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  • Jennifer Jewell, Cultivating Place


Melk Abbey Gardens - Austria

A Gardener Was Here: the Mediterranean and edible/medicinal garden at Melk Abbey Gardens - Wachau Valley, Austria.

July of most years the paternal side of my birth family gathers - normally at someone's home, but this year we gathered on a trip to Central Europe - traveling up the Danube River to venture into countries, cities, and landscapes to which I'd never been - Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Traveling is hard - it's hard on me, it is very hard on the planet, and yet - there is little like it to expand one's increased grasp of others, to deepen perspective on your own place, and there's very little like it to get out of your own mindset and cultural biases. Even a little. And even a little is a good thing.

Being one of us garden-y people, everywhere I go - I look for plants, gardens, and gardeners: what are the towns, cities & humans doing w/ for, & about plants? What kinds of plants? To what purpose and effect? Civilizations ancient and far ranging have tended their relationship with the plants and animals just as we do. And they’ve shared their knowledge forward and learned from one another just as we do.

There’s something about that continuum that moves me....we as people generally, and as garden-y people - can do more, we can do better, we can #plantthechanges we want to see....Even a little.

And even a little is a good thing.

Parliament Building public square and habitat perennial borders, with gardener - Budapest, Hungary

Just off the plane in Budapest, on my own for a few bleary-eyed jet-lagged (but kind of blissful hours) before meeting up with the larger group, I wandered around the city a little on my own. A friend had suggested I take the time to visit the library of Budapest's famous Parliament building, which I did, and it was as soothing and cool as a good small, quiet, rarefied library should be. I love everything about it.

But it was the public square in front of the Parliament Building, surrounded on several sides by various large museums opposite, that caught my eye and imagination. A large green lawn welcomed visitors, cooled the large square, and was lined on all four sides by deep wide mixed, matrix-planted, perennial borders. Full of complex choices - bulbs, annuals, herbaceous perennials, grasses, all in various stages of life and looking well-tended. I was so happy to see this level of planting gracing the front of such an important public space.

Later, less jet-lagged and with my sister and her family we got a more formal tour with a local guide. The square had most recently been a large hardscape parking lot for the cabinet and other administrative folk and several years ago had been renovated into this gardened square in an effort to be far more welcoming to and for the people - to whom it is supposed to belong.

In October of 1956, during the opening events of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, this same square was the site of a massive student protest against the repressive government. During the protest the government army opened fire from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, killing many protesters. In an arcade in front of the one of the museums lining the square, simple brass spheres adhered to the walls at various heights and intervals, in seemingly random arrangement, quietly memorializing the students killed that day. The human history of the site dates back to the founding of Hungary in 896, and the Parliament building was first inaugurated in 1896, on the 1000th anniversary of the state.

The Hungarian Parliament building sits right along the banks of the Danube, and the building - like many old buildings along the long-human navigated and managed river - bears the marks of water heights during notable flood years - some marks well over our heads. Not far from the Parliament, also right along the banks of the river, is the powerful Shoes On The Danube exhibit of sculpted iron shoes - all shapes and sizes, for men, women, children - fastened to the stone embankment of the river, memorializing the Jewish people told to leave their shoes on the bank and were then shot into the river by Arrow Cross Nazi forces in the city.

As we walked the site and heard the history, a gardener was now working in the perennials borders I had seen the day before. She was carefully cutting back the spent poppies and spring bulbs from the border to make way for the later blooming summer plants and their flowers coming on. She was bent in one of the several universal stances of a gardener at work - bent over at the hip, carefully stacking her cut woody debris biomass in a line along the border to pick up at the end of her work. It was a hot day, the beginning of the recent European heatwave, and she worked steadily along. Bees, birds, butterflies worked alongside her in the flowers. Tourists drifted around the edges not paying too much attention.

There are few if any pieces of land in this world that bear human history and do not bear these opposing sides of human nature: the creating, the destroying. I can't think of a piece of human-occupied land where I live in Northern California that must not contain these dual truths - violence and exploitation perpetrated against Indigenous peoples, against African heritage, Italian, Irish, Chinese, and Japanese heritage peoples. Against the land herself.

And yet, this first plant-gardener observation experience on my recent journey set the tone for me to be on the lookout for signs that a gardener had been there - at some point in time recent or long ago - and who had in their own way made things better through the simple act of being in relationship to plants, the land, and the creatures all of whom bind us all together.

It doesn't solve anything, it doesn't fix, excuse, erase, or override anything - but these signs that a gardener had been there made every space more livable. For all beings. It is one place for us to start to make reparations and grow them forward and tend them best we can.

A Gardener Was Here: a decorative display of herbs around a statue in Budapest.

Along the 10 day trip, I was alert to window box gardens, garden ornamentation, herb gardens, container gardens, formal gardens, gardens from antiquity, nature-in-the-gardens awards, habitat-wildflower corridors between cultivated crops, a hummingbird moth nectaring on a potted verbena in a museum cafe courtyard, cemetery gardens, and a 500-year old castle cellar decorated entirely with river stone mosaics depicting paradise gardens.

The human impulse to garden is as long standing and resilient as the human impulse for anything.

Maybe it all comes down to what Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her 4th of July conversation with me: the plants themselves are perhaps our very best teachers, and given even the smallest opportunity, despite all, they keep growing - and toward the light at that.



PS: And yes, I am researching the ways I can offset the carbon footprint of this feels strangely like people buying indulgences to get into heaven, but I know I need to do more, put more money into regenerative projects, fly less, try harder.....keep trying to weigh less on this planet that carries me.



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A Gardener Was Here: old quarter cemetery - Salzburg, Austria

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