Garden graft

2 September 2010 | Essays, Non-fiction

A chapter from Vapaasti versoo. Rönsyjä puutarhasta (‘Freely sprouting. Runners from the garden’, Kirjapaja, 2010)

If you sit in your garden and feel a bit like you’re tucked uncomfortably at the end of the dock in a guest berth, the reason is this: the garden hasn’t yet found a place in your muscle memory. Because it is only at the point when the garden has settled into your muscle memory, into your senses in as many ways as possible, that it will feel like your own. And that, of course, takes working in the garden, not just sitting in it.

So you should know your rose – not just its lovely smell but also the memory that you get from the shovel handle of when you planted it, or even the memory of the prick of its thorn on your finger. You can anchor every little detail in your senses, and it doesn’t even take much imagination. The scent of thyme on your fingertips, the downy fluff of a pasque flower against your palm, the silken glow of a peony opening in the morning sunlight – or the sumptuous mist of the wee hours of a summer morning twining over everything, and the rare experience of wading through it.

Etching a garden into your muscle memory and senses doesn’t happen in a moment, or two moments; it’s a long-term project. If you’ve felt the yard work in your limbs many times, you can take consolation in knowing that without going to that trouble the garden will never be known to you, never be your own. Overdoing it, of course, is another matter. There’s no need to  break you back for the sake of your muscle memory (says the woman who has made that very mistake). We sense things at a different pace than you might think; we need to give our senses time, they need to be awakened. When, at the end of winter, we feel oversensitive to the light, the scents and sounds, it’s because we’re partly frozen. The long period in the sterile indoors has done its work.

A gardener is happiest when she’s worked on a spot for a long time and sees it come to fruition.  A yard can be got ready-made, but a garden is another matter. If you start at the very beginning, every square metre of the plot can be connected to muscle memory. The bite of a shovel here, shifting a stone there, planting, raking, perhaps edging a flower bed. You feel it in your bones, in your core – why not in your muscle memory?

It’s moving to hear how precisely garden people remember their garden tasks. The journey from planting your first apple seedling to the time when the tree produces its first edible apple. Or when, after twenty years, you finally see the candlestick blossoms of a horse chestnut tree, long after giving up hope. Or when a peony grown from seed has enough roots to divide, to grace the ages. I never tire of hearing garden stories.

When I run into an elderly friend, I feel a great gratitude: they’ve passed many a baton to me in one way or another. The world is  a very narrow place when all our doings are with people our own age. We should strive to live in both directions: reaching to what has been as well as ahead, to what will be. When we abandon old people to their own devices, in institutions or in other ways, we abandon our own future selves. With those kind of deeds we make our own future grim –  can we really afford that?A garden often functions as a calendar, a sort of an open, illustrated diary for those who work it. I maintain that for many older people the garden also stimulates the memory. The aesthetic experience that surrounds us in the garden arouses the senses, anchors images in our minds, calms and delights us, enlivens and makes whole again things that we thought we had lost. Memories are carved out of places, people, and things. People want to carry these things with them, as part of their identity. They don’t weigh us down at all, yet there is nothing more weighty. The moment we lose them, we lose ourselves. An inherited garden, passed down in the family, is a rare thing. It may be in the muscle memories of numerous generations, and that is really something. If you have the privilege of taking care of such an inherited garden, it can function for future generations not just as a garden, but also a bit like poems that the gardener has hidden away here and there. Each person will interpret it in their own way, though there are always those for whom such a poem holds no interest. When I see a bulldozer and builder’s booth in a fine, old garden, I’m overcome with an inexpressible sadness, even though there may be a good reason for it – serious matters like real estate sales, new apartments or roads. When an old garden goes, more than one garden is nullified.

A worker at the dump once told me what the saddest sight in the world is: photo albums in the trash. So many homeless memories that no one has time to grieve an individual photograph.

Plants don’t grieve, they generally grow where they are planted, or else they stop growing. They don’t remember us, but we remember them. New life will come to take their place, whether we like it or not.

I’m sitting in the evening on the largest stone in my garden, on Derelict Hill. There are so many mole tunnels that I wouldn’t wonder if the stone disappeared into the earth and took this green-thumb with it. I guess that would stay in my muscle memory, too.

Translated by Lola Rogers


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