Monday, August 2, 2010

Another sunny day as we made our way to the Tlell Fall Fair – the “earliest fall fair in British Columbia.” The stage was set, the PA warm as we entered the quarter-mile circle of booths.

At 10:45AM the emcee handed the microphone to Adele and, after a brief but thoughtful introduction, she passed it on to me.

My text was a 3500 word meditation on gardens, time and Northwest Coast art. Because it was Sunday, and because the benches looked like church pews, it occurred to me that those arriving mid-stream might think I was delivering a sermon. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The piece was well-received, and because of it I was able to meet Benita Sanders, one of Haida Gwaii’s gardening legends, whose garden I will visit today.

Here is the piece I read at Tlell:


What is my garden? Is it me? A reflection of me? Or is it, like the various computers I plug myself into – my car, my phone, my camera, my laptop – an extension of me? Can a reflection be an extension, or is it like Magritte’s painting Ceci ne pas une pipe (1928): not a pipe but a painting of a pipe? Can it be all of the above, like Joseph Kosuth’s installation Chair and Three Chairs (1965) is a chair, a photo of a chair and an enlarged dictionary definition of a chair? Questions like these, like the many questions I ask myself when starting something new, fertilize my writing. Today I have decided to write about my garden.

My garden takes place within a 25-by-150 foot lot on the east end of Vancouver. In the middle of the lot is a 100-year-old Edwardian house, and at the northeast corner, by the alley, a 12-by-16 foot garage. The house and garage take up two-thirds of the property. Two years ago the City of Vancouver granted my neighbours and I the opportunity to demolish our garages and replace them with infill housing, but to do so, in my case, would have meant the loss of a grape vine, which, along with the apple tree beside it, the laurel hedge to the west, the stumpy fir out front and the ever-shrinking lawn, are the only living flora to have proceeded me.

In the sixteen years I have lived at my address, I have spent on average about two-thirds of each year involved in some form of gardening -- planting, pruning, moving things around (or removing them altogether), constructing paths, fences, arbors, vignettes. I am 47 years old, and these sixteen years account for a third of my life -- the same ratio of gardens to buildings, but also the same ratio of time spent in bed, asleep. Ratios like these are important to me. A third, two-thirds. I have no idea why that is, though I intend to spend the last third of my life finding out.

What is a garden? According to that hothouse of information known as Wikipedia, a garden is “a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. The most common form today is known as the residential garden.” Like Kosuth’s definition of a chair, this describes my garden. So let’s look at the word itself.

Garden is derived from the Middle English gardin, similar to the French word jardin, or the High German word gart. In all cases, the etymology refers to “enclosure.” In discovering this, what immediately came to mind was a book I am reading in advance of my trip to Haida Gwaii: Doris Shadbolt’s 1986 monograph on the artist Bill Reid. In a chapter entitled “Looking Backwards”, Shabolt begins her discussion of Northwest Coast art with the cave paintings at Lascaux, in southwestern France. The Lascaux paintings are of animals associated with the hunt, rendered in colours and forms western art historians would refer to as realistic, or at their most adventurous, expressionistic. In contrast to these cave paintings, Shadbolt refers to “the qualities of containment, confinement, enclosure, stability” found in the art of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wakw people, whose work, she goes on to say, is “so formalized as to appear to have been based on a set of rules and conventions formulated in some unknown past and therefore serving as a collective model from which surface changes could be made while leaving the inner form matrix intact.” This formalization is distinct from the “spontaneous, intuitive or emotive mind, which is more apt to express itself in open movement or gesture,” such as the paintings at Lascaux.

Another coincidence with respect to enclosure and containment took place last night, at a new Japanese restaurant not far from my home. Eager to please, I consented to the server’s suggestion that I order the bento box. Of course what was presented to me was a meal enclosed and contained in compartments. Is the word bento in any way related to the Japanese word for garden? No. Bento originated in 12th century China, the Southern Song Dynasty slang term biandang, meaning “convenient” or “convenience.” Not until Japan’s post-clan Meiji Period (1868-1912), with the introduction of ekiben, or “train station bento”, and the more modern Taisho Period (1912-1926), did the aluminum bento box become ubiquitous among Japan’s wealthier residents.

Looking out my window, as I often do while writing, I notice how the plots we inhabit, with their careful placement of houses and garages, the lawns, paths and flower beds we arrange within them, this tendency towards right angle divisions and, as a result, the squareness in which we organize our lives, and the convenience those squares afford us, are not unlike the bento box. Although the artists and architects of the Northwest Coast have their own right angle geometries – from long house walls to cedar bentwood boxes – the figure that decorates everything, like the paintings that decorate an Attic vase, begins with the curvilinear formline. This formline, once enacted, finds its greatest expression in the ovoid, which, along with the geodesic (from the paintings of B.C. Binning to the domes of Haida Gwaii to the huge silver ball that is Vancouver’s Science World), are our province’s most enduring motifs.


My first foray into gardening came at my mother’s insistence. I was seven at the time, and because I had the gall to ask what an allowance was, I was not given a quarter (like the other kids got) but a list of things to do, one of which was weeding.

What is weeding? I asked.

Weeding is a chore, like making your bed or shoveling snow…

Yes, but what is it? What exactly do I have to do?

That was my introduction to gardening: a chore, something to be done – in order to get my quarter.

This is a weed, said my mother, reaching for what I thought to be a beautiful yellow flower.

But it has a flower on it.

A flower I don’t like, said my mother, ripping it from the earth. Here’s another flower I don’t like – the California poppy.

(My father’s mother, whom my mother struggled with emotionally, lived in Los Angeles -- California.)

A few more extractions and she stepped back, handing me her gloves. Here, pull out anything that looks like those, she said, pointing to the weed pile. But make sure you get the roots otherwise they’ll grow back.

I did poorly -- I could not distinguish between a weed and a not-a-weed. Perhaps if my mother had taught me what a not-a-weed was I might have fared better. But alas, like much of my childhood, the lesson was figure-ground -- not the form that fills a space but the absence of the form that defines that form. In that respect, you might say that I came to gardening in reverse.

A couple years ago, while looking through a box of family photos, I happened upon a colour Polaroid of the garden bed, taken from the upstairs bathroom window. That it must have been taken while standing atop the toilet told me it was an image my mother sought out, not something glanced at and admired while brushing ones teeth. In this instance, six tall rosebushes interspersed with azalea and ringed with purple primula. I had seen the photo before, but what caught my eye this time was the garden’s shape: not a square patch beside the garage but something curvy, like those single-cell organisms we looked at in science class. I mentioned this to my mother and she said the bed was less her design than a response to what could not be altered: the cement walk that came up the side of the house and ended in a semi-circle at the entrance to our backyard, and the impenetrable root ball left behind by a recently removed cedar. But if the bed looked like anything, she suggested, it might have been a kidney, because your father had kidney stones, and don’t you remember him screaming? Looking at the photo today (now tacked above my desk), the bed looks as much like the ovoids that describe Thunderbird, Eagle, Whale and Raven as the kidneys that beat up my dad.

In her book, Shadbolt continually reminds us of a time when the spirit world and the natural world were one – interchanging, transforming, returning. When talking about the brightly decorated bentwood boxes, we are told of the relationship of the decoration to the object that carries it: how “the animal-creature referred to and represented is also a container; it is also the skin, another form of container welded to and become that which is the box.” The more I garden, the more aware I am of the interrelationship of elements, how decay and growth are linked through the ongoing flow of energy. And in thinking of these forces as one, together, I imagine what that might look like -- how the ovoid, like the cells that comprise all living things, figures into that form.


