Monday, February 16, 2009


I was brought up in a paradise created by exiles from Paradise. That paradise was bounded by an ancient wooden fence. Without it was Australia, a land where everyone spoke English or fascinatingly foreign forms of Greek. Within, was a snapshot of 1950's Samos, a garden world separated into continents made navigable by long wooden planks. This was a virgin world in which everything one planted grew and it was also a young world, where time was calculated by the ages of trees planted just decades before when this world was created by the protoplasts, in commemoration of the one they had been turned out from. Everything within had a purpose and served to produce sustenance for all, from the apricot tree planted when my father was just a boy, to the two grape vines (on e for grapes, the other for vine leaves used to make dolmadakia,) the brilliant deep purple plums we called «μπουρνέλλες» and the multitude of other fruit and vegetables. All these were of course, forbidden fruit. While my cousin and I were permitted to wander in the garden, we were enjoined never to pick or eat of the fruit contained therein. For that fruit was the Fruit of the Creators and only They could decide when that fruit could be picked and when it could be eaten. Thus backyard cricket, where the ball was a small hard lemon and the bat a tomato stake, which would invariably propel gobs of citrus into the beanstalks, was severely proscribed.
The needs of paradise regulated my grandparents' day. They would rise in the morning, go out into the garden and come in for breakfast. Then they would venture out again, with us in tow, to put in place ingenious watering systems with naught but a few old milk bottles and bits of shredded rag tied around bits of hose. Then, inside again for lunch and some midday television, only to re-venture out in the afternoon. Television was banned in the afternoon because as we were breathlessly told, it would be too hot and could explode. Older relatives would come to visit and they would be shown to the garden with the same hushed tones of aw and respect that others would be shown to the σαλόνι. We would sit on milk crates under the orange tree and eat fresh seasonal fruit, gazing up at a sky filtered by trees that reassured one that all was right with the world. Those relatives would scour the immediate horizon hungrily, comparing the size of the cucumbers to their own, making notes about the soil and resolving to plant their potatoes in groups of three from now on. My grandfather's sister's parallel paradise, though not as accomplished as her brother's gave forth surprisingly morphed tomatoes with testicular protrusions, causing all of my ancient aunts to chuckle kn9owlingly to themselves, as well as the largest pumpkin I have ever seen. It took all of my strength to lift it and when I managed to do so, I collapsed underneath it. In that gargantuan world of wonder, you were only as good as your garden and people who did not have a garden, or did not quite now how to cultivate one were alien. As a teenager, I was perplexed at my grandmother's injunction that I was to be a scholar and thus, was axiomatically barred from assisting her in the garden. «Εσύ θα μάθεις γράμματα» she would say, as if eating from the Tree of Knowledge would truly cause one to lose their innocence. Yet this was a world that had already lost its innocence, in the trauma of metastasis. Sitting under the grapevine one day, one of my uncles reminisced about his own loss of innocence: "I remember the first time I planted a persimmon tree. I had never seen one before and didn't know what it was. So I planted the seed in the ground upside down." In Greek, the persimmon is the λωτός, the fruit favoured by the Homeric Lotophagae of Libya, causing them to forget who they were and whence they had come. My father has two such trees in his garden, one that is soft and oozes out into your hands, the other variety being hard, and able to be eaten as an apple.
As my grandmother grew ever more frail, I would help her in the garden more and more, though she could never accept that help as anything more than gratuitous. In her eyes, having grown up and attending university, this was a world to which I no longer belonged. When she died, her home was sold. The new owners restored the Queen Anne house brilliantly. Yet they also cut down the apricot and the laurel tree and completely extirpated the garden we had grown in. We are all exiles now, from a Paradise that does not even offer the promise of return. My grandmother, perhaps, was right in trying to expel me sooner, rather than later. At night, I shut my eyes and explore every corner of that garden. Some of my toys, lost at the age of five among the zucchini flowers, are still there, as is all the skin I shed there until the age of twenty.
My father had no such qualms when it came to his garden. This garden was not a paradise. It was inextricably interwoven with the nature of the family itself. All of us would spend our weekends and holidays working in it, bringing it to shape, submitting to the pricks of rosebushes and the obstinacy of the clay soil. This too is a young garden, planted by a man whose life is a labyrinth of infinite possibilities. Unlike my grandfather, my father has constantly re-invented his garden, chopping down the fig tree he planted with his father, only to replace it with an almond tree, also cut down because the local cockatoos would attack it in droves when the almonds were coming into fruition and now replaced by an avocado tree that produces anaemic but surprisingly tasty avocadoes. My father's elder first cousin maintains that his first words were: «Θέλω τσάπα,» but I do not believe her. I have planted the two small olive trees on the nature strip but I have also uprooted the pomegranate tree in the front yard one extremely cold winter's day and still mourn the loss of the backyard apple tree. If my father should decide one day to remove the trees and plants I have planted and/or cared for, I am quite positive that I will vanish from the face of the earth. Even now, when I visit, I note the improvements he has made with only grudging acceptance. I was not there when these plants were introduced and we owe each other nothing.
