“What comes over a man, is it soul or mind –
That to no limits and bounds he can stay confined?” – Robert Frost: “There are Roughly Zones”
It has been a very hard winter in Egypt – reportedly the coldest for over 100 years. We experienced the harshest December that I can remember here. There was sleet to the east of Cairo and snow in mountainous Sinai. Night-time temperatures chilled us to the bone.
A generally icy and sombre mood prevails, one in nature, the other in man. I think we mirror each other.
So the organic garden has fallen into a deep slumber, and the gardener has followed suit. Dispirited plants lie torn and tattered from the winter winds, leaves have been ripped off and sent flying into unknown territory, even the bougainvillea, most robust of climbers, swings back and forth across the hedge, cast loose from its moorings.
This sense of anomie in the natural world has reached across into the human sphere. People have died, or lie injured in hospital. The beautiful Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, lovingly restored over a period of many years and re-opened fairly recently, has been badly damaged.
Fixing attention in his poem on a peach tree, mis-planted in a region too far north, Robert Frost goes on to ask:
“Why is his nature forever so hard to teach
That though there is no fixed line between wrong and right
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed?”
Nature, however, often sets us the example. For all that our plants have suffered – and continue to do so: today is windy, cold and dusty – their capacity to give way gracefully and simply, always awaiting the moment to rebound with a riot of greenery and colour, is inspirational. One sunny day brings out the best in them:
Nestling comfortably in among the big boys – the nasturtiums and calendulas – are petunias, sweet peas, snap dragons and, at the back, a couple of young honeysuckles. I know that one of these days they’ll cover the trellis too, and give us a display to make the heart sing. So have I, unwisely, arrogantly, misplaced them in an alien zone? I like to think that tender loving care can compensate the sweet peas for the shock. This may be delusional or blind, or both.
The kitchen garden is also surprisingly productive: lettuce, spinach, very fine celery (we harvest when it is young), rocket and herbs are bringing a range and freshness of taste to our vegetarian dishes and salads that is most welcome. Home-made lentil soup with freshly picked coriander leaves is a winter treat! The mint is struggling to recover – from what I am not sure, but perhaps I have treated it too harshly and it feels unwelcome – and the marjoram is having a hard time. Otherwise, crops in the raised beds are doing well.
Contrast this with the same bed as it was last November just after we planted it up:
The next task is to fill the gaps in the herbaceous borders, particularly at the front of the house. Here, we have to accommodate Gigi the golden retriever, as she needs access to the hedge in order to “confront” any passing cats. Not that she ever comes out the winner of these confrontations. The upshot is a certain rate of attrition among the plants, unavoidable if sad!
Up to now I have transplanted some spare borage seedlings; their bright blue flowers will be a magnet for the bees. And some calendulas, found hiding among the lettuces. I have a yen to buy some carnations and petunias as well. In spring and early summer, their sweet scent mingling with the jasmine will bring a delicious perfume to our garden.
I guess it is this promise of life on the cusp of being renewed that has traditionally kept us optimistic through winter and dark days. We know the promise, and we know it is just a matter of time. So instead of trying to control the garden, I should bend with the wind, going with the flow of nature and trusting in re-birth:
Changes in this world
But flowers will open
Just as usual” – Japanese folk Zen verse.