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“The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” Dan Millman, The Peaceful Warrior
I was introduced to Pearl Fryar one evening after work. While chasing channels, I ran across the opening credits of a documentary called “A Man Named Pearl.” Utterly intrigued by the idea that a man would be named Pearl,
I watched in earnest. In the opening scene this very tall man stood atop an even taller ladder to trim a tree, and it became obvious that Pearl is a larger-than-life figure.
Positive Growth from Negative Seed Planting
In 1976, Pearl Fryar moved with his wife and children from Clinton, North Carolina, to Bishopville, South Carolina. When he found just the right house to buy, the real estate agent told him the neighbors were concerned that Pearl wouldn’t “keep up the yard.” The reason for their “concern” was outrageously clear: Pearl Fryar is an African American man, and all the neighbors were white people who did not want an African American family to live on their street.
A man of faith, Pearl turned the other cheek–and then some. He found a nice, quiet spot where he built a house for his family. He then set about to win the coveted prize for Bishopville Garden of the Month. His first stop was the local nursery where he chose several plants from a bunch of plants the nursery owner was throwing away; with these very plants Pearl began creating his garden. From that point on, he was a hard-working husband and father by day and a driven artist by night: He worked full-time at the American Can Company to support his family, and after work he created an amazingly abstract topiary garden–the likes of which Bishopville residents had never seen.
Actually, many of the techniques Pearl applied to his plants had never been seen by anyone, not even horticultural and conservation experts. Over time, he gained notoriety in the region. Eventually people from all over the country–and the world–flocked to see his gardens in Bishopville, South Carolina. Conservation organizations began sending interns and experts to learn from Pearl and to help greet the public. Plans have already been made to maintain and preserve these gardens after Pearl can no longer care for them.
Watching the documentary made it crystal clear to me that Pearl is an energetic master–that he knows what all the great spiritual leaders know: Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t get caught in the muck. Live according to your highest values. Focus on what you want.
Pearl took something abhorrent–the racist attitudes of the white people in the neighborhood he first set his sights upon–and used it to fuel his talent and vision. He transfigured the negativity into something that actually uplifts people and brings them a sense of wonder. He transformed the hateful energy pointed toward him into something beautiful and lasting. He is touching the lives and sparking the imaginations of so many people–including my own.
About ten years ago, on a very hot day in June, I drove four and a half hours to visit Pearl Fryar’s topiary garden, and I was not disappointed. I felt as if I had plopped right down into a Dr. Seuss book where everything is recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time–where everything is magical and mysterious and unpredictable. Everywhere I looked was a tree or shrub meticulously sculpted into a shape I had never seen before. The best part of my visit, however, was seeing Pearl interact with a woman and her two young sons. Beaming and full of excitement, the little boys were actually taking pictures of Pearl with their GameBoy cameras. Pearl is both a star and a role model.
We all need a star to light our way and a role model to show us how to walk the path. We need people who can show us constructive ways through our pain and our disappointments. We need to be in the company of others who make us feel safe and grounded in a world that can feel frightening. We need someone who will remind us of what Pearl himself stated in an interview with the San Francisco Gate: “I’ve learned that no matter who you are in life, whether you are the president or the poorest person in the world, you will be confronted by things you cannot change. It’s how you handle those obstacles that determines what you get out of life.”
And so it is.
Jill A. Lahnstein is a mother, a teacher, a writer, and a jewelry artist. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her teenage daughter Angel and their little canine sidekick Sunny. She has spent over 20 years teaching English to college students. Most of her experience has been with those students who are first-generation, economically disadvantaged, or disabled. She fervently believes that every moment–inside the classroom and outside the classroom–can be a healing moment.