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She Rests Under the Oleanders

Loss tastes metallic. It rolls and oozes from the soil like molten lava. It perforates the air. It permeates the waters. Rivers turn saline and then disappear. I walk on their remnant beds and hear loss shriek under the soles of my feet. Loss is corrosive. It is the salt I feel on my lips. It is the blood that drains out of my heart when I hear the news.

I try to contain loss, but it slips and seeps through my fingers like dust that the wind picks up and carries, for thousands of kilometres, until a storm breaks and deposits desert Country sand on city cars. Loss makes life porous. The salt table is rising.

2 January 2020. On BBC radio, philosopher Timothy Morton asks, ‘What’s the point? If everything is already extinct, what’s the point?’ I am listening to him while looking out my office window and the flowering lagerstroemia gently waves at me in the wind. I struggle to reconcile the realities which surround me: species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate and pollinators are loudly buzzing in my garden.

4 April 2021. My grandmother dies after drinking a (last) glass of champagne. And suddenly, worlds collide: I finally understand what Timothy Morton meant. He is right; ‘The end of the world has already happened.’ And yet, I am still here. I am still here, along with close to eight billion other humans. I am still here. And nothing makes sense anymore.

Timothy Morton is right: What’s the point?

My grandmother died on a warm spring morning, with her window open and narcissus planted by my mum flowering on the sill. Robins and sparrows were courting outside. Their song was all I could hear over the phone. Their song and my sobs. They sounded so happy. My grandmother used to feed them. I remember her giving them bowls of water in summer and balls of fat in winter. I now do the same, although the call of rosellas and lorikeets is not quite as gracious as that of robins to the human ear.

The memories I have of my grandmother always bring me back to her garden. There, plants grew taller than humans. As children, my brother, my cousins and I hid and got lost among bamboos, cleomes and cherry laurels. We found refuge in a treehouse nested in the belly of the largest laurel. We rummaged for treasures and gorged on mushrooms and berries – we were wild animals.

1.

The point is that, if loss tastes metallic, it is because it embodies bloodlines that run as deep as water. My grandmother resides in every flower that blooms, in every fruit that ripens, in every root that spreads, far, far underground, as it searches for nutrients. When she was young, her hair was so dark that it looked blue, like a raven’s feathers. My grandmother is the earth.

I took this wilderness with me when I left my village in the southwest of France at eighteen. I moved to cities. Christchurch, Paris, Cádiz, Melbourne/Naarm. For years, I lived in mineral worlds, surrounded by tall, tanned buildings which cast long shadows on the streets by mid-afternoon. I moved from one city to the next in search of spaces to breathe. I often felt I was suffocating. I gasped for a breath of foliage to rest my eye, for herbaceous movements to tell me how the wind was blowing. I dreamt in green. I longed for the afternoon sun to caress my skin.

When I arrived in Adelaide/Tarntanya, something there resonated with the memories of my grandmother’s garden. There was room to dream under the river red gums, a certain softness in the evening light as it reverberated and dissolved in the cracks of the creeks. I grew attached to the city’s shapes and scents, and they started merging with the ones from my grandmother’s garden.

As soon as the weather permitted, my grandmother grew tomatoes everywhere. As children, we always felt a compulsion to pick one or two as we walked past. We bit into them without pausing, letting out little explosions of juice and grains in the air as we went. Crops grew randomly; plants sprouted like small miracles along the most well-trodden paths. The bouquet of the sauvignon blanc produced in the Adelaide Hills reminds me of the smell of those tomato leaves. I close my eyes and picture the fruits cascading down branches as I sip my wine.

2.

Go to the garden and pick the ripest tomato that you can find. Its skin, saturated by the sun, should be ready to burst and feel warm against yours. Take it to the kitchen, place it on a wooden chopping board and cut it in half. Then rub and squeeze each half against two thick slices of country loaf. Sprinkle some coarse salt over the top and finally, drizzle some olive oil to help the salt dissolve. Eat the tomato halves first, before all the sun leaves them.

