Why do we garden? In the beginning, after all, there was a garden. Yes, that garden from which we were cast out for eating the forbidden fruit, but there are many legendary gardens in other cultures too: the Elysian Fields, the paradise of the gods in their afterlife in Greek mythology; the lush Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in the desert of what is now known as Iraq; and Tao Yuanming’s famous Chinese fable of the Peach Blossom Spring, whose inhabitants lived in complete peace and harmony with nature, far away from the storm and stress of the outside world.
Could it be that by gardening, we’re trying to return to paradise again?
Growing up green
I know how lucky I am to have lived my whole life around gardens
Up in the boondocks of Fairview in Quezon City, ours was one of the very first houses here in the early 1980s. It was wild country: we were surrounded by tall, swaying talahib, fruit bats would often fly overhead during the night, and there may also have been a small python or two that we found slithering just outside our gate.
My practical G.I. (Genuine Ilocano) father, Dr. Lorgene Mata, knew how profoundly blessed we were to have all this land, so he wasted no time in turning it into a food garden. Everyday, before going to the office in the morning and teaching psychology in the afternoon, he worked the hard, clayish soil until it became pliable and fertile enough to plant many different vegetables and fruit trees in.
As the wisest man I know, my father also believed that having the garden would teach me, his firstborn child and only daughter, about life. “When you were two years old,” he told me, “I wanted you to have a vegetable garden so you could learn how plants grow and bear fruits.” True enough, the education I received from this was priceless.
As a child, what a blessing it was to be able to step out into such lushness, such verdant green: the gardener's hard work of tilling the soil, watering, pulling out the weeds, and tending to the plants daily, is rewarded with the divine sense of anticipation (a new bud, about to sprout; a plump bud of gumamela that has just unfurled). This is the joy of seeing things grow and flourish.
All of this helped imbue in me a deep, abiding sense of awe, and dare I say, hope.
Dealing with chronic pain
Little did I know that these same lessons would literally save my life many years later.
When I was 35, shortly after finishing culinary school, just as I was about to reach for my lifelong dream of becoming a chef, a most terrible thing happened: I was struck down by a degenerative and debilitating autoimmune disease for which there is no cure.
The monster has a name, and it is called multiple sclerosis. It is responsible for the constant, searing pain all over my body: sharp electricity shooting up and down my arms, a burning fire in my lower back, wholly enveloping my midsection, my legs, and my feet. It also causes the frequent lapses in my memory (please don’t ask me to remember people’s names!), not to mention my all-too-frequent panic attacks, and this inevitable depression, which sometimes keeps me from getting out of bed. With my dreams snatched away so suddenly, the darkness crept in, and stayed put.
There are days when the pain is so severe, the simple act of taking a shower becomes a Herculean feat.
The myelin sheath of my nerves keeps unravelling as we speak, so this illness may land me in a wheelchair five years from now… or five minutes from now. I’m still walking though, but my world has become that much smaller, for I have since sought to avoid things that will trigger and worsen my pain: heat, sugar, dairy, and stress. I know I have been very lucky thus far, and yes, I attribute that to the Universe’s mercy.
Still, I have been ungrateful. I have thought about ending it all. Twice, I actually tried. But the love of my family, and my fiancé, pulled me back from the brink, kept me from drowning in the roiling sea of my emotions. And through it all, my garden was the lighthouse that guided me back to shore.
Music and gardens
Following my father’s example, I now go out into the garden every morning. First, I break up the soil, my hands loosening the earth around the roots, to allow them to breathe. Second, I clear out the dead leaves, weeds, and debris, or everything that’s choking them, depriving them of precious nutrients. Third, if necessary, I water them, or I fertilize them with mineral-rich compost made with organic waste from the kitchen.
Sweaty from being in the sun for half an hour, I step back to appreciate my handiwork. This is stewardship, I think to myself, this is joy. Thus says author and neurologist Oliver Sacks in his essay “Why We Need Gardens” from his posthumous collection, Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (2019):
“As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
In the wake of my diagnosis, we have since planted lots of nutritious fruits and vegetables to help me heal: turmeric to reduce inflammation, vitamin C-rich dayap (key limes) to help strengthen my immune system, and ampalaya and malunggay that we include in our regular meals at home.
Life is a garden
Today, down below, a family of long-tailed shrikes are rioting in the ten-foot fishtail palms. Lime swallowtail butterflies are playing hide-and-seek in the thorny branches of our enormous kaffir lime trees. Further afield, an overgrown forest, which also still happens to be part of our backyard, is brimming with sour kamias, furry red rambutan, Jamaican cherries (aratiles), and heart-shaped, spiky guyabano.
I breathe, and take it all in. The waves of panic ebb away. Once again, as always, the garden returns me to myself.
And then I realize how lucky I am to be here.
1. It has been scientifically proven that working with leafy, peaty soil can literally make us happy: it contains a specific species of bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which boosts one’s serotonin levels when it’s absorbed through our lungs, and through cuts in our skin.
2. Moderate exposure to sunshine has been shown to be beneficial for those who have MS. This is because high vitamin D levels have been linked to a lower risk of getting MS, but also with less frequent relapses and better health in those with established MS.
Photographs by Jar Concengco