Monday, April 13, 2009

Garden vs. Nature

I'm currently re-reading yet another Michael Pollan book (I've blogged about In Defense of Food and Omnivore's Dilemma, and my son just reviewed Botany of Desire -- all are excellent books I highly recommend). Don't worry, hubby, I don't have a crush on him (just google the author and you'll understand), but he's a darn good writer!

Pollan's Second Nature --a Gardener's Education is a sociological look at the relationship between humans and their attempts to control nature in their gardens. It's an interesting exploration not only to gardeners -- however, I find it's not quite as powerful a book as some of his others.
Pollan describes of his own influences, from his master gardener Russian-immigrant grandfather to his own father who refused to conform and mow his lawn, which made me reflect on my own influences -- I too had a grandparent who loved plants, and a father who saw yardwork as rather a chore (but was much more of a conformer). But perhaps an even stronger influence on me was my Onkel Max, who could be described as both a gardener and a true naturalist.

Max was not my real uncle, but rather, he and his wonderful wife, Hete, sort of "adopted" my parents when they arrived in Chile with their young family in the 1960's. Like many Germans there, Max's family had moved to South America several generations ago. Max really knew and loved nature -- he had bought a small plot of land in Granizo, in the dry countryside of central Chile. He and his family built a small stone cottage for a weekend get-away, and he planted an orchard full of apples, peaches, avocados, and citrus. Any agriculture in central Chile requires irrigation and hard work. What grows naturally around there are dry "bosques", full of such plants as the spiny espino. To most European immigrants, this ecosystem was just a worthless semi desert in need of "improvements", but Max loved this land.

I remember as a little girl tagging along with him when he checked on his orchard, plus the various cactus and other native plants growing around his place -- he had relocated some of them from where the orchard was planted. Max was also the warden for the adjacent plot of land belonging to the DAV (German Hiking Club), so we'd often wonder all over the woods, and he'd tell me about the plants growing there -- oh how I now wish I'd still have that actual knowledge -- I forgot that as quickly as any child would, but he did instill in the 5 or 7 year old that these plants and these ecosystems mattered.

Once a year, during the 4th of July equivalent, Chilean Independence Day, the German-Chilean community of the DAV had a large gathering for the "Spiessbraten", which is basically a feast of goat-roasting and beer-drinking. We kids loved this -- we basically were just free to run around all over, barely supervised. Moms were busy peeling potatoes while gossiping, making huge quantities of German potato salad, while dads were turning the spit over the fire (ahhhh, the smell is delicious) for hours upon hours while drinking quite a bit of cerveza and perhaps schnaps too.
I was roaming around the woods when I discovered our dentist, upstanding citizen and hobby gardener, digging up one of Uncle Max's prized native plants. The good(?) doctor tried to swear me to secrecy (it's only a local weed)-- but alas, I didn't feel this was right. Knowing how much Max cared about his plants, I reported the infraction, and Max promptly confronted the Doctor -- I don't think it came to blows, but it was a big deal! Max carefully replanted the stolen property, and probably told me how this plant may not survive having been dug up on a hot day during the growing season...

It was not only my first lesson in how some of the adults in my world can be less than honest, but also in the importance of respecting native plants and the ways of nature. And it it probably right there, in Granizo, where I started being a fledgling naturalist.

Max passed away in 1992, and it so happened that I was visiting Chile then, for the first time since my family moved back to Germany in 1970. My father and I had visited Max and Hete shortly before his death, and we attended his funeral. I visited Chile again about 10 years later, and spending time in Granizo (which now belongs to his son) is always the highlight -- somehow this dry landscape is still "home", and my image of "garden" is the fertile irrigated plot of land full of flowers, vegetables, grape vines and fruit trees in Central Chile.

No comments: