The Dirt: Isaac Miller

‘You can’t make water out of electricity and you definitely can’t make paper out of succulents,’ states four-year-old Isaac Miller to his mum, Lucy. He’s right, of course. From this point onwards, my conversation with Isaac traverses a range of topics from composting to dancing plants, and ladybirds to gardenias. It’s a joyful experience, and reminds me of the importance of play, daydreaming, and creativity for adults as well as children.

We begin our conversation in Isaac’s family’s rear courtyard. His five-month-old sister Sylvie is laying in a bouncer in the sun and Lucy, his mum, is recounting wise words imparted by Isaac this morning when a big bug landed on her whilst she was sweeping up leaves.

It’s OK,’ he said. ‘If you meet a bug, you just wait like a statue and then they won’t think that you are a person and they will just fly away.’

Isaac is bouncing around the courtyard, wearing blue and white patterned leggings that keep falling down, and playing amongst the clothes hanging on the line. We start off with the obvious – Sylvie, Isaac’s recently arrived sister.

What do you think about Sylvie?
Is it nice having her around?
Yes. Well, she does wake up at night though. Not all the time [Isaac waves a ribbon in Sylvie’s face vigorously].
Does Sylvie talk yet?
No, she only says ‘Ow’ and something else.

Isaac finds a ribbon on a stick and waves it around whilst dancing in the courtyard. I get straight to the big questions…

Do you like gardening?
What do you like about it?
I like watching the plants grow.
What is your favourite plant?
This one [he points to a fishbone fern].
Do you know what it’s called?
Wow, you’re a smart guy. How did you get to know all about plants?
From preschool, because they have a lot of plants there. The whole school is actually a big tunnel of plants. There’s all the plants in the world there.
How many is that?
25 hundred.
That’s a lot of plants! What other things do you like about plants?
Dance. Dancing plants!
Sometimes plants dance in the wind, don’t they. Is that what you mean by dancing?
No. This is dancing! [Demonstrates wildly]

Upon further consultation with with Lucy, Isaacs mum, it turns out (unsurprisingly) that whilst Isaac most likely has learnt about plants at preschool, this is not the entire story. ‘Isaac’s interest in plants and gardening isn’t coincidental, but is the result of deliberate cultivation on my part’, she says.

‘I have always loved urban/suburban walking, because of the opportunities it affords for perving at OPGs (other people’s gardens) and nicking things to eat or display’, Lucy says. ‘I realised early on that I needed Isaac to enjoy going for walks or life would be boring. So, since he was tiny I have taught him to be interested in plants by knowing about them. Names, shapes, colours, smells. Big and tiny. Flowers, nuts, berries, Autumn leaves, Spring buds. Poisonous, edible, palatable, delicious. I point out as much as I can.’

We head indoors for a glass of water and some morning tea – biscuits I made at 9pm the night before in an attempt to blackmail Isaac into talking to me. I’m not sure they worked. For one; I started making them before realizing I didn’t have enough butter or sugar for the recipe, and two; he’s not a fan of pumpkin seeds because they’re green. This leads to an insightful conversation about seeds and where they come from.

Seeds come from trees,’ says Isaac. ‘Sometimes they come from potatoes, pumpkins, lemons, pears, drink-of-waters, waterfalls. WATERFALLS!

After our morning tea I ask Isaac to take me on a tour of his garden. We start in the courtyard at the back of the house.

Do you know what this tree is?
No. It’s just a tree.
Is this your garden or everyone’s garden?
It’s my garden. I think I need to look at this dead plant for a minute. Now I would like to go out the front where there’s a lot of plants.

‘We didn’t plant these plants or these plants or these plants or these plants [all weeds growing in the crack between pathway and fence] but we did plant those plants,’ he says pointing to herbs in pots.

‘These are sweet potatoes, this is spinach, this is basil, and parsley, and spinach, and parsley and parsley and lettuce and basil and head. HEAD! HEAD! HEAD!’ he says whilst hitting himself on the head.

Directly across the road from Isaac’s home is a community garden in a church. Isaac, Sylvie and Lucy spend much time in there – sitting in the sun, composting their green waste, and harvesting herbs for dinner. We visit it to deposit kitchen scraps into the compost bin.

Can you tell me about compost? What happens in the compost bin?
Bugs. Bugs. Bugs. Bugs make it into compost.
What do you do with compost?
You put it on plants.
Because it’s good for them.
Why is it good for them?
Because it has lots of food in it.

We wander through the garden, checking out the passionfruit and rockmelon vines growing along the fence, and spending vast amounts of time trying to catch lady bugs. Stopping to rest at the sunny end of the garden, I spy a gardenia plant in flower.

Do you know what this plant is?
Yes, you’re right. Isn’t that your sister’s middle name? Why did your mum give her that name?
What? That was you? Why?
Because I like gardenias. I’M A DOG. I’M A DOG!
So did you really say, ‘Hey I think we should call her Sylvie Gardenia?
It’s Miller. Sylvie Estelle Gardenia Miller.

‘We were looking for middle name for Sylvie,’ explains Lucy, ‘and we had a little gardenia plant that was flowering in the garden at the time. Isaac said we should call her Gardenia. I thought it was a great idea, so we did.’

Isaac clearly has a thing for flowers. Apparently when he was one year old he developed a passion for frangipani flowers. Each time he and Lucy would head out for a walk he would pillage the trees for flowers. ‘His appetite was insatiable’, says Lucy. When he was 16 months he fractured his leg and had to wear a full-leg, fibreglass cast. ‘One day I found him frowning and scratching at his thigh. “Itchy one!” he said. I poked a finger down the top of the cast and discovered in there a frangipani flower rotting blackly against his skin! Safekeeping, I imagine’, says Lucy.

After chasing lady bugs and smelling lemon verbena plants in the community garden we head back to the house. Sylvie is in need of a sleep, and there’s only so many questions a four-year-old boy will take before answering each one with ‘Boogie boogie, boogie boogie, BOOGIE!!’

We sit on the back step and I ask Isaac if he has anything else he’d like to tell me about life. His answer: ‘NO. Baah! I don’t know anything else.’

I don’t think I need to waste words here highlighting the benefits of encouraging children to garden. It’s obvious, and there are countless studies supporting the importance of nature-based learning both at school and at home. But what about this?

As well as encouraging children to garden, how about encouraging ourselves to interact with the natural world like kids do? To learn from children as they learn from us.

Have you ever encountered a child who doesn’t want to dig, to explore, to grow? I haven’t. Children have a level of engagement with nature that seems to diminish with age, and a sense of space we don’t find because we don’t allow ourselves to find it. I see this in myself. I spent much of my childhood playing in the garden. And I mean in. Building cubby houses under the boughs of ceanothus plants and making worlds out of lavender bushes. Imagination was king, and the the borders of my kingdom were flexible – unhindered by time, space, and obligation.

I spend time in the garden now but its an outside kind of in. I chop, I sweep, I re-pot, I water. All important and valuable tasks. But that’s just it, they’re tasks. I’ve noticed I have trouble allowing myself to play, daydream, and create in the garden even though I’m aware of the value of such acts. Surely I should be doing something more productive, my head suggests. The borders of my kingdom have quietly developed a rigidity I never expected.

On the day I visited Isaac I spent  a good 10 minutes with my head tucked under the leaves of a rockmelon vine, looking for ladybirds. I was in the garden and Isaac was my teacher. My kingdom, for a few minutes, regained it’s fluidity.