Pa amb tomàquet (tomato bread) was the favourite after-school snack of all her grandchildren. She used to score the bread crust so that it was easier for our milk teeth to tear through it. We devoured everything in a rush of missing teeth and clumsy, sticky fingers. We had been collecting leaves for our herbarium and sap coated our hands.

The author in the garden. Photo: Supplied

I still make herbariums. As I capture and learn the curves of my backyard’s plants on paper, my memories infinitely dilute. I forget the exact bend of the stream running along my grandmother’s garden and the sounds it made when it travelled though her basement after heavy rain. Jumping in puddles was a year-round sport. The tubs in which we raised tadpoles and watched them, enraptured, transform into tiny frogs in summer were used to bail the water out of the house in winter.

Since I grew up with my feet splish-splashing in water, no matter the season, I had thought that it ran in my blood, but its imprint is progressively fading away. Adelaide/Tarntanya sits in what is described as the driest state in the driest continent. When the southerlies rise, they carry in their breath my childhood rubber dinghy the colour of the sun and blow it like a mirage on desiccated land. My tongue sticks to my palate and my heart mummifies in this new place. My grandmother’s death is a seismic shock.

3.

The point is that gardens are to be attended to every day. Assemblages and affordances endlessly morph. Roots and routes twist and tangle.

My grandmother fled Catalonia at nine years old to escape from civil war. She left with nothing but the playdough scent of oleander flowers in her heart, and the imprint of geraniums overflowing out of pots on balconies on her retina.

She recreated this extravaganza of Mediterranean plants in her garden and made me a flamenco dress, which opened up like her favourite geranium, white with hot pink ruff.

4.

The point is that, without loss, there is no love. Because as philosopher Jacques Derrida summarises, ‘How can one love otherwise than in this finitude?’ Loss is a precondition for love.

Walking through my suburb, I see geraniums become fences and I smile. The one I planted in my garden never stops flowering. I realise how profoundly my body has unlearnt the seasonal rhythms of the French countryside when my parents react to the photographs I send them. Theirs only flower in summer and freeze if left outside in winter. Finitude manifests itself differently, from petals to death.

Since my grandmother cared for plants profoundly unsuited to the French climate, inside and outside endlessly blended as the seasons passed. Each autumn, before the first frost, plants that could not endure the cold were carefully brought into the living spaces where they invaded every spare square centimetre of air. I watched the ritual with awe as it took several adults to manoeuvre the gigantic pots. She always had the largest oleander taken into the living room. Every December, we turned it into our Christmas tree. We wrapped it in so much tinsel and fairy lights that I do not believe any visitor was ever the wiser to the untraditional substitution. On stormy days, we stared at the nearest window. We played with our hot breaths and the trickling rain against the glass to make the glittering reflection of the baubles merge with the persimmons hanging in a nearby naked tree outside.

Emilia Hissier, the author’s grandmother, tending to her oleanders. Photo: Supplied

We wore crowns of dried leaves and disassembled our herbariums to create collages that imitated the movements we dreamt of once again experiencing as we ran through luxuriant thickets. And then it would happen. One morning, we would wake up and discover hints of flashy green piercing through the damp, spongy mattress of discoloured leaves covering the ground. These morning gifts kept on growing until spring finally came into full bloom. My grandmother forbade mowing – the lawn was an eruption of flowers. We ran through the space with feverish eyes as shiny as the buttercups we gathered into bouquets. Our fingers were busy, always so busy, fleeting in the late afternoon sun. My grandmother displayed every bouquet we made for her on the dining table.

5.

The point is that love is understood as feminist and activist bell hooks describes – as an interactive process that implies doing rather than feeling. She explains: ‘But love is really more … about what we do not just what we feel. It’s a verb, not a noun.” Such a love is about ethical action – it rises from the Ancient Greek agapē (ἀγάπη), with its connotations of active participation and engagement. Through gardening and the ephemerality of the traces that we deposit in our gardens, we can learn how to love and (re)invent our relationships with loss and our environments. Loss propels us to witness and act – to tend to the wounds we inflict upon the soil.

