Saturday, February 18, 2006


It had been almost five years since Alex had been to the Whitney’s house. His banana patches had gotten infected with the Banana Bunchy Top Virus and had to be destroyed. Alex was out looking for some clean plants to start some new patches. The Whitney place was one of many fine homes he had once cared for and remembered that there had been bananas in the landscape.

The house looked quiet as he peddled his bike into the driveway. In the past he had enjoyed that. The Whitney’s had never told him when they were coming to stay or ready to leave. They just came and went unannounced. Pleasant and undemanding, their requests were few and they generally seemed pleased with the way he kept the grounds maintained. Still the total of two months or so that they stayed at this house each year, the presence of people while he gardened was a disruption to his normally solitary and unobstructed routine.

The quiet look of the house now did not have the same comforting effect. It was a disturbing reminder of how much things can change so very quickly.

The house and grounds had been designed, built and planted during the real estate boom that began with the demise of the investment bubble. It was a studied rendition to pleasure and prestige, optimism that the power base had only shifted markets. Every detail was the best that money could buy. Not privy to much of the interior of the 5000 square foot house, Alex knew every nook and cranny of the luxuriant grounds.

The house was one of those California style McMansions, a combination of Spanish and Mediterranean architecture that was super sized for American tastes. Its one nod to its actual location was the use of green tile for the roof. The front garden was small because the structure was placed at the top of the sloping lot. It was a lush and elegant framing that helped ground the house and served mainly as an entry way to the larger splendor that lay within.

The back gardens consisted of four wide terraces that descended the ten foot elevation change of the lower portion of the property. Each terrace was its own themed garden that flowed seamlessly from one to the next. The upper terrace directly off the house held the pool and a large and diverse collection of palms under planted with bold textured and colored tropicals.

A courtyard garden with an inspired modern Moroccan theme was below the pool level. The courtyard was created by a ten foot tall L shaped wall on two sides topped with a vine covered pergola that created complete privacy from the pool and served as an outdoor kitchen and dining area. This garden contained a succulent collection, fragrant and cooking herbs, and several citrus and small flowering trees.

The next level was devoted to a cutting garden of the tropical gingers and heliconia and below that was a tranquil pond filled with magnificent water lilies and surrounded by more exotic tropicals.

Each terrace was connected by a water feature that seemed to flow from the pool but was two separate systems. The pool and courtyard gardens had formal fountains and a water rill that seemed to flow from the pool down to the courtyard. The second system actually began at the pool level under the walkway over the rill and ended at the lower pond. As it descended into the tropical flower garden it converted to a natural stream feature.

Alex had designed and installed the plantings for the landscape and had been there from the beginning. The paved surfaces of the pool and Moroccan garden were both tiled in imported 24 inch Turkish ceramic tile. The courtyard also had a detailed inlaid pattern of smaller tile. Alex had always gotten this haunted feeling seeing all this expensive tile work. It always seemed to remind him of archeological excavations of Greek and Roman civilizations. Even the older properties where he worked had been covering all their old cement surfaces in tile in an effort it seemed to keep up with the newer and grander homes. The expensive tile work kept whispering to him that the end was near.

When the Saudi terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the President told everyone to go shopping and not to let the terrorists destroy our economy too. He would handle all this. Most people it seemed had listened. Afghanistan was invaded and the Taliban and Al Qaeda were run off. The President wasn’t done and next he invaded Iraq. Shopping was still very important as a show of strength and the only people asked to make any sacrifices for a war were the military and their families and China, who was asked to loan us all the money we needed.

The president still wasn’t done and he starting talking up the grave nuclear threat from Iran. Iran had other plans. It started slowly at first but picked up momentum and the Oil Bourse that sold oil for Euros gathered a big share of the global market. Then came the crash and the dollar came tumbling down.

It wasn’t a surprise to Alex when he got the short note with his last payment from the Whitney’s thanking him for everything but they would no longer need his services. He had already begun to make his own adjustments to the new reality.

The Whitney’s house was in a gated community and though the neighborhood association was disbanded, many people had managed to keep their homes and stay in the neighborhood. Peddling up the short drive Alex could see the house was intact but quite forlorn and in need of a good bath.

Five years is a very long time for a tropical landscape to grow unattended. Nature is not demure under optimum conditions. Years of experience let Alex know that the garden had at best received an annual removal of rubbish. Most of the smaller under story plants had disappeared or were barely clinging to life. The stronger dominant plants and heavy seeders had taken control and the place looked more like a forest habitat.

Alex walked slowly through the grounds looking to see who and what had survived. He knocked at the door just to be sure and no one answered so he continued through the side yard like he had done so many times in the past.
The pool was a surprise in that not only was it full of water but the Papyrus from the River Nile in a nearby bed had leaned into the pool and rooted. The pool now had a floating mat of Papyrus. He looked closer and saw that the pool also contained many small fish. Someone must have put them in to eat the mosquito larva.

The banana patch was on the lowest level down by the Lily Pond and he continued his slow descent through the terraced gardens. The succulent garden had been taken over by weeds and seedling trees and the cutting garden was just a tangled mess. The gingers and heliconia were still full of blooms despite their lack of care and he thought he would collect a nice bunch of flowers before he left. Alex had removed most of the tropical flowers in his garden to make room for more food crops. These flowers would be a nice treat.

