Year of Grace, Day 107. A contrary gardener

When I look back on the gardens I have created, one thing stands out that unites them all. I have, for some unfathomable reason, been rather contrary and grown plants that are not natives nor known to thrive there. Take for instance the Mediterranean garden I created in my front garden in Leamington Spa. Now Warwickshire – smack in the middle of England and prides itself on this by calling itself the heart of England – is as far from the Mediterranean as any place in England can be. For one, it rains all year round and the sun is rare as hen’s teeth.

But when one looks at closer range and observes the micro climate, then one begins to see possibilities where none seemed to exist at first. What did my front garden have? A southern exposure, and thus sun – when there was sun – all day. And a lack of moisture. But how could this be, with all that rain? Well, there was a huge Kanzan cherry tree there – such a beauty with its blossoms in spring and its brilliant leaves in fall – but such a thirsty tree whose questing roots hogged all the moisture there was, and only those plants that didn’t mind drought thrived there. Rosemary and Russian sage, a black bamboo, phormium, mahonia, nandina, and Sedum spectabile — the kind with huge bunches of flowers that go lusciously from white to pale green and to shades of rose and purple in the autumn. There was an existing box hedge no more than 30 cm tall at first; I let it sprawl and grow wide and tall. Over the years I had trained it into cloud-like billows that kept chilly winter winds at bay, and the Mediterranean plants loved the seclusion and protection. Alas when I moved to Germany, it was torn out and with it, some of my heart went as well. And in the back garden, despite cold North winds, a bay tree and a kiwi vine have flourished, planted against a brick wall that keeps them warm in winter. Another subtropical — a feijoa or pineapple guava — is there as well.

Bonn has the same rainy and sunless climate as Leamington Spa. And my front garden again faces south. But recent construction has left the ground full of pebbles and stones on top of the original heavy clay. And it is on a slope – thus promising good drainage. And in the summer, the clay bakes into a hard, crackly, uninviting surface. So I have planted a Mediterranean garden all over again. Artichokes, rosemary, lavender, a bay tree, just fronting the house wall that also absorbs the heat and protects the plants when temperatures drop at night. I’ve also put in a coca-cola herb with its grey-green filigree leaves. Coca-cola gewurz is how Artemisia abrotanum is known locally, and it does give off a weird cola-like scent when I brush against it. I rather like its English name, Lad’s Love, as it’s rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. More Mediterranean companions are acanthus with its spikes of purple flowers, sage, and clumps of medium-tall blue-green Festuca glauca grass.

These Mediterranean plants possess the colours that I adore — soft grey-greens and blue-greens and silvery greens, purple and mauve and claret — with varied leaf textures, some soft and wooly and others rather spikey. And the scents they release are so soothingly therapeutic. Could it be that my dream garden is actually a Mediterranean one – and I will always try to create this wherever I am?

Here is another of my dream gardens – the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan in Berry, Picardie, in the heart of France. It is a monastery garden, much like Brother Cadfael might have planted, had he also gone into fruits and not just herbs and vegetables. I love the structures used for trellises and seating, and have in mind copying some of them. When the trees were pruned in the back garden last autumn, I had the prunings piled up, ready for fashioning into seats and all sorts of plant supports in the spirit of this dreamy French garden.

A heart chair -- from Prieure d'Orsan. Photo from the book Zaubere Alter Gaerten.

A heart chair — from Prieure d’Orsan. Photo from the book Zauber Alter Garten.

Click here for Monty Don’s account of his visit to the Priory Garden. And here’s another one of the hotel and restaurant for which the garden was created.



Year of Grace, Day 67. Repeating history, Part 2.

My Uncle Jose – my mother’s younger brother – got more than his fair share of beauty — and brains as well. He was the most good-looking of all 6 siblings, with deep-set eyes and a fine sculptured nose on a narrow face – throwbacks to the family’s Spanish genes. He went to join Uncle Mariano, who preferred to be known as Uncle Bob, then living in the States, and studied criminology there. When I was 10 or 11, I cannot recall exactly, Uncle Jose came to live with us briefly in Manila. I remember him now because he actively encouraged my bookishness. Every week he gave me a set of words to look up – of those I remember “apostate”, the very first one; “lagniappe”, and “pecuniary.” This must be the very first time I have ever used all of those words in one sentence! One day he brought me a book – The Diary of Anne Frank: it was my introduction to the Holocaust. When I’d read it, I was left disturbed and then relieved that at the time — the 1960s — wide-scale persecution of Jews and other minorities was no longer official policy in Germany and that the Jews had established a haven of safety in their own homeland, Israel. That was over half a century ago.

On my birthday this year I received a book on netsuke – those exquisitely carved toggles that secured a pouch or small box when tucked into a kimono – written by the English potter Edmund de Waal. He had inherited a collection of over 200 from his uncle then living in Tokyo. In tracing the history of those intricately carved treasures in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he uncovered his mother’s family’s personal experience of the Holocaust in Austria and France. Of the Ephrussi family’s collection of paintings, sculpture and other art, as well as furniture, only the tiny netsuke had survived intact, secreted by a faithful family maid under her mattress throughout the war.