I always had a soft spot for sorrel. It has something to do with the shape of the patch, with its desire to keep growing, no matter the harshness of the conditions, no matter the persistence of the slugs. Sorrel shines and shouts for the skies like misguided arrows in shades of iridescent greens. As a child, I watched each leaf with avid, hungry eyes from early spring to late autumn. My grandmother would tell me when I could go and pick some, and despite its vivacity, the patch always seemed to grow too slowly for my insatiable appetite.

6.

Kneel and gather the greenest sorrel leaves out of the patch. Gently wash them, and then toss them in a hot frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour lightly beaten eggs into the pan. Flip the omelette once the underside is golden. Eat straight out of the pan.

I craved the taste of sorrel. It followed seasons like me, growing more and more bitter as the summer came, stayed and went. My favourites were the last leaves I could collect in late autumn, just before the first serious frost. These leaves had been storing bitterness for close to nine months and I had to close my eyes as I ate them. It was the last treat of my grandmother’s garden before winter.

When my grandmother died, there was only one space I could go to. I needed to be in my garden. Her death still made no sense there, but at least I could bury my rolling tears in the ground. I had not been able to go back to France for over two years at this stage. As I mourned, my family kept sending me photographs of her garden. Trees had grown so tall that I no longer recognised their shadows. It hurt. Everything hurt.

When my grandmother died, I realised the weight of having a fluttering heart. As hers did, my heart has no solid anchor in dirt. It constantly tears and fluctuates between two homes, like the ephemeral gold of dusk, always asking the day to never end and for the night to never go. My heart truly has two sides, each receiving and pumping into my body the fleeting or burgeoning attachments underscoring my expatriation.

When my grandmother died, I regressed to childhood and compelled my fingers to keep busy. Gardening appeared as the only possible response to loss – it was where loss was palpable and could be made sense of. I engaged in a frenzy of planting that was only matched by that of my family. Despite the physical distance between us, we dug holes synchronously; we performed the same gesture of care; we noticed similar insects in the sunrays. Through gardening, we were somewhat together.

7.

The point is that connections and continuity lie at the tips of our fingers.

When my grandmother died, fresh buds continued to erupt overnight and greet mornings that she will never see, as if nothing had changed. As her casket was taken away, I crumbled into little fragments, like dirt turning into dust, but buds stubbornly kept on erupting.

8.

The point is that hopes are seeded in soil – gardens embody how loss is not (solely) absences, a dark manifestation of despair and sorrow which turns the ground sterile; instead, loss is what sustains that which is yet to come. Gardens are shaped as testaments.

When my grandmother died, border restrictions prevented me from leaving Australia. I attended her funeral via video call with my dad. So many flowers were bought that the village’s florists ran out. And so did the florists of the surrounding villages. People had to resort to buying potted plants. Composed rose bouquets mingled with lemon cypresses and late blooming kalanchoes. My dad kept zooming in on them. They filled the church with a sea of colours and shapes – rainbows of tears and laughter as we recalled her presence. Once in the cemetery on the village’s hill, they covered a surface so large that they threatened to extend over other tombstones. It could not have been more fitting. Throughout her life, my grandmother connected with people through gardening. She traded in cuttings, preserves and recipes. Sharing her garden’s riches was her way of expressing herself; it was her currency. My family started a rotation, taking the fragile bouquets home at the end of the day to spare them the chill of French spring nights and bringing them back up every morning. I planted two hot pink geraniums in my front yard – one for each side of my heart. Like my grandmother, we cared and we flowered. She would have loved it.

9.

The point is that there is (always) a point.

This point is located somewhere within how I feel when I contemplate the epiphyllum bursting in pink under the silver dollar gum tree. It is located in my garden, where I witness my fingers turning loss into mulch; where roots and routes ramify, teaching me to care and tread lightly. I coevolve with loss. I try to attune, and fail sometimes, but the warmth of the soil kissed by the sun always brings circulation back to my cold fingers.

Gather zucchinis that have grown into monsters under the protection of prickly shadows. Peel them, slice them in half and remove the seeds with a giant spoon, sculpting vessels within their flesh. Then stuff them, cover them in tomato puree and bake them. Eat by letting each mouthful melt on your tongue.