The Lily Pond Garden was just as much of a mess as the rest of the place, but the bananas were still there and looked healthy. With the shovel and clippers he had brought he began to cut the smaller keiki bananas away from the main clump and clean them for transplanting. It would take several trips to carry all the starts he had collected back up to the drive and put them in the little trailer he had behind his bike.

With each pass up and down the property Alex noticed more and more detail of the changes that nature creates when left to her own design. The once manicured and mostly silent garden was teeming with new life. He had never seen so many small lizards and geckos in this garden or heard so many birds chattering as they went about their business. The clean swept paths and properly mulched beds were covered in a natural leaf litter that smothered out most of the smaller plants where it had collected and where there was not enough sun for weeds or grass.

One thing that was missing was the sound of the flowing water and the delicate splash of the fountain as it fell gently into the Lily Pond. The fountain for this pond was a strikingly beautiful blue ceramic pot. It was five feet high and plumbed to act as a fountain. It stood silent in the center of the pond. There were three other matching blue pots that helped tie this whole garden together, two on the pool terrace and on in the Moroccan courtyard.

These large and very heavy vases had been imported from Bali. They were caressed by an intricate inlaid gold colored design that accentuated their sky blue color. The tribal Indonesian pattern that was etched into the vases circled the pots as five narrow bands from top to bottom leaving most of the surface the vibrant blue color. Alex realized he had not noticed the pots on the upper terraces. As he had made his trips with the bananas he had been captivated by the changes in the living aspects of the garden.

On his way back up this time he looked. The blue ceramic pot in the courtyard had always been a problem to clean around. It sat on the tiled patio surface near the base of the steps close to the wall and under the edge of the pergola. This spot was a natural wind eddy and always collected the dust and debris that came in on the wind and was generated by the ample foliage of the landscape. The blue pot was completely buried by the flame vine that had draped all the way to the ground. Alex tugged at the vine to look in and found that the vines tendrils had attached themselves to the pot and it was buried inside with almost a foot and a half of debris piled up at its base. An archeological process had begun.

The magnificent blue pots had acted as sculpture on the lower side of the deck at each end of the pool terrace. They both barely peeked out from the Areca palms that had once been their backdrop. The fallen fronds were scattered in great clumps on the deck and the green fronds had reached out to surround them. That haunted feeling he remembered from the past was now very real and it momentarily gripped him with dread.

The dread passed quickly. The last five years had been some of the happiest and most rewarding of his life. Having been forced by the downturn of the economy to let go of a lot of his basic and taken for granted consumption habits, Alex had also been freed from the work like a dog just to pay the bills routine that he had always hated so much. He turned his gardening skills to growing food in his own garden and most of his neighbors. Together they produced enough for themselves and more to sell. He no longer worked for other people caring for their showy landscapes, but was now sought out to show people how to grow food for them selves. He refused, mostly from a resentment of how things had been to lift a finger in any garden but his own and the nursery where he grew plants to sell. Instead Alex was happy to act as a teacher and consultant for many. Now his life moved more to the rhythms of nature and less to the frantic pace set by Citibank. His free time was free to just be and to create in ways he had never imagined. It was the kind of life many want to retire to.

Some of us will always be there at the end of an Empire and some of us will make the best of it.


christin m p in massachusetts said...

It definitely is a life to be envied. That's the kind of life I want to retire to.

I'm wondering which foods grow well in your grow zone... (What grow zone is that in Hawaii? -- I can't find it anywhere on the net.)

I want to try for the first time to grow something, but I think I want to start with something indoors first, and then graduate to outdoor plants. What would be good for a beginner? Should I start with seeds, because I don't know how to do cuttings. I feel too shy to jump into one of the gardening forums yet (I've just been lurking so far) -- I want to wait until I'm up and running.

christin m p in massachusetts said...

By being a little bit more patient, I was finally able to find Hawaii's grow zone -- 11. It was so easy -- it was right there, just three clicks away, but if I don't see what I'm looking for in the first two seconds, I immediately change direction.

I think my zone is 5b, but I'm not sure -- those color charts don't match up very well with the maps.

I'm just going to go to a local nursery and have them show me what I'll need, and find out how to start. Hopefully, this new hobby will help me shed this horrible habit of impatience -- of always wishing to fast-forward the clock.

Time stands still.

Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

Just came from the Dentist. The numbness is wearing off, ick!

Try this House Plants Forum

christin m p in massachusetts said...

Yeah, cleanings are the only procedure I like at the dentist. I want to have my mercury fillings replaced with ceramic ones, but I've been putting it off because, like you said...ick!. I'd almost rather be at the dentist right now, though, because I'm at work. It's not hard -- we fill book orders for elementary schools and home schoolers. But the time drags.

christin m p in massachusetts said...

Okay, I'm back to take the rest of my break -- We just got called into the cafeteria for a shift meeting. Our supervisor let us know that we only have to work five hours this Friday, while still getting paid for eight:)) I appreciate nice gifts like that.

Just wondering... Does the name of the company I work for show up on your site meter?

Thanks for letting me know about the House Plants Forum. I'm going to check it out right now for the last few minutes of my break.