Derek Evans: The Art of the Garden
Throughout my life I have built gardens in unlikely places. I have never been terribly interested in the actual gardening itself the planting and weeding and harvesting and all but more in the challenge of transforming a piece of barren ground into something that might support beauty and life.
My first garden was in a piece of utter wasteland the abandoned parking lot of a derelict factory in an area then known as the "grey underbelly" of Montreal. That little patch is still producing flowers and vegetables for the people of that neighbourhood.
A full-page photo of my next garden was actually published in Harrowsmith magazine. It was a box garden on the rooftop of a community centre, adjacent to a convalescent hospital. When the hospital staff told us how much the patients enjoyed watching the plants spring up in our collection of old crates and bins, we built an arbour and a boardwalk across the roof to accommodate wheelchairs, so that patients could spend an hour or two in the leafy shade.
My latest project has been transforming an old swimming pool into something I am calling "the fruit pond." I have filled it in one wheelbarrow at a time, and last week it produced its first yellow plum!
For the most part, I have wisely left the work of nurturing seedlings and producing crops to others. Years ago, I learned that the only thing I could reliably grow were roses, largely because they are so independent and determined, and because they even seem to thrive on neglect and adversity. I've always been alarmed by the gardener's advice to "cut back hard." It seems like such a high risk strategy! But sure enough, whenever I've done it, the roses have somehow returned the next year, indomitable and with even greater vigour.
During the past month, I've found myself in two unlikely gardens, in each case witnessing again the fearful vulnerability and the miraculous resilience of roses "cut back hard." I spent several days in London before and after the suicide bombings of the buses and the underground. My hotel was just around the corner from King's Cross station, the centre of the attacks.
The first day after the bombings, the crowded streets seemed to be filled with a combination of stunned shock and the typical "grittiness" for which Londoners are so famous. Everyone behaved outwardly as if nothing had happened, despite the disruptions and the constant wailing of emergency sirens. However, by the second day and especially on the third day, strain and emotion began to claw through the veil, as the terrible reality of the atrocity and the persistent nature of the threat settled upon the city.
After a peaceful day of research in the soft natural light and comforting blue leather of the great, round reading room of the British Museum, I walked over to King's Cross to pay my respects at the spontaneous memorial that had sprung up outside the station. This was where the worst of the bombings had occurred, and many of the thousands of commuters and visitors who pass through the station daily had paused to offer a prayer, or a poem, and to lay down some flowers on the sidewalk. There were tributes and messages from people of all cultures and classes, and from all over the world. One of them, scrawled on a scrap of paper and stuck on the grimy brick wall, particularly struck me. It read simply, "Fallen roses, ah, all of them roses."
My travels next took me from London to Central Africa to Burundi and the Congo a region that has known immeasurable and seemingly endless terror and atrocity during the past decade of genocide, invasions and civil wars. The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, largely ignored by the world's media and carried on without much public concern, has claimed more lives some few million, in fact than any other conflict since World War II.
I was in the region to conduct an assessment of human rights protection mechanisms, and it was tough work. Food was scarce, as were basic amenities; electricity was available only a few hours each day; security conditions were stable, but tense. A 6 p.m. curfew was in effect, and light machine gun fire often disturbed the night. During the day, ranks of ragged, irregular troops would periodically emerge from the mountains and march through the city on their way to a new front-line somewhere to the north.
I've always found the reality of child soldiers deeply troubling. But this time I was shocked at how many child soldiers were evident and by how young they were. After a meeting with some officials, I came out of a government building to see yet another line of troops marching along the road. As usual, most of the soldiers had only various bits of uniform, and a chaotic assortment of weapons. I noticed one soldier in particular, a boy who could not have been more than ten years old perhaps 11 at a stretch. The thing that disturbed me most, though, was not his age, nor even the familiar ease with which he carried his AK-47. It was that he already wore the "hard face" of a veteran, something that cannot be faked.
All was silent as the troops passed. As soon they disappeared around a bend, singing and clapping arose from a house across the way. A wedding was taking place under a veranda. A wise sense of discretion meant that the couple, family, and friends had interrupted their celebration and had disappeared while the hungry troops passed, but now they resumed their festivities with all the joy and splendour they could muster. They even invited the "muzungu" visiting from Canada to join in the celebrations. Just beside the veranda, a large rose bush was in full red bloom. We all gathered in front of it for the photos of the wedding party.
