“Your Father and I have been thinking,” said my Mum, “and we wondered if you’d like to have your wedding money for your 40th birthday instead.”
1. You have wedding money put aside for me? Ah that’s so nice.
2. Oh shit I’m going to be 40.
3. Um hang on a sec. You don’t think I’m ever going to get married?
I gave my poor Mum a good couple of minutes of major ‘I’m going to die alone’ whiny, sad-face teenage action before yelling “Kidding! Am gonna get me a garden!!” Finally I could afford to sort out the drippy bit of lawn at the back of my recently-bought house.
I love gardens. I love gardening. I love looking at gardens. I love reading about gardens. I love smelling gardens. I love touching gardens. I love gardens like Joe Biden loves trains.
Gardens are pretty much the only places where it’s acceptable to touch something and then sniff your fingers afterwards.
My new garden’s first winter witnessed a battle of epic proportions against squirrels looking for food, and foxes looking for the toilet.
Think back to the worst thing you have ever smelled in your life, something that made your eyes water and your stomach crawl halfway up your throat. Now imagine that vile stench has been wrapped in the frothing skin of a recently-dead badger, then set on fire. Now take a deep breath. That’s how bad fox shit stinks; it will literally flay the nose right off your face.
I became obsessed, checking the garden first thing in the morning and last thing at night, flashlight in hand, obscenities and shit shooting over the garden fence as I discovered the latest violations. The sweet smell of my eventual victory was somewhat tempered by the rendering of the garden into an episode of Tenko, complete with bamboo sticks and about six metres of chicken wire.
The next summer I sat with an old college friend in her kitchen, drinking red wine and talking gardens and leafing through seed catalogues and slowly becoming more and more horrified as we realised that twenty years earlier we’d been sitting drinking pints and talking about boys and now we were talking about SEEDS and BULBS and holy shit what happened to us oh fuck no.
I spent the next couple of years moving plants around my garden, discovering which preferred shade or sun, experimenting with colour and texture and scent, accumulating pot after pot of annuals and succulents. I’d go to my local garden center and buy the most pathetic looking plant to see if I could bring it back to life; watching something grow and become strong and beautiful is enormously satisfying.
I may not have known the Latin name for every plant in my garden, but I learnt that my agapanthus preferred its roots to be contained; that some plants like the tips of their leaves to be gently stroked and others love a good root-soaking; and that weeding on a sunny summer afternoon, with the radio on and a beer to hand, is the best form of meditation, when your mind simply dissolves into the cool earth.
It was a wrench to give up my little back yard when I moved to D.C. Now I have a tiny balcony where I’ve grown tomatoes, herbs and lettuce in pots, watched tulips and daffodils bloom, trained a clematis and a thunbergia to cling to the balustrade, and created a tiny meadow garden in an old scotch whisky crate.
It’s not quite the same as home but the city goes some way to make up for it. Washington D.C. is a leafy, green city. Trees line neighbourhood streets, providing shade in the searing summer heat, while downtown the sidewalk flowerbeds reflect colour and movement in the steel office buildings. Gardens like Dumbarton Oaks, one of my favourite places, and the many gorgeous creations hidden behind the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are a welcome sight for sore city eyes. And just this week, the city announced plans to “restore and animate” Franklin Square, a five acre ‘urban park’ behind my office building.
Walking through a beautiful garden gives me butterflies, little bubbles of happiness inside that make me feel quite stunned with joy. The French poet Pierre Albert-Birot wrote:
“Gardens are poems,
Where you stroll with your hands in your pockets.”
This summer I visited Monet’s garden in Giverny, and it was like walking in the heaven of my imagination.
Flowers have been used over the centuries to symbolise human emotion such as happiness, love, sadness and sympathy. Yellow roses, for example, are supposed to signify true love. In some countries, white chrysanthemums are symbolic of death. Over the coming weeks, thirteen families of thirteen people who worked at Navy Yards in D.C. will choose the flowers for the funerals of their loved ones.
Yesterday’s horrific incident was the nineteenth mass shooting since President Obama took office. The nineteenth. Here’s the list. It is heartbreaking.
Last Thursday evening, I popped into my local wine shop. Thirty minutes later as I sat at home, bottle open, I watched police cars speed down my block. There had been a shooting. A man had been injured, and a bullet had hit the wine shop. This was one of ten shooting incidents in D.C. that week, leaving a total of two dead and thirteen injured.
And I sat there and shrugged. Oh, another shooting. I SHRUGGED.
“There’s something wrong here,” Dr. Janis Orlowski, Chief Medical Officer of the Medstar Washington Hospital Center said yesterday. “I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots. Let’s get rid of this. This is not America.”
The gun control debate is on life support; with each new gun massacre comes a spike of vital signs, but it’s pretty much flatlining.
Obama’s press secretary said yesterday that it would not be appropriate to discuss gun control, given the early stages of the investigation into the shooting. If we can’t talk about gun control now, after a mass shooting in the capital of this country, when can we?
** Update. This evening I heard 8 to 10 gunshots fired at the end of my street. They were so loud, I actually ducked behind my bookcase. I’m not shrugging now.