by Zareen Bharucha
I was eight when I found it. It was one of those long summer afternoons when everyone, drugged with heat, was fast asleep. Restless, I snuck out through the back door. I struggled over the garden gate and dropped quietly across the wall into the outer world.
Alone for the first time in the lane behind my house, I walked further along it than I ever had before. I passed houses with shades drawn, old trees murmuring quietly with crickets and turtle doves. And suddenly, I found it: an open plot of rough scrub, a square not more than half a football field along each side.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park. There were no flowerbeds, and the ground was broken up with rocks, and patches of gravel. I looked at the empty lane behind me, expecting someone to be standing there, calling me back. But I was alone. I felt a brief thrill of fear and then I walked in. This is the story of what I found there; what I took with me and carry with me still.
I grew up accustomed to green, and to growing things. A good piece of land was lush, fecund, greens of every shade punctuated by flowers of fuchsia, scarlet, saffron, violet. A good garden had flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, medicine, and sacred elements too: holy basil, an auspicious mango tree, the Brahma Kamal that flowers shyly at midnight.
Across the road lay my grandmother’s farm and fields. On her grounds grew trees hundreds of years old. There was a grove of Sandalwood, slender trees with profusions of tiny deep green leaves. A row of Australian Acacias, with curly brown seed pods inside which hid black seeds wrapped in a startling yellow scarf. A Gulmohar that carpeted the ground beneath it with thousands of orange orchid-like flowers. And my favourite: a towering Peepul, under whose branches stood a tiny white tumbledown temple. At the center of the farm, Raintrees canopied so much ground that it took my eight-year-old legs half an hour to walk from one edge of the shade to the other. In her gardens, my grandmother had a shaded square for ferns, and a dark green pond in which guppies flashed their jeweled tails amongst the water-weeds. Indoors, every table, cabinet and shelf held a vase, bowl or tray of flowers cut from the beds outside.
At home, we had Silk-cotton with buttery-yellow blossoms and a wild almond and a laburnum. We even had a sort of strange, out of place Pine, that someone had rescued from a Christmas tree shop and planted. It grew twenty feet high. Outside my bedroom window, a shrubby Raat Rani—Queen of the Night—had ghost-pale, star-shaped flowers that filled the darkening garden with perfume in the evenings. I had a tiny patch for myself, and into it I crowded ferns and a climbing vine that frothed with strawberry-pink flowers. My father called it the ice-cream plant. We grew vegetables one year, all along the perimeter wall, and every summer we planted flowers for the butterflies. Decades later, when we moved, we carried the trees with us, and every precious bulb, bush and creeper. They flower now in my mother’s new garden and we know them as old friends.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see. On my hands and knees amongst the flowerbeds, I saw startling forests of moss, like bright emerald pine in miniature. The birth of velvet-smooth black caterpillars that fed on the monsoon crocuses. The funeral processions of crickets lying on their backs, their arms neatly folded, being carried off to the underworld by ants. The more I gardened, the closer I came to the mud. Nose-level, until I could smell it. Dirt under my fingernails, inside my pores, and in my blood too, after I decided to stop washing every cut. (Sorry, Ma).
As we gardened, my grandmother, my parents, and I, I think we found ways to conjure up new patterns on our patches of land. We made shade against the white-hot sky; we drew in birds and flowers, butterflies, moths and bees. We perfumed the night with star-shaped flowers. That is a form of wizardry. And perhaps, that is why I have often heard it said, of untamed plots or open countryside: There is nothing there. There were two ways we talked about unfarmed, unplanted places: either as grand wilderness, where we’d have a picnic or go on holiday, or as a wild waste. But I think there’s another way. Nature is also knitting, all the time, everywhere. There is no nothing.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day. Without the constant stream of a garden hose or the attentions of any gardener the plot stayed dry most of the year. Where I grew up in India, we use dry to mean dead.
But this land was not dead.
A group of short thorn trees, which I now suppose were Indian Acacia. A stunted Karvanda—Conkerberry—bush, amongst whose thorny green foliage grew sour berries, ruby-red when raw. Under every crumple of rock, using what water I can’t imagine, the tiniest flowering plants emerged in a palette of rust and gold. You’ve seen them too. Tiny yellow flowers, green or rust-coloured leaves like clover, creeping along the ground. They grow everywhere on land that was once disturbed, then abandoned.
At sunset, the dry grass was turned suddenly into a wash of honey and caramel. My favourite time, a sudden throwing back of the veil of the day in a flash of gold, before everything turns blue. I watched these things for many hours, doing absolutely nothing.
And that, I think, is what people really mean when they say there’s nothing there. They mean nothing is going on there.
