I moved to Aberdeen in the autumn of 2012. I had a 6 month old baby and a partner who was beginning his first year lecturing at a local university. Before that, in another country that was not my homeland, I had been living in a small city in America’s midwest. There I practised architecture (in which I have my training), painted houses, sold tea at the farmers’ market, up-cycled woollen jumpers into mittens, and looked after other people’s babies.
By far, the most life-giving thing I worked on was a community garden. With others from the church I was at, I dug up the large property surrounding the church building and we planted seeds and seedlings. The first beds we dug using spades, lifting away the sod and turning the soil under. Neighbours looked on and one asked if we were digging graves. When the garden got larger–the beds merging together forming an enormous mattress covered with straw mulch–people left fish skeletons to bury under our tomatoes.
Then, and now, I knew this kind of work was for me. Creative decisions had to be made all day long and my mind deftly unravelled problems–environmental, social, practical–during work days, and later on, when it wasn’t duly focussed on problem solving. My body crouched, twisted, and bent, and my hands tugged, buried, picked, and sorted. I needed to be outside, even under the blistering midwest midsummer sun. I felt wholesomely tired at the end of a day and well-rested in the morning.
Time passed. It passed in waves and cycles. In gluts and scarcities. And my spirit grew as kairos wound itself around me. The barren soil, the preparations made, the empty pantry, and the deserted streets during Lent. The day-in-and-day-out-ness of watering+weeding, the drinking of tea with volunteers, the greeting of strangers on the streets of Ordinary Time. And the feasting and celebration at Harvest time and appreciation of saved and preserved produce during the festive Christmas season. All of it reminded me that I belonged in this place right now, and that things were shuffling around to let me fit, “announcing my place in the family of things“, even though they did not necessarily require me to be there. Time would keep ebbing and flowing even if I weren’t there… but seeing as I was, would I just settle in and just make myself at home in the meantime?
Last summer, three years into our “Aberdeen period”, we bought a flat–an ex-city-council “4-in-a-block”, as locals call them. The front and back gardens were covered entirely with “chuckie stanes” (landscaping gravel, or “stones you can chuck”) on polythene. Three clumps of Spanish bluebells (promptly removed) and one fuchsia flourished along the front wall of our flat, and a healthy clump of sorrel had crept from a neighbour’s garden into ours at the back, but other than that, there was nothing. It was a clean slate waiting for a hardworking gardener (and her hardworking partner).
For three years I had struggled to settle into the granite city. Indeed, the winter is long, dark, and damp, but it has actually been the summers I have found most difficult. Sure, it is beautiful on a sunny day when the stone reflects stars of light, and the people mirror that to one-another… but it is not sunny often. When we first arrived in Aberdeen, a new friend told me that the summer we were experiencing was the best she’d had in her ten years of life here. I cried on the walk home.
During those first years (and occasionally even now) I paced well-tred and unhelpful tracks, circles within the bounds of my life. I felt disconnected to the people around me, constantly misunderstanding them, or anxious that they had misunderstood me; this is what it is like to live in another country (hell, this is often what it is like to live in the world in general). I did not want to commit to living here with these people and my reticence to plant a garden was ultimate proof. Planting here would mean being open to seeing that beautiful things could exist here–surely they couldn’t! Planting here would mean being open to big and painful things happening here–did I really want life to be any harder than it already felt?
I realised that I had to make space in my life for a garden so that the world could make a wee space for me. Like passive resisters before me (and, uh, colonials too), I made up my mind to start a garden so that I could claim my own life. In cultivating a garden here, I resist (mostly internal) forces that would keep me from experiencing the rhythms of REAL life. The rhythms that keep me grounded in this world right now. In tending a garden, I am driving in a stake, making certain claims upon my own life, and not allowing it drift into a path on which I do not belong.
Bloom where you are planted, or so it’s said. For me I am having to plant in order to bloom where I’ve been planted…