this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 23, 2017.
Gardening, like knitting, is not just for women, counters a man on Instagram to another man who airs such a backward thought as though to categorize what one does in one’s backyard as either feminine or masculine.
Talking about this to a friend, he quips that that’s what you get when troglodytes wander out of their caves just to comment on a 21st-century post. Never mind how they manage to enter Instagram in the first place, he adds. I accede to the man countering—and to my friend, contrary to what three-fourths of men I have met believe. Or most. The last is a personal claim that I would gladly see disproved.
How a single word—for example, Abracadabra—can conjure a lot of things—garden-variety, ordinary things—to something enchanted, extraordinary. Just like a garden.
Say “garden.” Let the word roll against your tongue: garden.
For the last time: garden. And like a magician performing magic, or a witch chanting over a simmering cauldron, you conjure a plethora of images. Here, a grandfather in his 60s turning the soil to plant his medicinal and cooking herbs—well-deserved relaxation after years of toiling. There, a working man sitting in the garden, sipping his coffee and reading his daily before he goes to work. Or that younger version of himself, his son on specs, reading Milorad Pavic’s “The Dictionary of the Khazars.”
Then enters something as biblical as Garden of Eden and Gethsemane; of apples, fig leaves, and the burning bush. To something as ancient and wondrous as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, that of Nebuchadnezzar II’s. Look at those acanthus leaves! Now I’m looking at a painting where Paris of Troy surveys, in a calculating manner, three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—for whom he has to issue the much-coveted golden apple. My point, here: You have to guess the setting, and you start sweating.
There’s a woman I know who loves to collect plants. Everywhere she goes it’s her habit to pick up a seedling or two or cut a stem or a branch of a plant or whatever she could get to bring home—pieces of life that will later populate her empty pots and vacant lots. Every plant, a representation of a place. Her garden, a living map.
I witnessed how she did it—the cutting of a stem—because I went with her one time. She has a green thumb. She tells me: My house is a jungle. There, you see plants, creeping and hanging and living. There, tall bushes. Her children love animals. Her vines creep like animals, too. She tells me: Come visit my house one time. She has a secret garden—the kind that fills your imagination; I just know it, she need not tell me.
She’s obsessed with plants; she’s not Poison Ivy.
I love the thought of having to answer people who ask you, “Where did you get that plant?” And you would describe at length how you got it. Every plant’s story. And your story with the plant. Like the plant is you, and you the plant. How you would be reminded of it, every time a flower blooms, its crimson-ness, its purple-ness: a reminder of a story that needs telling. Or how, by the falling of each leaf, the story ends.
A child once, I used to water my mother’s plants as my share of the household chores. She grows a variety of flowering and nonflowering plants. Inadvertently I heard her dialogue once with a neighbor: If you want your roses flowering abundantly, and radiantly, water them with urine. No giggles like those of little girls. So, I presume: a very serious matter. But how frequently, and how much urine, I have no idea.
When I was a child, I dreamt of being a doctor. I love science, which, later I would realize, it’s biology that I particularly meant. Study living things. The ample space just below the second floor of our bamboo house back in the province served as a witness of that childhood dream. It became my little doctor’s laboratory. I made compartments, a mishmash of rooms: here the waiting area; there the laboratory; over there the chemist’s room, lined and separated by small stones. No limit to a child’s imagination.
On a big, flat stone, my operating table, lay the dried fish, or tuyo, as though it were my living frog. Dissect it. Gather those dried leaves, fallen from backyard trees. Examine those lines, their veins, using the glass of broken bottles, as though they were my magnifying lens.
Decay is the laboratory of life, says the wise one in a book.
Encountering books dealing with plants and discussing their rarity never fails to fascinate me. Their uniqueness, just wondrous. Look at that Welwitschia mirabilis, that Baobab tree, let them talk to you; listen to a TED talk about drought-tolerant crops. Curious, exotic, as you would describe these rare plants, I’m curiouser, though; how like Alice.
Imagine Avatar and the kind of plants they grow there. And their animals, too. Could they be real, existing? Who has plumbed the depths of the ocean, and saw what’s in there? James Cameron has to tell. The Na’vi people, look at them. Listen as they gather around that enormous willow tree. The chanting, hear it. There’s a subliminal message.
Grow plants to better understand them; then grow an ear. Listen.
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson is a must-read, suggests a website. A revolutionary, this one. That book, which I have yet to read, talks about environmental conservation.
Say you have bought that book, but stacked it somewhere. Maybe you have misplaced it. Like you have the heart—that concern for the planet, and yet you choose to set it aside for a time. Priorities, you say. All the time, it’s there; all you need is motivation, a fire to wake you up.
Say you have bought that book. Prior to seeing that website’s reminder. Even before you read that award-winning Lewis Thomas book about the interconnected nature of Earth and all living things. Even before you didn’t know who the author was, asked at a quiz, in one of the pages of Reader’s Digest back issues, stacked in a pile, while you visited your aunt in Taguig. And how you remember their guava tree not bearing fruit, at the time of your visit. Or how their kamias tree was teeming with fruit, some of which almost touched the ground, as if displaying their willingness to give. Wholeheartedly.
Now you can say who the author is. “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. Silent. Spring. Silent. Spring. Play the words in your tongue. How the sourness of the kamias fruit lingers.
Then comes a thought. Perhaps not only springs can be silent. Perhaps people can, too.