Abraham Rothberg  - Author


Cultivate Your Own Garden                                     Home
by Abraham Rothberg

I was first introduced to Voltaire's wise counsel, "We must cultivate our own garden," when I was a kid in high-school. The advice struck me, and I vowed to take it to heart, out as metaphor not as fact, for few of us in my part of Brooklyn in those days had literal gardens to cultivate: The turmoil of the Depression and the Second World War called for other wisdoms. Not until middle age did I cultivate a real, not metaphoric, garden of my own, which at the end of the day offered a pause in the day's occupation that was both solace and serenity, I sat in my tangible garden in the later-afternoon sunlight or the oncoming evening, sometimes even in the nighttime, dark, enjoying the sights and sounds that were often able to lift weights from my heart and burdens from my mind.

As I worked and tended my garden, growing more familiar with it, my city boy's eye came slowly to identify the trees, shrubs and flowers bequeathed me by the previous owners and I found myself dissatisfied with them. I wanted to make this garden my own. Isn't that what Voltaire called for? At first, because I was busy with a demanding job and raising a family, I made few changes, and those in the directions of "perennials," hardy, enduring shrubs and plants requiring little care. Still, I wanted some color and flowering, so I chose iris and peonies, hyacinths and tulips, azalea and rhododendron, only to find they bloomed only in spring.

Above all else, I wanted privacy, a garden secure from prying eyes and the physical intrusion of others, so I tore out what previously had grown there and planted a protective perimeter of blue spruce and white pine, cranberry and weigelia, lilac, viburnum and mountain laurel, which in due course screened my garden. I was grateful to former owners who had left three tine trees to give me shade, a vaulting "tulip tree," which in shrine, produced-clusters of orange "tulips," a shapely linden, which was the first tree in the neighborhood to presage the coming of autumn and winter by turning its small, dark-green leaves golden, and a crochety crabapple, whose crooked branches were enlightened by pink flowers in spring, red leaves in summer, and tiny, hard, maroon apples in the fall.

As I grew older, I found myself yearning for more color, longer flowering, a madder music and stronger wine. After that first burst of springtime flowering, I wanted to have color and bloom all summer long into the autumn, so I was moved to plants that had more continuous flowering, roses and black-eyed susans, among others, and finally, reluctantly, to annuals. Almost all the annuals called for more work, but if their lives were only for one season, their complexions stained the sunlight and painted the air until they died away at their end of term.

There I was, up to my knees in the tangibles of fish emulsions and dried cow manure, bone meal and topsoils, of staking and pruning, thinning and dead-heading marigolds and impatiens, zinnias and asters, yet I was unable to keep from continuing to see my garden as a metaphor. Was I not indebted to my "ancestors" for the fine trees and shade? Weren't the flowers and shrubs that flourished the ones that got the most sun and water, the richest soil and most careful tending, the places protected from the winds? Oh, yes, the "best" stock from the foremost nurseries surely fared better in adverse circumstances and did best in the congenial spots of the garden, but soil enrichment, fertilizers, pesticides and attention gave even the weakest stock a chance to thrive and even the strongest and most vigorous plants faded in the parched places and the shade of inattention.

I couldn't sustain my privacy or keep the world out of my garden either. Cats and dogs, squirrels and rabbits, chipmunks and even the occasional deer made mockery of my protective hedges, penetrating them at will to dig up my flowering bulbs for breakfast, eating my vegetables for lunch and gnawing everything in sight whenever they wished. And the predatory raccoons, foraging for midnight suppers, turned over my garbage pails after I put them out for the next morning's collection. Children looking for shortcuts between our street and the next made their careless, brutal way through tree copses, shrubs and flower beds, breaking and trampling whatever stood in their way.

Neighboring adults were as little concerned for my privacy or my property. Although it grew on my property, one took it upon herself to cut down a twenty-five-year-old cranberry bush whose blood-red berries brought birds in myriads, and whose branches and leaves had given me a much cherished seclusion from her intrusions and garden parties. Another neighbor allowed his garden to go to weeds, until I was compelled to chemical warfare against the buckhorn and plaintain, the dandelions and chickweed, that invaded my garden from his and threatened to conquer mine. That neighbor was also a specialist in the cultivation of deadly night-shade, which sprouted in profusion because he was too lazy to uproot it, and like a green python, it wound itself around everything that flourished nearby and choked it to death. Still another neighbor was careless with her garbage and left my flower beds, hedges and lawns strewn with fragments of her letters, bills and an unending rain of the small plastic nodules used in industrial packing that the breeze floated from her garden into mine.

One of my "good" neighbors, whose garden was carefully tended but whose passion for neatness bordered on obsession, cut down the most beautiful tree on the street, a magnificent three-storey-high apple tree whose sparkling white blossoms in spring and scarlet-cheeked apples in fall delighted both the eye and the spirit. Although the apple tree grew on his property, it bordered mine, shaded my garden and was host to flocks of birds. Once, I suggested that, instead of allowing the apples to rot on the ground, I would see to their being sprayed and harvested, and we would split the bountiful bushels of apples fifty-fifty. No, he told me, he was thinking of cutting the apple tree down because it was so sloppy, dropping blossoms and fruit all over the place. And, to my immense chagrin, he did just that, cut the apple tree to the ground.

I remembered Robert Frost's "good fences make good neighbors," which the same fine English teacher who had taught me Voltaire's cultiver notre jardin had made me memorize in high school, yet somehow neither counsel seemed to be working for me. The world kept intruding, not only in the shape of ether people, but in the form of metaphors of the garden as a microcosm for the world that kept haunting me. Yes, Monsieur Voltaire, your counsel to cultivate my own garden is excellent, but you never told me how to do that successfully. And, yes, Mister Frost, good fences do make good neighbors, but how do I keep "badĒ neighbors from breaking down my fences, invading my garden, violating my privacy? Isn't that the question? Isnít it the metaphor for that tumultuous world out there beyond the borders of my tangible, personal garden, that world of Rwandas and Cambodias, Somalias and Salvadors, Bosnia-herzegovinas? Tell me, Voltaire, how then can I continue to cultivate my own garden with impunity and a clear conscience? And tell me, Frost, how can good fences make good neighbors of enemies, natural, animal and human, or even keep them from making my garden a chaos and a devastation?

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Abraham Rothberg

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