The Taking of Palmyra by ISIS and My Peonies: Taking Back the World, One Garden at a Time

Yesterday (Friday)  it was all over the news.  ISIS had captured Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian desert.  Visiting my son in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on Saturday for a post-Mother’s Day celebration, I asked him to describe Palmyra to me; he had visited there several years ago just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions.  He told me that this oasis in the middle of the vast deserts of Syria allowed it to become a cultural crossroads.  In a moving article in Saturday’s  New York Times, its author, Patrick Symmes, explains that Palmyra was “a crucial nexus on the Silk Road, a trading post where Arab caravans disgorged their precious cargoes from the East,” turning this spot into a “kind of dry Venice, a hub of exchange that enriched everyone involved.” Here, under layers of desert, lie the ruins of civilizations preceding the arrival of the Romans, and the area is abundant in Roman ruins as well. Though Symmes and my son called it the “Venice of the Desert,” neither of them spoke of seeing gardens there. To me the very name, Palmyra, is evocative of palms, and perhaps the ancient gardens of those who were fortunate enough to flourish there and grow them. I will have to do some research to catch up on the history of a place I know nothing about.  My son is devastated that, one by one, the ancient cities and monuments he has visited in the Middle East, are being plundered and erased from memory. Mr. Symmes, although deeply despairing of the depth of destruction, urges us to be even more concerned about its people, and rightfully so.

What can we ordinary people, here in the West, do about all this death and destruction?

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn we hovered over my son’s new garden, started a year ago, from the shambles of what was probably once a well-tended garden that had been neglected for years.  We talked about the fading shoots and leaves of the bulbs that had all bloomed and disappeared, as well as the new sprouts just beginning to make their presence known in the soil.  We also joked about the awkward evergreen which sits  in the middle of it all, taking up too much space and casting a shadow over all the new arrivals.  He has been judiciously pruning it back, hoping not to capture the wrath of his landlady who cherishes any weed of yore still growing there.

I am filled with love and pride that he is cultivating a garden. He, who has been so caught up in the world the past decade, working beyond his limits at times, to make a place and a future for himself. He has traveled far and wide, including Africa and the Middle East,  but now seems content to tend his garden and settle into a slightly more sedentary life with his lovely partner.  He now knows more about specific plants than I do and was able to take us on a walk in his neighborhood pointing out his favorites in  the well and not-so-well tended gardens in each front yard on his street.

My daughter, too, has caught the bug…or is it a gene?  She had lived in the Bay Area of California along the coast for 7 years, and like me, had become infatuated with the lusciousness of whatever grows there including birds of paradise, lavender bushes the size of small Volkswagons, scented eucalypus trees and majestic redwoods.  In reaction to the turmoil in her life, she, too, turned to gardening and created her own oasis of calm and beauty.  She introduced me to native California blooms, succulents and the everyday beauty of ice plants growing along the slopes of the Pacific and blooming gorgeously in early spring.  When she left California several years ago, she was heartbroken at having to leave behind her garden which she had cultivated with so much love and pride.

Now she has her own garden again.  At our home on LI, her brother generously cleared a plot of land overgrown with ivy and brambles one beautiful day in early spring.  Since then she has planted jack o’lantern flowers, African daisies, red and yellow sunflowers and a multitude of other plants that will attract butterflies and bees.  Like her brother, she goes immediately after a workday to tend her garden and soothe her nerves.  Every day we chat about what is growing, what seems to be thriving and how beautiful it will all be in a month or two.

We are not alone in this endeavor to cultivate gardens.  We have friends both near and far-flung who are lovingly tending their own gardens.  Every Christmas our Canadian friends send us a Christmas card with a photo of their latest horticultural triumph.  In Oakland and Santa Cruz, California we have friends who have lemon and orange trees in their yards and hummingbirds in their gardens.  A nearby friend on LI creates a Monet-like painting of pinks and violets on her patio, choosing her plants carefully and lovingly to achieve just the right combination.

Today, as I write this post, I am sitting next to my white peony whose blooms we have all been patiently awaiting.  She is the showgirl of our backyard garden and flaunts her huge white petals in front of the dainty, humble mini-irises that were the stars until they were eclipsed by this extravagant display.  I think there are many reasons for this renewed interest in horticulture.  I believe there is such an overload of information from the media and social media about a world that is disturbingly rearranging itself while we wait to see what is left…that we are seeking, each in our own way, to create our own oasis of peace and contemplation.  We are eager for our prizes to bloom; sad when they disappear; hopeful they will return; and certain that no matter what happens, our gardens will be here to protect us from the bad news that seems to be encroaching on our space each and every day…and, perhaps, to remind us that hope will bloom eternal, even for those under siege in the faraway deserts of Syria.

Back to Brooklyn

I consider myself and my family members to be well traveled.  Before marriage and children I had driven across the country several times taking different routes; spent three years living in Central California; and lived for nine months in Paris by myself (not as a student). With my family I have traveled to the Northwest, Canada, the Southwest and New England. My two children have lived in even more far- flung locales such as Botswana, Africa; Menorca, Spain; Berlin, Germany, Costa Rica; Australia and New Zealand.  Because we are all so peripatetic,  I think of us as citizens of the world.

What I did not see coming was my return to Brooklyn.  Until my family moved to the north shore of LI when I was 9 years old, we lived in an unusual community of German immigrants in Ridgewood,  Brooklyn. I was too young to know it then, but it was like living in a foreign country.  Most of the families in my neighborhood were German, with a smattering of other immigrants.  Mostly everyone I knew, including the local shopkeepers, spoke German.  Neither I nor any of my six brothers and sisters spoke German, even at home.  My father was a transplanted Floridian who spoke only English, so English was our first and only language. My mother spoke only German until she entered school and eventually became English dominant.

Like all postwar families we were ready to leave Brooklyn and move to a “better life” in the suburbs.  My father was building our new home, pretty much singlehandedly, which is the only way my parents could have afforded to move.  I don’t remember my feelings about leaving Brooklyn and I remember very few things about actually living there.  I know we walked everywhere, took an elevated train to church every Sunday, roller skated a lot on our street, and pretty much stuck close to home during the week.

It was very liberating for me to move to the small seaside community on LI  where I lived until I went to college.  I discovered nature, wide-open spaces and the freedom to wander all day without fear.  Those were the golden years.  Life must have been much better for my parents, too, since their brood had grown to eight children which would have been unsustainable in our cramped city apartment.  We were lucky enough to be part of a very fine school district, so we all received a very good, albeit old- fashioned, education.  Although the house my father built was sold following my parents’ deaths, I will always think of it as home.

But this story doesn’t end there.  Today my husband (who is from the Bronx) and I will be returning to Brooklyn to visit our son and his girlfriend who share an apartment in Carroll Gardens.  When my son first moved to Brooklyn about a decade ago I thought it was a phase and he would eventually move on.  During that decade he moved several times through several neighborhoods, each time improving his real estate status.  He has now been in Carroll Gardens for several years and loves it there.  At first I was shocked.  Why would anyone choose to live in Brooklyn?  I didn’t realize then that a major migration of young adults was doing the same and bringing new life to old Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Soon we will be making the now familiar trek to a place we have grown to love to visit (I am still at heart a suburbanite)…Carroll Gardens…to meet up with relatives and have dinner at my son’s favorite venue, a local jazz club.  We love the change of scenery and the change of pace, and I have learned to think of Brooklyn as a place where happiness can be found. But having become a suburbanite, it is not a place where I could easily choose to live.