The Dreyfus affair – that infamous persecution and inhuman exile of a French Jewish army officer in the 1890s of which I learned in my World History class in high school — had a part to play in de Waal’s book. One of the Ephrussis – Charles — had supported Parisian impressionist artists by buying or commissioning paintings when hardly anyone was prepared to buy them. But when French society was sundered between those who sympathized with the unjustly accused Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – and the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards, artists who had previously benefitted from Charles Ephrussi’s financial support turned against him. All except Monet. It is against this background that I can now make sense of various references throughout Monet’s biography (read years before) to the troubles that Clemenceau, one of the Dreyfusards, went to Giverny – Monet’s famous garden — to seek a restful haven from.

In my previous post, I wrote of having read halfway through Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy – given me by a German friend. I have finished it now, and it ended on a happy note: the narrator of Harris’s fiction – Colonel Picquart — was vindicated in the end: appointed a Cabinet Minister by Clemenceau and promoted to Brigadier General. Dreyfus was eventually declared innocent of espionage in 1906, once a Count Esterhazy was confirmed as the actual guilty party who had passed on notes and copies of a weapons manual to the Germans, as proved by Picquart’s investigation. But perhaps the anti-Dreyfusards had the final word decades later – very few French Jews survived deportation to the Nazi concentration camps.

Why am I writing about this now? Because yesterday in Paris, 3 men broke into a house where a young Jewish couple were staying, raped the  girl, withdrew all the money from their bank account, and took all the jewelry and valuables from the house. The reason? Because they were Jews. Worldwide in 2014, it is open season on Jews. Even in American university campuses – in a country where once Jews found a place of safety. Especially so in Israel – also once a haven of safety for Jews from all the world’s continents from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and expressly established for that purpose. Every single day anti-Semites come closer to their avowed goal of total annihilation of Jews. When they cannot do it physically, they assassinate verbally in the international media and other fora. Just over half a century after 6 million Jews and uncountable other minorities were exterminated by the Nazi regime, there has resurfaced the same age-old hatred for this one race. No longer confined to one country such as France or Germany, Jew-hatred has become a global pandemic.

One has to ask why there is so much hate towards Jews and Israel worldwide. And you perhaps are  asking, why should I, a Filipina, care? I care because I care about injustice. I care because one group of people is unfairly treated. All over this world, there are those who care about wildlife and biodiversity and their disappearance from this earth. As a researcher of social ecology interested in the preservation of biodiversity, I care deeply about the earth and its biodiversity – its biodiversity in the widest sense — not merely of plants and  wild animals, but also of the genus Homo sapiens,  an animal speciesI am beginning to doubt that specific “sapiens”  in light of all the unsapient acts humans have been and continue to be capable of. Here is one ethnic group, one among the diverse groups that make this earth and this world of ours a richer and more interesting world. And we – who care about our pets, the orangutan in the forests, the lions and elephants and whales and other charismatic wild animals in the forests and savannahs and the seas; who denounce the cutting down of forests and age-old trees – shouldn’t we care as much about one of our kind that is a similarly threatened and endangered species? Isn’t this a convoluted form of self-loathing – hating one group of humans?

One group of people that has contributed much – so overwhelmingly much in all spheres of human endeavour – in diverse aspects of culture and science, business and philosophy, ethics and religion, popular entertainment and medicine, information and other modern technology. And yes, philanthropy too – wherever in the world disaster strikes – an earthquake, a tsunami, typhoons, and recently Ebola — there is unfailingly an immediate humanitarian Israeli presence. Perhaps therein lies the root of all this focused human self-loathing – unadulterated envy of the unfair share of talents and skills showered in overflowing measure on them by the Creator of the Universe: manifold blessings in compensation for their being unjustly despised from generation to generation.

My journal of gratitude is in its 67th day. What do I have to be grateful for on this day in the light of this unfathomable and sickening state of affairs in our world? Perhaps gratefulness is not an emotion I can rise to at this moment. I can merely remain positive and hopeful. I would like to think that we – the human species, Homo sapiens – are capable of rational, sapient thinking and behaviour. I would like to reserve a space in my heart for hope – hope that all that is good and positive will prevail and triumph over the evil and negativity that threaten our species and our world. Because we, as a species, are the lesser for hating one of our own, for killing one of our own, for trying to obliterate one of our own.

As John Donne concluded centuries ago in the poem, No Man is an Island: “Each man’s death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind.” Centuries earlier, a disciple of Jesus, an early humanitarian – whether you believe in his divinity or not is irrelevant — quotes him in The New Testament, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.”Jesus as a persona is not confined to Christian theology; he is regarded as a prophet in Islam.  Moreover Eastern philosophy echoes the Christian view that what affects one of us affects the whole.  As Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics writes,  “The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events…. All things are … interdependent and inseparable parts of [the] … whole….”

When we indulge in hate and seek to destroy others, we ultimately destroy ourselves.