My maternal grandmother in Athens is also a keen gardener though she is getting on in years and struggles to maintain her perfectly positioned flowers. The soil on Mount Penteli is a grainy red of a type I have never seen before and the earthworms are more confident, lolling lazily when unearthed, rather than thrashing about like their southern counterparts. One winter, having nothing else to do, given that my grandmothers' house is relatively remote, the nearest neighbours being streets away, I offered to dig up the soil and prepare it for spring. Having brought with me no clothes from Australia suitable for this purpose, my grandmother provided me with one of her old purple tracksuits and a pair of wooden patikia. "Stop being so self-conscious," she reassured me, as she saw the frown of incredulity cross my brow. "There is no one around to see you." I had dug my way through half the garden, a transvestite in clogs, when one of my grandmother's neighbours entered through the gate. She looked me up and down and in a commanding voice, reserved I suspect, for her Albanian domestics, she asked: "Is your mistress inside, boy?" Summing up my powers for my best impression of an Albanian accent I lisped: "Yeth. She'th inthide." I continued to dig, as she ventured inside the house, then put up my spade and hoe, had a shower and emerged into the kitchen clean, heterosexual and presentable. "Let me introduce my Australian grandson to you," my grandmother offered. The look on her neighbour's face was priceless.
In my travels I have discussed crop cultivation with Abbott Chrysostomos of the monastery of St Gerasimos in Jericho. His garden is a labour of love. It provides the local Palestinian population with work and a focus in life in the midst of the violence and misery that surrounds them. It also feeds them. I have also pruned fruit trees for Bishop Panteleimon of Theoupolis in Thessaloniki. His garden includes a small church he has built with his own hands and from his exacting pedantry; I learnt the secret of perfect tree shaping. Sitting by the banks of the Nile one day, I was treated to an impromptu lecture by an archaeological student on the Ancient Egyptians as pioneers of the cut-flower industry. Apparently the Ptolemaic Greeks brought this industry to t he brink of ruin by cultivating the wrong type of flowers in the wrong place. Actually, it is curious that although the Egyptians and Romans both gardened with vigor, the ancient Greeks did not own significant private gardens. They did put gardens around temples and they adorned walkways and roads with statues, but the ornate and pleasure gardens that demonstrated wealth in the other communities is seemingly absent. However, the works of Homer contain many references to gardens. He writes of sacred groves, palace plots and of flower and vegetable gardens. The palace gardens within their city walls were essentially courtyards but may have contained a few plants grown in pots. By the Classical Age though, gardens seem to have been the preserve of the wealthy. Cimon of Athens is said to have torn down the fence to his orchard, to permit the poorer Athenians access to his fruit. Byzantine gardens are said to have evolved from Roman and Persian gardens, and it is difficult to view the connection between the considerably un-garden friendly modern Greeks with the garden-mad first generation Greek-Australians.
This summer, one of the hottest ever, I have spent much of my time, in my own garden which is still very much a work in progress. It resembles my parent's garden in so far as there is a heavy emphasis on roses but there are certain paternal commands I cannot obey. Reviewing my garden one morning, my father pointed to a tall tree. "That tree will cause you grief," he advised. "It will shed its branches and make mess. Cut it down." I can't. It is the apple tree and all the trees that I have ever loved that have been cut down. The only way that managed to console myself over the necessary lopping I did of the strange conifers that grew along my back fence line was by noting that their sap smelled of excrement and the fact that they had to make way for more productive plants such as an olive, orange and lemon tree. Having once considered our gardens to be recreations of a rural paradise lost, as I cast my despairing eyes over rose bushes and agapanthus wilted and withered by the oven-forced wind, I remember the time I walked out onto my grandfather's 'ancestral' land. As I gazed at the olive trees planted on a hill overlooking a village that seems to be slowly sinking into itself under the weight of the forgetfulness of those who have left it, an Australian friend asked: "Do you want a moment alone?" "No, I replied," stepping back onto the road. "This place has nothing to do with me." Our gardens therefore are recreations of what we have never had, organic manifestations of tentative as well as broken dreams, and insecurities. We can have no separate existence without them.


First published in NKEE on 16 February 2009