To Plant a Garden


Every summer, when I was a child, my mother would plant a garden. My family would drive to the plant nursery on the other side of town, load our beat-up car with budding impatiens and heavy bags of black soil, and carry them to the beds in our back yard. Beneath the jasmine bush that twined through the fence separating our yard from the train tracks, we'd dig up the winter-hardened soil, lay down new earth, nestle young flowers in their cradles. The sun would burn our necks, but the soil would be cool as we pressed our fingers into it, as it gathered under our nails.

This was the beginning of summer.

By the end of the hottest months, the impatiens would have burst into nodding blooms of red and white and yellow. The garden would be thick with the scent of blossoming jasmine, the grass humming with insects.

But impatiens are annual flowers, here for a season and then gone, wilting and fading as the year tips toward fall. And in the end, even the empty stems would be crushed under fallen leaves and snow, leaving only an empty bed, the dirt packed and barren.

But it was our home, our garden. We needed only to wait until next summer to plant those flowers once more.

For our nomadic ancestors, the knowledge of plants and flowers would have been a matter of life and death. Later, we would create the taxonomies of leaves and stems, petals and thorns, the botanical analyses of genetic relations and descent and evolution, but the most ancient members of our human species needed to know, first and foremost, which plants would sustain life, and which would end it.

By the end of the Mesolithic era, however, humans would begin to do more than distinguish the good from the bad, the safe from the dangerous. They would learn how to encourage the growth of the good, to cull the spread of the bad.

They would begin harvesting seeds, not just to eat, but so that they could plant gardens.

From these gardens stemmed civilization: settled towns and cities, societies that built homes and temples to endure, rather than to be abandoned, torn down, or relocated as patterns of migration and weather and good hunting might dictate. In the fertile valley between the rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the societies of Mesopotamia blossomed, inventing writing and astronomy in order to keep track of their grains and harvests.

From the nomadic lifestyle of the hunter gatherer, our ancestors adopted the more stable condition of the farmer, the planter, the gardener. We began producing surplus for the harsh seasons, and recording the past in order to preserve it for the future.

We planted roots.

For the gardener, life and years settle into a cycle of routines and stability. Though the future is never known, the gardener looks back and finds patterns, storing grain for the winter, knowing they must tend their garden for years to come.

But for the nomad, life is necessarily dictated by the changing environment, the shifting availability of resources, the climate. Like palm seeds set adrift on the ocean to be nurtured on distant shores, the future can only be ensured by moving forward, by moving on.

I left home when I graduated high school, drifting north to New York to attend college, passing through several other cities, other schools, living in rented rooms and studio apartments, paycheck to paycheck. But in every place I passed through, whether choked with the press of people, like the avenues of New York, or surrounded by woods and forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the thing I realized I could always find, somewhere, somehow, were the gardens.

Even among the high-rise buildings and sleepless neighborhoods of New York City, Central Park provided a haven against the strangeness and noise. It doesn't much matter that the hills and ponds of that stretch of green land were meticulously designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857, or that most of the plants and flowers, even the topsoil, was imported by the truckload from neighboring New Jersey. When you stand at the edge of the reservoir or under the shade trees of the Ramble and listen, you can hear the insects and the birds laughing. The riot of the city fades. The highrises disappear into the brush.

That's the thing about gardens. They are always artificial. And always necessary.

I came to Malta a year after finishing my studies at university. My childhood home had long been abandoned, my father returning to his homeland after my mother's death. There was no longer anything left on my own native soil to sustain me.

The flight over the Atlantic took twelve hours, drifting through sleep and clouds in the stale air of a Boeing. After a layover in Munich, I found myself in an Air Malta plane, taking me from somewhere that was not home to somewhere else that was not home.

As the plane approached its destination, the sea gave way to the limestone towers and the crumbling cliffs of the island, a ragged landscape of browns and whites and dust-colored stone. Whatever greenery there was lay dry and browned. The air was full of sun. As my uncle drove me from Luqa to my late grandmother's house in Sliema, all I could see were the browning palms and the flaking façades of the buildings, the sunset slanting red against the sky.

Where were the trees?

Where were the gardens?

When we arrived, at last, to the house where my father was living, it was almost dark. The close rooms of my grandmother's home were dim and cool. My dad helped me with my bags, settling them in the narrow bedroom tucked behind the kitchen.

"Welcome home," he said.

A breeze blew through the house, straight from the front window, through the living room and kitchen, and out through a back door, propped open to let in the night. I remembered this place from family visits in my childhood, vague memories that were little better than dreams.

I stepped out the back door, and into the garden. It was over-grown and untended, but the two tall trees were rustling in the wind, and even the twisting weeds were green. I looked up through the glossy leaves of the lemon trees, up past the buildings clustered close around, light glowing in every window, and saw stars.

Some of us manage to grow in well-tended soil, cradled in the richness of ancestral homes and long-standing traditions. And some of us drift. We are carried by wind and wave and conflict through strange lands, looking for fertile soil, for somewhere we can build our lives and set down our roots.

Or at the very least, we try to find a garden where we can survive the winter.

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