Alexandra in Wonderland

Reading Alexandra Risen’s memoir, Unearthed, you can’t help but imagine her as Alice from Alice in Wonderland.

Risen opens her narrative by bringing readers back to the day her real-estate agent showed her a house in Central Toronto. Less than impressed by the abode itself, when she looked out back, she was awed by the sprawling, one-acre garden hidden under almost a century’s worth of decay and overgrowth. After moving in with her husband and young son, they took on the daunting task of restoring the abandoned garden. Each day, as they pushed further through the brush, weeds, and weathered-down structures, they made new discoveries—buried pathways, bridges, a stunning pagoda, a pond inhabited by ducks, and even, one day, a deer. Picture the author stumbling down a rabbit hole and entering a wonderful and whimsical world of the unknown, hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. As it turns out,  Lewis Carroll’s fantastical book was Risen’s childhood favourite. “I still feel like Alice when I’m outside in nature,” she says. “I simply loved the magic of adventure.”

Interspersed throughout the memoir’s gardening anecdotes and nature-based DIY recipes and crafts, Risen recalls childhood memories feeling alienated and estranged from her Ukrainian immigrant parents. “For years, I struggled with reconciling with my parents,” she tells me. “I didn’t understand them or their behaviour.” But through the process of restoring her garden, Risen found the strength to face their troubled past and explore their history. Although her father had already passed away and her mother’s dementia and health was worsening, she gradually came to understand and appreciate their hardships. “Sadly, as I mention in my memoir, I became a real daughter when there was no one left to call me one,” she says.

As Risen continued to re-cultivate her garden, she serendipitously discovered that it was also a safe space to nurture a bond with her young son. “I believe [nature’s] power comes from superseding the inconsequential between people, and allowing for a bond on a primal level,” Risen says. “What can be better between a mother and a child?” And after a decade’s worth of toiling, Risen effectively transformed the abandoned garden—or jungle, as she once referred to it—into an oasis of peace and pleasure for her family. “I call my relationship with nature my ‘new religion,” she explains. “Its randomness, perfection and uncontrollability creates awe in all of us, young and old.”