My Garden in the Wilds

A GARDEN FOR CAROLINA

How does one speak to a person who is no longer here? What words does one use? What does one say to be heard?

Carolina, my dearest Carolina, you wrote me a modest little poem, that is what you called it. This book is my modest little poem for you.

It is modest because I don’t know what language to use to reach you where you are. It is small because it has no wings to penetrate mystery. It is the language that I know best, but I am aware that it is incomplete, inadequate. I need to tell you how important you are to me, to thank you for all the gifts you gave me.

Now after months of slow wandering around, of grieving, of looking at the persistent miracle of nature, I have realized that making a book about gardens is in truth yet another gift you are giving me. Your spirit, your memory, quickly led me to photographing what was smallest and simplest. It became an overwhelming, irresistible impetus.

These gardens are a gift you are giving me, that we are giving to others.

You had a deep love for trees. I remember the enormous, age-old Samaná, the raintree next to your house in Santo Domingo. I went to visit it, and it looked very sad now that you are no longer here. It was wrapped in fog and slightly bowed, with mossy whiskers that trailed to the ground.

You held that it is impossible to defend nature only by thinking about it, that conservation must first of all be an act of tenderness.

And your thesis was simple but absolute. “You see my Samaná, Palito, the tree I love so much? The years have turned it into an important and honorable tree. Imagine, it can’t become any more worthy because it is home to so many mosses, so many bromeliads, so many ferns, of so many little birds and insects. That tree, despite being so large and having the wrinkles, is a thousand times more fragile than you or me! It can’t defend itself! How can I look at it without feeling tender?”

You spoke to the trees with absolute naturalness. And it broke your heart when anyone attacked them. “Look, Palito,” you would say to me. “Look at that handsome tree.” For you, young trees, and gardens, and little animals, and the hummingbirds that flew outside your window were all “handsome.”

You always said that every person has a right to the shade of a tree, to the song of birds, to the sound of water.

Oh how you loved nature. That’s why you went to Harvard to specialize in landscape architecture. The city distressed you, the concrete, all the square lines and pigeonholes, the space in which trees and gardens were mere decoration. The city where the most humble people have no access to nature while those with the most resources close themselves within the sterile walls of blocks and blocks of buildings.

You were working on several municipal projects. You had the world by the tail. Your mind was bubbling, you were thinking that we must invite nature into the city, give it a fundamental presence in our lives.

No, it isn’t merely a matter of building more and better parks, but of erasing the artificial frontiers between the wilds and what is urban. “The ravines in Quito are a miracle, they guard the last traces of native vegetation within the city,” you often said. “Our nature does not in any way resemble the parks we construct. We want to make Italian or French parks in a land that is an explosion of trees, an overabundance of bromeliads and ferns and mosses.” Our tropical vegetation is baroque, a jumble of greens and water. “On the Andean moors are the minute, the microscopic hiding from the cold, while in the tropics primordial, ancestral leaves burst out before your eyes.”

And the parks, of course, should rid themselves of that European esthetic and fill themselves with the overflowing ethic of our mega-diversity. Those absurd oppositions between park and city, and between city and nature, would have to be demolished.

It horrified you how alien species were being planted in reforestration programs. Those forests of cypresses or pines, so false in the heart of the moors, pained you deeply. “We are complex. We like to look like Switzerland or Canada when there is no greater beauty than the humble underbrush of our wild country.”

“Nature is honest, Palito. Nature teaches us to look within ourselves toward what is profound. It teaches us astonishment and gratitude.”

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A few weeks after your death, in the darkest moments, you came to me in a dream, small, thin, delicate, with your natural elegance and your sweet way of smiling. “Palito, you don’t have the power to know what the future is going to bring you. Nor do you know when the persons you love most will be gone. You can’t control everything that happens in your life. The one power you have is that of your tenderness, of your goodness.”

The power of my goodness? And I had never seen tenderness as a power.

We frequently commit the error of thinking that tender people are fragile, defenseless. But you were powerful. Only a powerful person can transform those she has around her in such a profound and conclusive way.

You were tenderness. You used your words to comfort, to heal, to celebrate, to respect.

We Ecuadorians carry affectionate itos and itas on the end of our words. We have a warmth in our culture that the intolerant are robbing from us. We don’t drink coffee, we have a cafecito. You used the diminutive with a pride I have never seen in others. You had an active, proud, assured sweetness. You focused your concerns on everything you saw that was fragile or helpless, especially children and the less fortunate. It was not a syrupy softness or self-complacency—you despised anything sugary or lacking in good taste–but an essential tenderness.

THERE IN THE WILDS, MY GARDEN

How is a garden made? Slowly, with care and with enormous tenderness. In the same way that affection grows, in the same way that a house is converted into a home. Just as people gradually put so much of themselves in our heart that one day they are there to stay.

There is nothing magical or automatic about it, making a garden requires perseverance. First its outlines are drawn; it is given an easily understood and human dimension. Then it is sown, it is watered, it is awaited, it is trimmed and then again awaited. Constructing a garden is an act of appropriation, a personal dialogue with nature and its cycles.

So if a garden is to be an actual garden, I must become its gardener. I must domesticate it. Make it mine. Mine in affection, mine in invested time, mine in my ability to evoke it when I am not there.

We human beings can love what is small, what we have shaped with tenderness, what we can hold in our memories. It is difficult to love an entire national park like a Cotopaxi or a Yasuní. But that little rivulet born from their glaciers, or that ancient and so lordly tree clothed in mosses, those I can make mine.

You can see, my beautiful Carolina, that you have turned me into a gardener. I make gardens with my camera. I make them mine through patience, and waiting.

I have gone back to my origins. Inspired by you, I am again taking photographs of landscapes.

You were always so fond of that shot of me on Cotopaxi, the one when I was a thin, ungainly youth photographing nature. More than twenty years have
gone by since I traveled all over Ecuador with an unbounded sense of hope and my camera on my back. You were captivated by how happy and handsome I looked in that photo.

I am no longer the same, preciosa. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I am more fragile, sometimes frightened, and I can be difficult. I do not have the same strength, or unconditional hope. And good-looking? Maybe, but only for those who know me well.

To do this book I went to the places you loved, and to others I was never able to share with you–places I knew when I was that ingenuous youth with the easy laughter. They are photos of our Ecuador, of the country that gave us an identity, a meaning.

I went often to Cotopaxi, an imposing volcano that occupies the nightmares and imagination of those of us who live near its shadow. Your accide

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