Memory & Place: A Path To Belonging

Memory is a curious thing. An experience, a scent, a longing, a lament — it’s jasmine in spring and old lovers held in the wings. The source of many creative musings, one of my favourites comes by way of the Mem Fox children’s classic Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. The characters, exquisitely drawn by Julie Vivas, variously describe memory as ‘something you remember’,  ‘something warm’, ‘something from long ago’, ‘something that makes you cry’, ‘something that makes you laugh’, ‘something as precious as gold’.

That is, something that is hard to define. By its very nature memory is subjective. It looks and feels different to different people, but the common thread is that it is inextricably linked to place — to history, heritage and belonging. And there is no place more evocative than the garden, especially for children.

For me, memory (today, at least) is breeze on bare skin as I tear around my grandparents’ yard in spring; fruit trees growing wild and carefree like our souls, veggies all neat and lined up in untouchable rows. It’s my imaginary friend living in the woodshed and the bump from the old rake scar on my head. It’s sitting by my dad on sunset picking carrots, washing them up, taking a loud bite. It’s the time before he got sick.

Insert your own romanticised (or traumatised if that’s your bag) snippets of memory, usually those that have that have grown more rosy or more tortured by time, and you’ll likely come up with a case full of memories packed around place. For me, gardens were the realm of imagination, an avenue to explore freedom, a source of nourishment. It was the place that gave me free play, that holy grail of modern parenting writers that is key in forming the basis of a stable identity.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of early childhood education (and Matt Damon’s mum), says in her article How to Raise a Grounded, Creative Child (CNN, January 30 2014): ‘One dimension of healthy childhood that gives kids a solid footing in life is having lots of child-centered play…play is the most important vehicle children have for coping with life and making sense of it.’

It is as a parent I find that memory has become not just a past thing, but a future thing too. As in ‘what memories am I creating?’, ‘how will my son remember his childhood?’ and ‘what sense will he make of this life?’. So I head on out to the garden and we start digging. We plant, we play, and it turns out that the process of creating memories is very closely related to that other internal drive, ‘putting down roots’. Even though we’re only renting, we dig right into the earth because no matter what the magazines say, putting down roots in a lightweight movable plastic pot is just not the same.

The earth is solid. It is not just this garden we dig, but the gardens of my childhood. The roots are symbolic. They are memory, place, history and heritage, having something solid to hold on to. Memory and place intersect to construct much of the framework for modern identities — personal, national and global. Our search for roots is our search to belong. We live in a time of such rapid social transformation that discovering or rediscovering our roots — of looking for a past seemingly removed from the unrelenting reality of work, bills, political reform, and yearning for things home grown and handmade — is a search for authenticity, for finding and defining one’s ‘place’.

At 18 months of age my son’s ‘job’ is to water the garden. He knows the difference between rosemary and lavender, not to pick the passionfruit before it turns purple, to put his food scraps in the compost and weeds in the green bin, to smell flowers as we pass by and his food before tasting it, and I couldn’t be (rightly or wrongly) more proud. In our garden, with our plants, we are connected to our roots. We belong.

Perhaps it really is as hippy as ‘to the earth we belong, and to the earth we return’. Or perhaps it’s simply about nourishment — we are nourished by the plants we eat and the feeling of grass beneath our feet. The freedom, the fresh air, the beauty, the creativity of nature is simply just the age-old tonic for the soul.

In any case, home may be where the heart is, but for the sake of memory, the garden is where we — my son and I at least — ‘belong’.