory’s sake. Then I noticed a piece of chain link around his neck, a piece he must have found while wandering around in the garden. I told him to give it back to Pearl, and my friend said, “No let him keep it. He just designed a necklace.” And then with a genuine wink and smile that can’t help but warm the heart, he told him, “That’s a talent son. Now learn to use it.” What a pearl of wisdom, one I hope my son will always remember.