Perhaps there is really no such thing as an unlikely place for a garden. Perhaps every patch of earth like every aspect of human experience can be a place of life and beauty, even in places that are "cut back hard." Perhaps the real work of gardening is cultivating our own ability to recognize the beauty that surrounds us, and nurturing our willingness to share life in its fullness.
I am a devotee of full-contact gardening. My efforts to excavate flower beds from the ancient creek bed around our house in Naramata have earned me a nickname: "The Rock-weiler." I am proud of the nickname and of my gardening, though my sometimes-aching back is less impressed. Full-contact gardeners are people who know that the cheapest way to buy Epsom salts is in 25 kilogram bags from the garden centre.
The hillside behind our new house in Penticton stretches up to Redlands at an angle that is a little better than 45 degrees. Okay, it's closer to 60 degrees. To a committed full-contact gardener, however, that can mean only one thing it's time for terracing!
Like many gardeners, digging in the earth is for me an exercise in personal archaeology an opportunity to reflect. As I began to build my first terrace recently, I realized that I was following a pattern that was already set in my mind, a knowledge drawn from something I'd observed many years ago. I remembered that, in fact, I began my international human rights work almost exactly 25 years ago in the magnificent rice terraces of Sagada, on the island of Luzon in the northern Philippines.
The extraordinary terraces of Sagada are a marvel of effort and
engineering, and have sustained countless generations of the
indigenous Kalinga and Bontoc tribal peoples, who continue to occupy the
region. Today, the terraces are recognized as a United Nations World Heritage
Site, but in the early 1980s they were slated
I was sent to research the impact of the proposed mega-project on the local people, as some of the capital investment and technical assistance would be coming from Canada. The country was in the grip of an undeclared but nonetheless severe civil war. About a third of the country was controlled by the communist insurgents, largely as a result of poor people desperately resisting Marcos' attempts to push them off their traditional lands. That was precisely what had happened in this region, and I had been invited to visit the home of Macli'ing Dulag, a legendary tribal leader who had called on his people to defend their traditional lands, and who had been assassinated by Marcos' troops a few months previously.
It took three days to travel the 200 kilometres or so from Manila to the tiny village of Bugnay, mainly because of repeated detours through the jungle to avoid the many military checkpoints along the roads. After Macli'ing's death, the insurgents had entered the area to support the tribal people, who to that point had been armed only with spears. The village had now become a rebel stronghold under siege. The only access was over a swinging footbridge suspended high above the Chico River canyon. We inched across it on our hands and knees, placing the deck planks ahead of us one at a time, and taking them up again and relaying them along the line as we moved forward.
The village clinging to the mountainside was, at that time, an anthropologist's dream, seemingly untouched by modernity except for the newly-arrived communist guerrillas. By custom, I was to be hosted by the eldest woman of the community. We climbed the steep path and found her standing outside her house, pounding beans in a mortar and pestle, and weeping. Inquiries were made to find out what was the matter. I understood only a single word before the interpreter spoke. "She says she is weeping because she is ashamed. She says you are her guest, and she has heard that you like to drink coffee. She says she is upset because she has only these native coffee beans to offer you; she says she is ashamed because she has no 'Nescafe.'"
I remember being stunned that the power of corporate advertising, as the arbiter of what is deemed to be of value, was such that it could reach its insidious way even to this utterly remote and tradition-bound place. Then again, here I was, a young Canadian investigating the innocent but potentially devastating impact of money and expertise from my country on these people. It was my first real experience of what came to be known a decade later as globalization.
I spent several days in the village interviewing the people, enjoying the fine local coffee, and helping out with repairs to the ancient terraces in preparation for the next planting season. Among the Kalinga and the Bontoc, as with many tribal peoples, the division of labour assigned responsibility for preparing the fields to the men, care for the crop to the women, and planting and harvest to all.
After several years of struggle, Marcos was successfully resisted and eventually overthrown, though at a great cost of life and limb. But the dam was never built. The Kalinga and Bontoc people continue to draw life and inspiration from their land, and the wondrous terraces bestowed on them by their ancestors will be preserved for the next generation.
And now I find myself using the knowledge they shared with me on the hillside behind my house on Creekside Road. Perhaps I'll treat it as my own little tribute to them, a reminder of the ingenuity and determination required, if we are to survive and find a sustainable path to the future.
Derek Evans served two terms as Deputy Secretary General of
Amnesty International, and was Executive Director of the Naramata Centre.
His book, Dispatches from the Global Village, was published in 2007 by
Wood Lake Books