Gardening while Burma generals fiddle

GardenLush fleshy fronds rise up on all sides. Spiky foliage towers like a cliff. Large flying creatures dip and buzz aggressively. Magpies probing past stems and trunks look like giant black and white hens as they irritably scuff and scrape. And the sky seems impossibly high ...

Well, everything's relative. The reason for these strange perspectives was not that I had somehow got lost in the Amazon jungle but that I was lying flat out on the chunky earth with my face inches from the busy ants and being dive-bombed by patrolling bees.

From that position, everything — encircling plants, bushes, clumps — looked somehow bigger and threatening. It must be hell being a mouse: no wonder they're always darting and cowering. The world down there at ground level bristles with danger. Everything seems immense — taller, bulking larger than you — except the ants, but even they, so close, are other-worldly, with their articulated bodies and determined, stoic pathfinding — as if they're onto something you ought to know about but never will.

The reason for my earth-bound posture was that I was tracing a string of wiry weed that had led me further and further until, stretched out beneath waving fronds and dipping branches I was looking it in the eye, so to speak, as it wound in and under some tall Cymbopogon ambiguus or, as we earthbound grovellers have come to know it, lemon grass.

Why was I submitting myself to these indignities? Because I was preparing the ground for 50 lemon-scented verbenas — Aloysia Citriodora. Not to be confused with the 135 lemon-scented gums — Corymbia Citriodora — that we nursed painfully through the drought losing only ten which I was about to replace as soon as I emerged from the garden's unfathomable depths.

The decision to embark on this citric extravaganza had been unanimous, formally taken and ratified at a domestic conclave (now comprising, after numbers of defections under the 'emptying nest' protocol, two members of whom only those with an extra X chromosome have the vote).

Lying flat out on the burgeoning, warmish earth, enveloped by the sounds and circumstances, the rough diplomacies and sharp interventions of the sub-arboreal world, the understorey of tangles and shades, it's easy to wander in the mind, to flit from flower to flower of thought like the bees before your eyes among the physical blooms.

The poet Andrew Marvell — a man who loved gardens and the idea of gardens, though rarely getting himself muddied, spider-webbed, scratched or encrusted under the fingernails — precisely caught the capacity of the garden to engender thoughts and fancies which annihilate 'all that's made/To a green thought in a green shade'.

The garden, for Marvell, was a mute critic of man's foolish ambitions: it was a mistake to seek peace 'In busy companies of men' when it could truly be found 'Only among the plants'. The bustle and nervous aspirations of society were 'rude' in comparison to the garden's 'delicious solitude'.

In his 'An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland', Marvell portrays the all-conquering and murderous Oliver Cromwell as 'burning through the air', bringing down 'palaces and temples' and, at last, claiming 'Caesar's head' — the life of the king himself.

Yet this 'restless Cromwell' Marvell sees emerging, as if plucked forth reluctantly by national emergency, 'from his private gardens, where/He lived reservèd and austere/As if his highest plot/To plant the bergamot'. The burgeoning garden is the natural state but circumstances dictate war and mayhem.

Marvell lived in dangerous times. His 'Horatian Ode' is a miracle of ambiguity, beneath the surface profoundly disturbed by Cromwell's destructive, massacring progress, yet always adjusting the psychological and moral balance just so, in order to retreat from a potentially fatal partisanship.

The formal and ordered natural world of the garden is among many other things political, a place where disturbing thoughts can be 'annihilated' but only temporarily, a place from which the reclusive can burst on a slaughtering rampage. Even that original 'happy garden-state' could not last: ''twas beyond a mortal's share/To wander solitary there', so changes were made and Paradise was lost.

Momentarily recumbent in my citric-fragrant haven, I could not be — you would think — further from politics. Not so. It would be better, for example, if it rained: farmers are on the brink of ruin and that is, among other things, a political problem.

And how can I luxuriate here when half a world away, generals as brutal as Cromwell are using natural disaster to repress the weak and powerless?

And this earth that is my temporary bed has turned on the people of Sichuan Province, killing, maiming destroying. More guilt, as I, 'reserved and austere', enjoy the peace of my garden, which is calming, reassuring, but — in a world smaller and more volatile than Cromwell's — irremediably political.

'An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland',by Andrew Marvell


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.


Flickr image by cuellar


Topic tags: Brian Matthews, politics, gardening, An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland, Andrew Marvell



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Existing comments

It is more than the earth that has turned on the earthquake victims in China.

Mine must be the only voice in Australia to bewail our nation's miserable aid response to China in its hour of calamity.

A mere one million dollars. When Burma was in its hour of agony through its cyclonic disaster, Canberra responded with 3 million dollars. A political outcry boosted that to 25 million dollars.

Yesterday, Canberra decided to double its aid to China ... which now faces the prospect of 100,000 dead and up to 5 million homeless. But one and one still only add up to 2 million dollars. And to think that Kevin Rudd, in giving the Burmese 25 million dollars, called that government "callous".

Australia is being both mean and callous to China, and I'd like to hear more voices echoing my objection.

Brian Haill | 21 May 2008  

Thank you for reminding me of the delights and perspectives that gardening brings on this sometimes brutal earth.

Cecily McNeill | 21 May 2008  

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