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Chapter 2

Gardening for Salvation

Gardening is becoming a popular, worldwide response to the decline of pollinators. Conservation and bee biologists recommend it as a piecemeal but effective strategy to revive the bio-diversity of modern and human-managed habitats. The goodness and remedial quality of gardening strikes gardeners as intuitive, although these modest efforts are patently overwhelmed by the sheer scale of overdevelopment, loss of biodiversity, and the fast pace of climate change. Against this backdrop of the global new gardening energies, Chapter 2 explores some very particular gardening efforts, found in some extremely toxic industrial sites of contemporary Bosnia. What gardens yield is explored through encounters with food growers, beekeepers, and in company with a gentle Sufi elder. Gardens, it turns out, are prolific in connotations while the practical value of gardening in Islamic thought is nothing if not tremendous. To illustrate, a well-loved Prophet’s saying recommends planting a tree, even on the eve of Apocalypse.

Still, why should one plant on a doomed planet?

Planting watercress  Spring 2018

We decided to turn one of the many streams on our land into a watercress pond. The building engineers who surveyed our land told us that the plentiful surface and underground water is a bad omen: these are fluid forces of the soil’s unrest, indicating landslide risks and instigating slow displacements, known as “creeps.” Short of abandoning our land, they recommended we keep draining the wells, keep the streams running, and keep an eye on the land movement, especially in case of torrential rains or earthquakes. Approaching the issue in a different mood, we convert the disastrous currents into gardening aides: by inserting hoses into streams, we irrigate the vegetable plots and the greenhouse. Our bees drink from the grassy banks of the streams. Planting watercress, we figured, would be another act of salvaging, so we set aside a good spot, half-shaded, where surface water flows. The nutrient-rich, semi-aquatic plant has become a praised garnish of global foodies (the jingle you can hear across health-related websites says watercress has “more vitamin C than oranges, more iron than spinach, and more calcium than milk”). In the regional herbalist tradition, watercress, known as potočarka, is recommended as a tonic for its liver-detoxifying and stomach-strengthening properties. My project collaborator and sister Azra and I prepare a bed for it, not too far from the stream. With a hoe and a shovel, we upturn much stone: our land is nothing if not a whole mountain, ground up beneath our feet. The loam is heavy and our arms are weak. We add a decent layer from our compost pile, then a layer of soil: layering soil, as if we were making a cake. Mineral fertilizer at hand makes us pause and doubt--should we use it or not, given its industrial production and the tolls on the environment--then we finally sprinkle some of its beads, deferring a decision on the matter of environmental principles until we do further research. Next, we pepper watercress seeds onto the bed. The seeds are tiny, a bit bigger than a black pepper shaker’s grind, their color, ochre brown. The instructions on the seeds’ packet says “Do not cover,” but Azra doesn’t like the idea of leaving the seeds entirely exposed. “Can’t we sprinkle some soil at least?,” she wonders. We do so. The following day we plant another patch, this time in a bay we establish off the main stream coursing through our land. The holes we dig out with shovels fill up very quickly. I wonder what would happen if we dug out holes across our land: would the rivers below readily submerge our house and the orchard? We arrange rocks at the bottom of the new pond, then spread a layer of dirt and a layer of compost; again we add a dash of mineral fertilizer; finally, we sprinkle the seeds. Then follows another brief discussion: Azra is uncomfortable with the seeds exposed and I’d rather stick with the instructions. Her discomfort sways the argument and we settle for a compromise: we spray the finest shower of soil over the seeds and top the arrangement off with one lonely worm that had found itself displaced from the compost heap we handled while making the bed. With the watercress planted, we move to the nearby soil to prepare it for vegetable seedlings. We need to hoe it and I want to help. Azra lets me do so but keeps up with instructions along the way: when to turn the hoe on its sides and when, instead, to use its very tip, head-on, to stab and break up weeds’ roots. She shows me how to work the hoe in a straight line. I’m not exactly useless but it will take a while before I become of some help around the land. I’ve spent too much time away from the land, while an academic. I remember how our grandma used to teach me to hoe while I was little. My hands do not remember well her lessons, though I recall that I’m supposed to let the hoe swing its full course while simply, somehow, following its movement through with my body. Otherwise, grandma used to say, “you’re hoeing against yourself.”

Scything Summer, 2017.

Our land is steep, overplanted with fruit trees, with flower and vegetable gardens, and so almost impossible to navigate with farm machinery. The grass must be cut with a scythe. The scythe was the standard tool in most villages of northeastern Bosnia until about a decade ago when second-hand, gas-powered lawnmowers, mostly imported from Germany, flooded the local flea markets. Since then, village yards are trimmed with these miasmic, loud machines wherever the terrain allows for it. Not so on our land. Shortly before dusk, one day, my sister and I decide to tackle a weedy thicket on our land’s edges. She takes our father’s scythe and leads the way; I follow with a sickle. Our father taught her to scythe while I idled with words and books, far away, and walking in her footstep, watching her small frame clad with the long pole budding with the curvature of the hair-thin blade, I envy the ease with which her shoulder huddles the tool. They fall to each other, knowingly. The waning daylight around us is rosy, the village sounds are softening, the heat is subsiding, and our steps are unrushed but deliberate. In the spot of unwanted wildness—it’s a lair of snakes, our mom worries--we get to work. A bucket of water holds the sharpening stone and we touch up our dulling blades often enough. Scything is mesmerizing to watch and I forget my own task often to take in what it sounds and feels like to reap. The scythe sways my sister’s body, they arch to the right and then fall leftwards in long and sharp movements that fell the grass, the vines, the brambles, and the bushes, and then glide emptily back to the far right, and fall, and reap and then swing back, on and on. She takes breaks--this is hard work. We sweat. The cut grass sweats; our blades come back guilty: covered with vegetal juices, sticky, smelling sweet and bitter at once. In a while, we are tired and nowhere close to done, but it will do: the recently planted tree saplings have been cleared and unburdened by weeds, are now free “to breathe,” as Azra says, and spread out. The fallen plants remain behind--some familiar and medicinal, others pollen-and nectar-yielding, and still many others unknown to us. They are on their way to becoming otherwise. And I swear I shall learn to scythe.