quarta-feira, 20 de maio de 2009

«Evocative neglect» no JB de Odessa

Gardens do not have to be perfect to be rewarding. They are so often evocative, in ways which depend on their viewer, not on their level of care. No two people see quite the same when they look beyond the surface. Often it is easiest to see more in gardens abroad, not only because they lie beyond the flora that we buy and sow at home.

I have just been looking at Ukrainian gardening and found an interest that goes deeper than appearances. In the Black Sea city of Odessa, my first impressions are curiously familiar. The weather might be humid but horse chestnut trees line many of the central streets. Like their English brothers, they are already turning brown in a premature announcement of autumn. And the cause is shared with the UK. The chestnutinfesting insect that reached us recently was traced to the Skopje area in the Balkans. In the past 10 years it has spread as fast as the internet and its presence in southern Ukraine suits the view that its ultimate home lies further east, probably in China, where its natural predators have yet to pack their bags and fly in pursuit.

Under their browning chestnuts, Odessa's city-gardeners surprise me by planting lines of narrow-leaved hostas. They are plants that English gardeners reserve for richer soil and never plant right round tree trunks. In Odessa, they ignore our rules. I watched as an array of the plants was planted out and saw how their gardeners remove a spade's depth of the surface soil and replace it with rich compost, more in our style. In prominent places they also add leaking hosepipe below the surface to irrigate the new arrivals.

In the elegant main city square they must also, surely, irrigate their splendid cannas. From parks in the former Soviet countries, readers have often sent me postcards of truly hideous beds of cannas, sometimes with an exclamation mark on the back of the card. The sight of them made me glad to be living in the free west. Christopher Lloyd then began to champion the charms of cannas in his garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex, south-east England, but somehow I always pictured a bust of Lenin glowering over them when he took up their cause as if it was new.

In Odessa, gardeners have not, I think, been reading Lloyd's books. They simply and sensibly exclude the forms with purple leaves and rose-purple flowers. In the city's main square only clear scarlets and yellows are used in masses, and only in forms with clear green leaves.

What happens, I wondered, in the botanical garden marked as Botanchevsky Sad on my city map? In the Ukraine it is a worthwhile question. Up in Kiev the botanical garden is remembered for its fine display of the little-known flora of the Ukraine. In the Crimea, just outside Yalta, the huge Nikitsky Sad includes a yew tree that is more than 500 years old. The horticultural enclave became the vast experimental centre of Soviet era agriculture, extending over 600 acres with another 1,500 acres of outstations. It has remained almost wholly unknown to western lovers of plants.

Odessa's botanical garden has a very different air. Superb specimens of our beloved English oak tower above a garden of evocative neglect. In the zoo of Kabul in the 1960s, the prime exhibit used to be English foxes. In Odessa, a port, the pride of the botanical garden is the tree that made the English navy great. Under a few of the oaks were yet more hostas, freshly watered, as if somebody, somewhere was still trying to do their best. I recalled how the garden historian Edward Hyams had written of this very garden in 1969: "It consoled us for its neglect by producing hoopoes for our delight."

Instead of hoopoe birds among the acacias, it consoled me with its personnel. In the heart of the garden, I watched the only gardener, an elderly lady who was hosing the last of the hibiscus and the rose-pink gladioli. She was wearing a smock that had surely not changed in the last 100 years. An aged magnolia sagged in the background. Panes were missing in the nearby greenhouse, whose heating chimney had corroded. Inside, cacti and tender plants were jumbled in big clay pots. Outside, pear and plum trees overlooked the Black Sea and, with a shock of recognition, I realised I had been in such a garden before. It evoked for me the garden of the Bolkonsky family outside Moscow, to which Prince Andrei returns before battle in the matchless pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Andrei, too, found panes gone from the greenhouse and plants lying on their sides in tubs. In his garden, too, there was a magnolia with broken branches and only one worker was visible: not a woman watering but an old man weaving a shoe from raffia-twine. He, too, was undistracted, as if life must simply go on. Above all, there were fruit trees in the Bolkonsky garden too. A group of young girls was pillaging them in their owners' absence. They ran unawares into their former master while carrying stolen fruit in the folds of their dresses.

Andrei had come to say farewell "from a characteristic desire", Tolstoy tells us, "to aggravate his own suffering". I had come to say hello, out of a gardener's curiosity. Amazingly there were sounds of a scuffle and fiction seemed to become fact before me. Three young girls appeared by a hovel, two of whom were carrying plums, just like the girls in Tolstoy's novel. The old lady went on with her work, watering not weaving, but equally unconcerned by a spectator's existence. The huge plane trees above the five of us were old enough to have existed in Odessa's garden when Tolstoy was writing his chapter.

Andrei returned to his men to prepare for battle. The girls in his garden ran away through the meadow, with their fruit and their bare, sunburned legs. My girls pushed the eldest to the front so that she could ask if I needed a guide to the garden. She was riding a western-made bicycle but I needed no guide because I could leave by following the English oak trees. One day, an oligarch might restore this garden's splendour but he will also destroy what its present neglect can evoke. in Financial Times, 6 de Setembro de 2008

FOTO: Jardim Botânico de Lisboa. Abandono evocativo? Ou desleixo?

Sem comentários: