Twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., I would flee the intensity of my drawing board for a brisk walk around the block through a neighborhood in transition.
Modern apartment buildings intimidated pillar-porched cottages of the 1920s and '30s whose aging owners held out against the changes all around them. Saggy sofas, too shabby for the living room but still comfortable, had been moved to front porches, accessorized by flower cuttings stuck into whatever container was handy – mismatched pots, an aluminum tea kettle with a broken bale, geraniums in a bedpan.
I walked, I pondered. It was my first awareness of green growth as a symbol of hope. Shoot and stem, bud and blossom bring hope. Humans attach themselves to soil – owned, rented, or borrowed.
One garden in particular sticks in my memory all these decades later. Distant, snow-capped mountains provided an unlikely backdrop for the scent of orange blossoms. Christmas was approaching. On the parched lawn of a white frame house, a large Nativity scene had been set. The figures were crudely cut from plywood – and every one had bright yellow hair. There was something a bit unsettling about the depiction.
Then a full-page ad appeared in the local newspaper sprinkled with words such as “white” and “patriotic American,” with an anonymous post office box for responses. It came to light that the innocuous-appearing house had been rented by the American Nazi Party for its local headquarters.
The city responded to public outrage and initiated proceedings to oust the family on some zoning technicality; shutting off water and power to evict by discomfort rather than moral argument.
But what I recall is the garden: a dry strip of earth along the foundation of the house, dotted with scraggly plants, set off not by the ideal white picket fence but by aluminum dividers used in ice cube trays.
This spoke to me of poverty and of humanity. A human being, a woman, was trying to make a home. And she was so poor she used parts of ice cube trays to make a garden “fence.” Odious ideology, I thought, yet an attempt at beauty.
One always plants in hope of some kind of harvest. The body is nourished by kitchen gardens, orchards, fields of grain; the soul is nurtured by a fresh shoot, a flash of color, a promise of life.
Since those long-ago rambles, I have witnessed the struggle for green hope in widely disparate environments from Central Asia to West Africa, from Latin America to Pacific islands, from garden-worshiping England to urban Los Angeles.
Guerrilla Gardeners choose their targets carefully – lots vacant but for trash and weeds, public planter boxes used as rubbish bins, abandoned strips of earth in public view. The guerrillas stalk and plot, budget and purchase, then strike in the dark of night to transform their world one plant at a time. I cheer on these determined gardeners.
At an L.A. intersection, I spied green corn springing up from a patch of earth around an urban stop sign. A campesino lives nearby. Displaced from his own turf, he borrowed some from the city.
I empathized with that campesino. When, for reasons of employment, our family had to be uprooted from the San Francisco Bay area home we loved, I hatched a plan.
Somewhere I had read of an exiled European princess who carried, in her necessarily itinerant life, a small tin containing soil from her native land. So into our moving van went two planters complete with California soil.
Snow came early that year to the New England, where I had vowed never to live. But I knew spring would come, and I had my marigold seeds ready.
This longing for beauty, for green, for something that sprouts fresh and optimistically in spite of harsh circumstances, recently struck me once again as I visited a city where sand won a long time ago.
Khalid was our chacodor – watchman, gatekeeper, driver. He and his brother, Habeeb, had a rope bed and a propane burner in the slanted space under the stairs leading up to offices. I learned that their family home in the north had been destroyed in an earthquake.
But I could see that Khalid had been setting down new roots – of a sort. In old tin cans, pots, and plastic tubs, he had plants. There were plants all around the walled perimeter with others waiting for placement. Plants had taken over the curved entry steps leading to the front door. There was no obvious plan – the plants had been acquired one at a time.
Beyond “thank you,” I had not spoken to Khalid, observing the etiquette of the region.
But on departure day, as we were about to pull out of the driveway, I leaned forward from the back seat, and broke the taboo:
“Khalid,” I said, looking him straight in the eye, “your garden is beautiful.”
His brown-black eyes shone like oil over olives, a smile warmed his ascetic face and remained during the long drive to the airport – until I said my final thank you to Khalid, the Constant Gardener of Karachi.