Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Chez Pavlov Memorial Gardens: notes towards a theory

I came late to gardening and am still hopeless at it, driven by nothing more than haphazard and short-lived enthusiasms. It's only in the last year or so that I have found myself thinking ahead one or more seasons, about what might look nice come October, come summer, come 2010 if we all make it that far.

Given my ineptitude and the intermittent nature of my dedication, it is the more remarkable that the garden should nonetheless be so rich an inner resource. Of the five senses it is apparently smell that is the most intimately bound up with memory; further, there are things and places in the garden that emanate memory as though it were a scent. Almost without my noticing, the garden has become not only a site of memorialisation but a repository of memory.

This is largely to do with my mother, who was one of the world's great gardeners, and who pruned half a dozen of the larger shrubs here into submission the winter before she died. The pale-pink bignonia along the side fence and the hot-pink fuchsia out the back are still shapely and healthy, eight years on.

It may have been while she was pruning the fuchsia that she somehow lost one of her favourite gold earrings. She never knew how or where she'd lost that earring, and mourned for it, and we all looked for it everywhere. She died the following summer, and five winters after that, my eye was caught by something glittering up at me in the pale sun from the leaf litter near the fuchsia. I gave it to my dad.

One of the two orchids in blue-and-white pots was hers, a small pale-green alien life form with a scarlet-spotted throat. Orchids are buggers and it has flowered only twice so far, by accident I'm sure; I regard it as a triumph that it's still alive at all. So is the bigger specimen in the other pot, a gift from my friend R several springs ago. R is also responsible for the bed of sage, also several years old and still going strong, and for the thriving lime tree in its beautiful big terracotta pot: I look at them and I think of her.

The passionfruit vine was planted in memory of my Nan, who lived on the central coast of New South Wales and with whose memory I associate semi-tropical scents, but it also makes me think of my friend D, who advised me to bury a lamb's fry at its feet every October. (Eye of newt and toe of frog to you too, I said.) The scent of the jasmine currently in blossom at the front door recalls a particular letter from the Bloke that I read sitting in that doorway one evening, and the yellow nasturtiums down the side recall my ma again, showing me when I was very small the way that rain or dew will curl up into a sphere in the cup of a nasturtium leaf.

Also dating from that era is the variety of red climbing rose I've just planted at the foot of a sun-soaked trellis out the back, bought on a whim when I saw its name: if it can live through a Curramulka summer, it can live anywhere at all. A long way further down the back you can just see the remains of a short-lived vegie experiment I conducted with my dad, who did the hard yards with crowbar and hoe; bad luck about the Adelaide heatwave that summer, the one that saw three consecutive days over 43 degrees, when the water turned to dust as it gushed from the hose and the rainbow lorikeets dropped dead out of the sky, and all my lovely ratatouille vegies succumbed to a nasty thing evocatively called Blossom End Rot, so named because the blossom end -- um, well, you know.

And there are two little pots of a strange and apparently unkillable little succulent whose name I don't know, with its origins in my grandfather's funeral wreath from 1970. My mother, a woman who always kept a small pair of scissors in her handbag in case an opportunity to take (translation: steal) a cutting presented itself, had brought home a sprig of this plant on the plane from the funeral and planted it at home. She planted cuttings from it when they moved house, and again when they moved house again; when my father moved house yet again, after she died, my younger sister took more cuttings and potted them and handed them round. It's a 36-year-old, fifth-generation plant and it carries with it the emanations, the reverberations, of several members of my family.

The power of the garden doesn't lie only in this photo-album effect, with its effortless calling-up of old associations and affections and of the strength that can be drawn from those things every day. The garden carries a huge charge in itself, on its own terms, as well. Everything returns and re-grows, relentlessly, and it does it every spring. (If you were a depressed person this would drive you berserk, which explains the opening lines of The Waste Land: 'April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain' and no I'm not going to look it up, I'm sure it's right.)

But for the rest of us, that annual renewal is a kind of literalisation of the garden's power to hold memory, curled up like a bud, ready to open in the warmth of your attention. Everyone you've loved who's ever been in the garden, worked in it, given you things for it, is always already out there. I see them sitting round the outdoor table in big hats, sipping G and Ts, chatting, waving their hands.


Mary Bennet said...

This is a beautiful post, Pavlov. I still miss the huge garden I'd been just getting to grips with when we moved into a flat five years ago. I just wish I'd kept cuttings of everything. But seeing other people's camellias and jasmine and hellebores is still heartwarming.

Bernice Balconey said...

My gran always insisted you buried an ox heart under a passionfruit. & no-one ever disagreed with Cissy - well, not twice anyway.
& the art of removing bits of plants to propogate in the privacy of your own home is called Bandicooting. An uncle, indeed a Bob, usually resembles a 14 month pregnant woman by the time we stroll out of a nursery.
Bob & Cissy represented a gardening tradition that was not so much about reflection or langour but competition, produce, holding back the forces of nature, & making sure Mrs Bell across the road knew your pumpkins were bigger than hers. Methodism made physical in its thrift, endeavour and flinty enjoyment.

JahTeh said...

'Bandicooting', I love that. I have vivid memories of my mother and mother-in-law working both sides of the street with less than discreet snipping.

Ampersand Duck said...

That brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

My mother and grandmother are both voracious snippers whose quest for cuttings knows no geographical border. Quarantine? meh. 'My handbag's the best place for these seeds/ this cutting/ this bit of root.'
I'm glad others know the pain!

Kath W said...

What a beautiful, moving post. You reminded me of a documentary I once saw about a marvelous cook who deep-forze a lot of her creations. Her daughter said after her mother's death she'd still be eating her cakes. You must've felt a little like that, knowing the (literal) fruits of your mother's labour of love are still thriving.

I know about the emotional attachment to the garden: mine doesn't have the history of yours (I created it from scratch), but I have a cutting from the most beautiful white nectarine tree my grandmother planted from seed and was a large feature of my childhood (fresh and bottled). A freak of nature, so impossibly sweet and firm and flavoursome is its fruit. I can't eat one without almost erupting in tears for my grandmother. I almost feel I'm ingesting her spirit, and it's so comforting that my offspring is ingesting it, too.

tigtog said...

I missed this one, Pav. What a lovely, lovely piece.

Lst year I created a rose garden in a very ordinary piece of front lawn beside a driveway. This year, now that we know the roses are happy and blooming there, we'll put mr tog's parents ashes in that bed. His dad especially loved working in his rosebed, so it will be a suitable resting place.

seepi said...

So lovely.

I miss my gardens past.

My current garden has a few cuttings from the last garden. If only moving house wasn't such a torrid time there would be more.

I do love a nice garden. Preferably a little overgrown and well loved.