The world in a garden

A garden has been described as a place where human purpose meets Nature, “a gesture against the wild,” the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas eloquently put it. Although much too encompassing, this definition personally appeals to me. It reminds me of a day last year, just before the start of the rainy season, when, looking out from the terrace where I was writing, I was struck by the total neglect into which my garden had fallen.

The Hungarian vine that shrouded the bamboo fence had colonized the low-lying palms.  The grass was tall but slowly dying on the parched soil. My neighbor’s wild pigeons had converted the small pond in the center of the garden into their bathing pool, and white bird poop and feathers clung to the gray pebbles that ringed the pond. The precious bonsai that my mother-in-law had entrusted to my care had begun to put down their roots beyond the shallow ceramic pots that contained them. As a result, their branches were going in every direction.

I used to justify this state of affairs as a protest against the artificiality of well-trimmed middle-class gardens that had order but no character. I was content with letting someone who knew nothing about gardens water the plants and sweep the yard once a week. Sometimes this felt like I was just allowing Nature to take its course.  But there were also days when I thought I was just fulfilling an obligation to something that had outlived its purpose. On that particular day of awakening, I decided there was no way I could continue rationalizing what clearly was an outcome of sheer indifference and abandonment.

A strong sense of guilt came over me, and I decided I would make amends. I grew up in a family of gardeners. My late father spent hours tending to his roses, pampering them with the rich nutrients of dried horse manure and delicately cleansing their stems of the deadly curse of aphids and other pests. He would regularly burn the discarded ribs of tobacco leaves underneath the plants—like an offering of incense to the gods—to drive away the insects that ate the leaves of his flowering plants. Gardening was a religion for him. All my siblings drew something from that patriarchal passion, and, like a stubborn gene, it shows itself in the piety with which they tend to their gardens and share their plants with one another.

I am, as it were, the prodigal son finally come home. Before this, my brothers would sometimes offer me an exquisite vine that yielded beautiful dangling flowers or a red palm that would interrupt the drab green of the surrounding hedge, and I would plant it anywhere. But I was not inclined to sit around in the garden. If I wanted to spend time outdoors, I would get on my motorcycle and drive out to Bataan, where at the slope of Mount Malasimbo my brother, Bishop Ambo, maintains a family retreat house with a magnificent terraced garden. Or I would go to the mountain refuge that another brother, Architect Nestor David, built in nearby Tala, Orani—to watch birds rather than smell the flowers.

Little did I know that my own garden inside the UP campus could yield many delicate pleasures and offer rewarding moments of thoughtful contemplation. During the last three months of dry cool weather, my wife Karina and I would go down to our garden after supper. She would sit on the swing, breathe in the lightly scented air, light a cigarette, and play games on her tablet. I would busy myself watering the plants, and then settle down on a rustic wooden bench with a cigar.

Then, the garden would slowly come to life. The grass begins to glisten in the metallic glow of the full moon, and the dama de noche starts to exhale every five minutes, its breath laced with a familiar sweetness. A frog dives into the pond, creating a faintly audible splash. Bats swish through the boughs of the mango and star apple trees in quest of fruit, and promptly tweet their finds. It is a rare moment of peace and contentment, and I offer my wife a glass of liqueur to celebrate it. We talk about our children and grandchildren, unmindful of the empty nest that is the bane of parents our age.

This garden is filled with memories and traces of abiding friendships. The stonework dates back to the 1950s when the original owner of the house, the opera diva Jovita Fuentes, my wife’s grandaunt, decided to build a terraced garden on the uneven terrain. I have kept most of her plants. I remember every plant that came to me as a gift. I glance at the bamboo fence that encloses the garden, and salute the Pinatubo Ayta from whom I bought the material and the migrant farmer from Panay who strung the bamboo poles together to form a fence that is like no other.

Each morning, I go out to feed the fish in the pond. Today, I chance upon our pet dogs eating the mangoes and star apples that had fallen on the ground, a gift from the bats. Instinctively, I look up and notice how tall the majestic Betis tree I planted 20 years ago has grown, shooting up from the grass-covered ground like a dominant presence in a structured world.

In an instant, I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari and their paradigm-shattering books, “Anti-Oedipus” and “A Thousand Plateaus,” where they talk of two models of culture—the “arborescent” and the “rhizomatic.” The thought image for the former is the tree—with its vertical and linear connections—and for the latter, it is grass—with its horizontal and multiple links, its defiance of order and chronology.

The tiny blossoms of the dama de noche that gave us so much pleasure every night for over a week are gone. Thank goodness, I tell myself, remembering what the Japanese poet Kenko wrote about impermanence: “how things would lose their power to move us” if we “lingered on forever in the world.”

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