And I think about that often. Not once did it occur to me to transfer some of my fevered gardening onto the scrub-plot; to make a flower bed, plant seeds. I knew how. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I ever take my nature journal, a constant companion when I walked through the farm. What I saw in the garden and field, I spoke of and wrote of. I named, labeled and drew. I dried, pressed and catalogued. I traced bark patterns and the outlines of leaves and stuck feathers next to pictures of birds, and once I took three days to try to draw the mouse skull I found under an owl’s tree-burrow (no good, that sketch. I kept the skull though).
On the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
But on the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
Instead, there were palettes and canvasses, large and small. There was the sunset gold-dust hanging over everything. Or blue mist curving around the thorn trees early on winter mornings. When I lay back on the rocks there was an open sky, un-fringed by friendly trees. But there was comfort too. I fell asleep often, against a gently rising rock in the middle of the plot. I frequently woke with my arms around it. A habit I shudder at today, after I have learnt about cobras and kraits and scorpions, all of whom I’m sure habited my plot but strenuously avoided me.
Coming from a world of greens and bright flowers, I was surprised at how fiercely I came to love the palette of pale sand, grey grit and gravel, exposed rock, dry grass and dusty sage. The colors of ringed doves, and sparrows, and a dozen other pale birds with backs of grey, silver, fawn and camel.
Behind the walls, in the neighbours’ gardens, was another world, where English ferns grew in moss-crusted terracotta pots. Even orchids, in hanging baskets. And I loved them. But I also loved this world, here, with those nameless thorn trees and that baked earth that scalded my hands.
To sit for long enough on a scrub-plot is to rest. To rest is to suspend judgment. You just watch. The alchemy of such places is in how just looking becomes enough; suddenly a dusty old scrub-plot turns to gold.
Suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree.
How many scrub-plots there are in the world, great and small! Cracks in the pavement, the borders of parking lots. Abandoned railway stations, and quarries and construction sites. The quietest corner of a garden, where you were too tired to plant, dig and hoe, or even to water. And still, suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree. Some patches last longer than others. In India, legal disputes over some sites can last decades. So in the middle of the city, in the pits where foundation-stones would have been, tiny forests grow.
Not all patches are forsaken as wilderness. Some feed families. Thorn-scrub gives fodder and firewood. For some it is the only shelter they can access, to—quite literally—commune with nature. Closer to the curbsides, tiny flower beds can appear, with mint, parsley, and lemongrass for tea. Papaya, banana, pomegranate or lemon trees that sprout on sidewalks will feed anyone who tends them, and we have dozens of sacred trees—usually climax species—that become living shrines by the roadside.
But not all patches can be tended or used. Those where nothing useful grows are Jungli, connoting something both wild and empty. Perhaps, in India, to appreciate them only for their beauty is to betray a deeply privileged upbringing. But there it is. I had the luxury of sitting on Jungli land, and watching it move from gold to blue as the day passed. To me, the scrub-plot formed a magical counterpoint to our gardens, fields and grand landscapes. It was where I was an audience, watching the world forming itself. And with or without me, the thorn-trees grew, and sparrows nested in them. The rocks gathered grains of dust, and flowers grew in them that could not grow on watered ground, and moths drank their nectar.
Now, decades later, I read about connection to nature and how to foster an ethic of care. Gardens are vital to this, as is reconnecting people to farms. It is on gardens and farms that most of us have our first encounter with all manner of beings other than human. And many of us have our first sensation of awe when looking up or out into a panoramic landscape. Many of us work very hard indeed just to escape away to an immense openness: a valley from on high, the night sky, swathes of forest, a deep canyon, the murmuring ocean.
Let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us.
But let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us. What does a weed, flowering in the pavement, or a thorn-forest in a scrub-plot teach?
That there are no empty spaces. Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true.
It is a truism, repeated to the point of banality, that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But wait. Do we know what that really means? There are a million little pinpricks, and some great gaping wounds, and all of them are being knitted back together by tiny flowering foot-soldiers. To me, they are what resilience looks like. Just look, really look, at the little thorny thing that is pushing its way through the concrete. Could you do that?
To experience this matters more and more in this world which lies at the brink. We need to see how life constantly covers over everything with more life. To sit out on a Jungli scrub-plot is to marvel at it, to be heartbroken, a little, over how quickly, how beautifully, how relentlessly, any empty patch is taken over by life. Seen in this way, the thinnest sliver of green and gold, the finest crusting of moss, becomes precious: nature cupping her hands over every tiny ember, and letting a spark take.
Zareen Pervez Bharucha is a Research Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She leads the Global Risk and Resilience strand of research at the GSI. Her research explores issues of resilience, vulnerability, and climate change adaptation amongst small farmers in India. She also works on the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture, and has a growing interest in the links between nature and well-being.