My second foray into gardening came after a serious car accident. Though my accident was nowhere near the cellular malfunction I experienced three years later, when I was diagnosed with cancer, it brought me closer to the earth on which I had, until then, merely walked, returning me to Victoria where I had started my university schooling and was eager to resume, hopeful that I might find a place with an arable strip of land on which to till, seed and grow my way back to good health. And I did -- a large bachelorized mansion in Fairfield, three blocks from the ocean.

The strip was a six-by-eighteen-foot lie on the south side of the house, which the owner had been using as a parking spot for a truck he had long since given up on. Getting the truck out took some doing, but once it was gone, he told me how thankful he was, how its restoration, which for years had been a dream of his, had become little more than a monument to sloth. It was for this reason that he gave me fifty dollars towards the garden. I took the money and spent it first on a remediation kit, then on the soil I would need to replace that which the truck’s fluids had compromised.

I remember my first stab of the shovel, the grass so hard I thought the earth below it was concrete. I tried again, a little harder this time, but to similar effect. A neighbour offered her pick ax, and that helped. But with each blow I weighed the earth’s resistance against my not-yet-mended bones, knowing for the first time that what I thought possible was not what my body wanted. To know this at seventy is one thing, but at twenty-one? I felt less like a gardener than a gravedigger.

After an hour, my neighbour, who was easily seventy, wandered over with a glass of lemonade and asked if I needed a break. Deaf with pride, I brought the pick down even harder, just missing my foot. Alright, she said firmly, grabbing the handle, if you want to be like that, gimme my pick before you get hurt. But it was too late. My ego was crushed. I had made a fool of myself in the presence of someone who seemed to know exactly what I was going through. Why I could not respond to her generous suggestion was an early lesson in adult humility. Of which, of course, there were many more.

Her name was Connie and she had lived in Victoria since she and her husband came west from Saskatchewan, to retire. Like many career schoolteachers, he died within the first five years of his pension, leaving Connie a widow for the next five. I grew up on a farm, she said. We had cattle, but I spent most of my time in our mother’s garden, which was a hundred times bigger than your little plot. Not to brag, but I was a girl amongst five brothers and did all the work myself. First thing you learn about garden work is pace. You learn about yourself that way – your mind and your body in relation to the land, and everything that walks upon it.

Not exactly what she said, but that was the gist. Connie, who had started in her mother’s garden long before I first weeded mine, grew with the land and the sun and the rain. And it was through her mother’s garden that she came to understand the animals that fed upon it, and those that fed upon them. Cycles, she kept saying. Cycles and rhythms. It’s like music, and you have your instrument. Only in my case, it was a shovel! When the growing season’s over, you’re inside, making preserves. And once that’s done, you’re getting your seeds ready for spring, seeds you start indoors, in the dark. Cycles and rhythms. By the time I was eighteen and ready to leave, I thought I had died. Life is a series of life-and-death cycles, of which, by last count, I’ve had four.

Connie supervised my second day from her stoop, allowing me no more than twenty strikes before calling me over to ask what I wanted to plant, and where. If you break this up, it won’t be so difficult. Look what you’ve done so far – forty strikes and you’ve already cracked the surface. The earth is softer now; you can use your shovel. By day’s end I had dug down a foot and had another foot to go before I could add the new soil, a mixture Connie devised using sand, topsoil and mushroom manure, as well as ample scoops from her compost. As promised, my landlord took away the old soil, and by the end of the week I had made my bed.

Had the garden ended there, I would have been happy. It did not matter what I planted; what mattered more than anything was the passage -- from walking up at dusk, at Connie’s suggestion, to washing off the dirt at the end of the day, and enjoying it. Just before adding the new soil Connie pointed to the old pile. What do you see? I shrugged. No, look at it. Really look at it. I did, and still I saw nothing -- nothing but a pile of old soil. Okay, she said finally, think about what you didn’t see when were digging. I looked at the hole then back at the pile. I probably did this twice. Worms? I said cautiously. Life? I will never forget Connie’s smile.


