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An oasis in the yard

Getting away from the city can be as easy as going straight to your backyard. Just ask Mark Pesklewis who every morning, noon and night can walk into what he calls his "oasis." “My backyard tells a story to me too. It's a reflection of the places I've been."

Getting away from the city can be as easy as going straight to your backyard. Just ask Mark Pesklewis who, every morning, noon and night, can walk into what he calls his "oasis."

“My backyard tells a story to me too. It's a reflection of the places I've been,” he said, looking out at a sloped yard that he transformed into a magical land of stones, water, wood and tools. One can’t help but think of the place as a creation that combines the best of Alberta and British Columbia’s landscapes and humanscapes.

The local photographer and event host has lived most of his life in both provinces and with equal fondness too. When he moved back to Alberta, he just couldn’t get B.C. out of his thoughts. So he worked to make his house as reflective of both homes as possible. His house might remind many of a rustic red barn such as you’d easily find along any prairie backroad, but one look at his yard would probably make you think of the Rockies with a mountain stream running right through it.

He calls it his Whistler and it has become a main attraction as a rental venue space and during the Art on the Corner events that he has hosted over the past few summers, among other special events.

Like many a handyman’s projects, it all started with one thing that led to another, and then another. After putting an addition onto the back of his house, he immediately started to envision the best view he could get through double French doors with no centre post. The angle of the yard from the higher back alley down to the lower edge of the house itself was what first struck his fancy. He recognized the gravity of the situation, you could say.

“I knew I wanted a pond. I looked at the elevation from there and thought, well, I can have a stream.”

And that’s when he brought out the pencil and the shovel. He did a rough sketch of what he wanted and started digging out the soil to accommodate it. At the same time, he put it in the back of his mind to start finding rocks. Big rocks. Flat rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. It all went uphill from there, to paraphrase an idiom.

He started collecting rocks that were dug out of a relative’s farm field and others that he found when he was out driving or walking around in the countryside. Some of them he collected from other jobs he worked on. Some of the big ones weigh 200 kg or so, he noted, so the project did require a bit of his fortitude and his ingenuity. And his patience too, as it turned out – but hardly his chequebook.

“In hindsight, I might have rented a skid steer,” he joked. “There’s probably 10 cubic metres of solid stone back there with cut fence posts from the farm that I rolled everything on, like a conveyor belt. So yeah, there was a certain amount of ‘this is my workout.’ I don't go to the gym because I don't really need to. I do other things like just decide I'm going to move rock.”

With some classic B.C. granite, he laid out a walking path and a “circular couch” along the outside of a firepit patio area that had at its heart the only rock that he purchased.

Most everything else came free or inexpensively, he averred, as per his concept for the design and his philosophy for the “natural” project in general.

The cedar posts were repurposed from old playgrounds that were being remodeled around the city and saved from heading to the dump. The big ship chain came from a second-hand store in the Pacific province. There’s a potbelly stove, old steel wheels from farm implements, plus an anvil and an old water pump from an antique shop. Some of the seats around the firepit are old barrels with tractor seats fixed on top. In the stream, there’s an apple butter kettle “like a witch's cauldron” where the stream flows in, fills it up, and then spills out into the pond. He doesn't like "normal things," he says. He does like things that cause conversation. Mission accomplished there.

Now you might imagine that even an entrepreneurial do-it-yourselfer like Pesklewis would still need some time to complete such a project. You’d be right too, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he says, anybody can accomplish their own personal oasis with time, a bit of know-how, a lot of sticktoitiveness and a strong idea of what they really want.

“If you see things and if you got it in the back of your mind and you're a little more patient with your design, it all falls into place. I've told so many people that about renovations: don't think you got to put it all together. Be patient ... start in six months. People are in such a rush to do things that they don't even really think the creative part through sometimes.”

The finishing touches on the yard included koi in the pond and some well-placed, carefully considered trees for more natural beauty but also for environmental pollution. He wanted to alleviate the noise he experiences from traffic on St. Albert Trail, only a block to the west from his Old Braeside home that’s also facing Sturgeon Road. Trees have architectural value, he continued, but they also do a lot to highlight the serenity of his backyard oasis.

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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