For years, my friend Kristin privately prayed for a garden with “one towering oak tree,” where she and her husband might create a place for others to rest and retreat. When they recently purchased a home in their native Southern California, the land surrounding it surpassed her own secret desires. Their new home sits on acres of land with lush succulent gardens and is lined with over a dozen mature oak trees. Kristin and her husband envision a property where they might raise their family, but they also want to create space for pastors and writers to connect with God beneath the shelter of thick branches and green leaves. They hope to build a legacy on the land and become rooted as wide and deep as the towering oaks that surround them.
When I heard their story, my first instinct was to reach into my bag and press the book I’d been reading into Kristin’s hands. I resisted only because my copy of Christie Purifoy’s book, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, was already covered in inky scribbles. I’d underlined and starred far too many passages (and taken far too many notes) to make this gift a welcome one.
In Placemaker, Purifoy explores themes of rootedness and belonging and, as the title suggests, she writes of cultivating places of rest and retreat, of spaciousness and peace. She also muses on the secret life of trees. “A longing fulfilled is a tree of life” Purifoy writes, and Kristin’s new home with its towering oaks comes to mind.
Casting Seeds of Love
Each chapter of Placemaker is named for a wood or a specific tree: Saucer Magnolia, Silver Maple, Penn’s Woods, Pine Tree, and so on. “What is placemaking?” she writes. “It is deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree.” She uses the overarching metaphor of trees to root readers in the reality of a physical place. Naming them, describing them by bark and leaf, anchors readers to the places Purifoy explores in her book. She evokes a world that is touchable and tangible, where her lyrical prose offers respite to readers overwhelmed with social media memes and soundbites. Reading Placemaker is akin to swaying in a hammock beneath the shade.
Purifoy invites readers on a journey to the places she’s called home throughout her life, from her childhood in Texas to her current home, a rambling Victorian farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The trees represent the greater themes of the book: home, belonging, cultivation, rootedness, and legacy. She writes, “I have always longed for roots, and I have always wanted to belong to a particular place.” She invites readers into these particular places and writes of how they made her—and how she, in turn, made them.
Purifoy asks readers to consider what it means to build a meaningful life and “cast seeds of love” wherever we might find ourselves, whether that place is temporary or permanent. Each town and home where we live is an opportunity for placemaking, for choosing to belong through the embodied work of cultivating spaces of peace. In Purifoy’s life, “peace and place are indistinguishable.”
Placemaker asks us to join God in making all things new, in cultivating beauty to honor a God who makes all things beautiful, and in honoring our deep, God-given longing for a place to call home. As someone with an incurable case of wanderlust, this longing to belong still connects with me on a profound level. I have lived and traveled all over the world, and yet I long to know what it means to live with permanence, what it means to remain.
As Purifoy reminds us, “To grow roots, we must choose at times to be still, to dance in place. I have learned that lesson from the trees.” This image of dancing in place stays with me when I find myself wondering what life might look like in a different location than my home in the ho-hum suburbs of New Jersey. In Placemaker, home is “never simply a threshold you cross. It is a place you make and a place that might make—or unmake—you.”
Purifoy does not pretend that placemaking is simple or easy. It is, at times, like wandering in the wilderness. Placemaking is a matter of practicing imperfection. Over dinner one evening, Kristin told me that she and her husband had visited their new home in California the day after signing the final papers at closing. They entered full of hope, only to discover that water from a leaky fire sprinkler had seeped from the roof through layers of wood, wall, and tile, flooding their entire home before they moved in. They’ve been living in a hotel for weeks, their plans upended by unexpected, but essential, home repairs. Placemaking beneath the great oaks must wait.
These transitional spaces are present in Purifoy’s life as well. She writes of her attempts at placemaking in Virginia and Florida, where she felt “as if I were only biding my time, waiting for life to carry me to some place where dreams—dreams of city life, dreams of travel, dreams of academic research—might be realized.” She eventually went on to make a life in the city of Chicago and complete her PhD in English literature, an achievement amply manifested in her attention to language in Placemaker. This book is for readers who desire belonging and rootedness, but it’s also for those who long for beauty unveiled in sentences and stories.
Life and Fragrance
A few summers ago, after connecting online, I met Purifoy in person at Longwood Gardens, near her home in Pennsylvania. Longwood calls itself “one of the world’s great gardens,” and it does not disappoint. The story of Longwood “is one of legacy, innovation, and stewardship,” and it bills itself as the “living legacy of Pierre S. DuPont.” Legacy and stewardship, as I’ve come to learn, are core themes in Purifoy’s writing and her life. As we walked the grounds, she delighted in the flowers and foliage, often naming varieties and plants unknown to me. Love for the natural world and this act of naming, so present in her daily life, is present in her writing as well.
Purifoy’s current home, Maplehurst, is the result of a dream buried so deep in her subconscious that she barely knew it existed. Maplehurst, with its long maple-lined drive, with its Victorian flourishes, with its never-ending home repairs—with its chickens, ducks, and beautiful, lush garden—is a legacy in the making. Purifoy and her husband are redeeming the land: planting, creating, and cultivating a place where others can gather in comfort and peace.
After reading Placemaker, I felt inspired to take up the work of placemaking in my own home and community. I stood in my overgrown, weedy garden and dreamt of trees, of deeply rooted plantings living out the biblical principle of bearing good fruit. I found an overlooked, shady corner of the garden beside our shed, and I imagined roses climbing the outer wall, breathing life and fragrance into a forgotten space.
I asked Purifoy for advice on what to plant there, and she suggested a variety of climbing rose called “Generous Gardener.” I smile when I think of it now, because that is what placemaking is all about—sowing generosity to ourselves, to the land, and to others. In Placemaker, readers find comfort and peace in Purifoy’s generosity with her words and personal stories. She shows us that “making and tending good and beautiful places is not a dishonorable retreat. It is a holy pursuit.”
So, readers, plant a garden. Fall in love with a place. Name the beauty you find. Learn the contours of its face. Pursue belonging. Grow rooted. Holy is the beautiful, ordinary work of cultivating a life from the raw materials of your everyday.
Kimberly Coyle is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to In Touch magazine. She teaches writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.