So, if my first foray into gardening came when I was seven, and my second at twenty-one, my third occurred at roughly the same interval, fourteen years later, at the age of thirty-five. I had been three years at my current address, but until then had done little more than mow the lawn, the interior renovation having taken up most of my time. Then in late-March I found myself in the backyard, sorting through the wreckage.

I was making my way through a pile of lathe, one that had weathered three snowfalls and had stood like a snowman where a scarecrow would have stood in July, when I pushed aside a particularly large section and saw not the green grass below but a whorl of whites and yellows: new skin under an old scab. I thought it appropriate -- how the lawn, like our skin, is an organ that keeps other organs contained, confined, enclosed and stable. It was then that I saw the lawn as more than the absence of flowers and shrubs – I saw it as a monochrome that for some is never green enough. And for those who keep their lawns that way, so green and so pure, are they the same people who appreciate the black paintings of Kazmir Malevich, the blue paintings of Yves Klein or the white paintings of Robert Ryman? Is it more than that? Less? Is the lawn an expression of the homeowner’s pride in not having to work the land he lives on, and extension of himself, the way his interior walls, decorated with prints by Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, provide a similar function? Or for those whose lawns are populated with garden gnomes, participants in some occult narrative, what are the chances that their walls are covered in monochrome paintings? One-third? Two-thirds? What is a lawn?

The composition of my lawn had less to do with grass than dandelion and buttercup. But rather than restore it, I chose to reduce it. My first attempt began on paper: a bed extending from the laurel hedge, in two loopy curves, not unlike my mother’s. However, as I cut my way in, piling the sod behind me like my mother did her weeds (and I did later, with all that rotten soil), I found the hedge to be so inundated with morning glory that before I could plant anything, I had to remove it, a decision that had me no longer working on my bed but on the other axis, going from one end of the hedge to the other, extracting these great white root balls, each root capable of breaking into two and doubling the likelihood of a new root system. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari found in the rhizome a metaphor to counter the destructive consequences of binary thinking -- yet when it comes to gardening, the rhizomatic root is the most destructive kind there is.

It took three summers to rid myself of the morning glory. By then, the garden had taken shape. Where my coming and going had cut a pattern from the back door to the alley, I inserted a stone path. These were not store-bought pavers but bricks and rocks I had collected here and there, from rivers and highway shoulders to demolished schoolhouses and what I found while digging. More than anything I planted in those three years, more than the wild geranium and crocosmia from a deceased friend’s yard; the moneywort, hebe and dwarf lilac vignette I made at the southern edge of the grape arbor; and the potted azaleas I dote on like children, the path is most important. Every time I look at it, especially from my study window, but also from my kitchen window, where it looks completely different, and even below that, under the porch where I keep my garden tools, I think of how I played with those bricks and rocks, turning them this way and that, lining them up one way, then another, squinting, arranging them in the earth only to wake up at three in the morning and, like the morning glory, rip them out and start again.

The path means many things to me. Mostly it is a poem that functions as an index, allowing me to understand the logic of my floral plantings. Though sometimes, especially as the sun moves lower and lower across the sky, it is my spine, the one I broke, the one that led me into gardening -- the one that tells when it is just about to rain. Sometimes all I have to do is think about my path...

I could go on about my garden, breaking it down into elements, configurations, dimensions (the most important being time), but that would take ages, perhaps as long as it takes to write a novel. Much of this writing has concerned itself with parallels, the garden in relation to time, the body, to Northwest Coast art, and this is not a coincidence, because I would not have written this essay had I not agreed to come here. I think it might be possible to write about a garden and have it relate to anything, in the way everything relates, in some form, to the ebb and flow of life. Something else: through this process I have learned that writing about my garden is nowhere near as enjoyable as walking through it with another human being, allowing the garden, not me, to initiate the conversation, extend it, allow for its reflection, an order I had not thought about until just this very moment.

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