The air was, by season, fragrant with tiny white citrus blossoms; or pungent with fallen mangos, swollen with grey squalls; or heavy with the stink of seaweed that floated in from Biscayne Bay and stagnated in the canal. I woke into a world where rain thrummed on the fans of palm fronds. Mockingbirds sang operettas from the treetops and bees built massive hives that hung from poinciana branches like the dewlaps on Brahmin cows. I had no idea my first steps were taken in a paradise. It was the only world I knew; and that world was my great-grandfather’s garden.
My first four years were spent on The Kampong, the estate my great-grandfather David Fairchild bought and planted for horticultural research. My parents and I lived in one of the buildings on that expansive property. It was a tiny efficiency with one common space that served as half living room, half art and architectural studio. There was also a sleeping area and a galley kitchen. Beyond that uncluttered, unwired, and uncomplicated shelter was a playground of sun-dappled growing things.
Avocados came in a variety of shapes and densities, from light and lemony to oily and nutty. I learned to swim in a dark un-chlorinated pool festooned with sweet ylang-ylang flowers that dropped from trees above. Tiny red ants built mounded homes in the soft earth and carpenter ants swarmed up the trunks of banyans. The roads were completely covered with the occasional undulating carpet of blue crabs. A gardener from the Bahamas, working the trees with fingers the same size but darker than the cigars he smoked, used to joke with me. With the flash of his star-shaped tooth cap he’d say, “I’m gonna marry you some day, little girl.” I can remember thinking “Okay.” Because his gentle and knowing way with trees already had won him the respect of my entire family, we belonged together in that garden.
Somewhere inside, there should be, there must be, the memory of my great-grandmother’s arms. I have a faded Kodacolor print of her gazing down on my 4-month-old wrinkled little face that manages to appear,amusingly, older than hers; like a balding little old man. In the entrance to the main property, I also have a (scandalous nowadays, no doubt) snap of me playing naked in the fountain at the entrance to the main house. The expression on my face is one of sheer joy.
But every paradise has its provisos. There were sandburs that dug into the soft flesh of your toes, and ants that surrounded your ankles before their coordinated attack. There was a rabid raccoon once, and the occasional rotten something you stepped in, and several heavy hurricanes that darkened the world and mangled the garden. There were plants that were poisonous and penalties for picking every last one of your parents’ orchid collection for a bouquet. These were simply part of the balance of things.
After four years, I moved closer to the Grove. I grew up walking to school through the psychedelic hippie culture of shops hawking black lights, waterbeds, cheap incense and Indian print clothing. I daydreamed through school; staring out the windows of historic 1911 Coconut Grove Elementary, where my grandmother had also gone.
In those days I could walk home by myself, dawdling to explore the scents of handmade leather sandals and head shops comfortably juxtaposed to the camphor and candy-tinged air-conditioned interiors of the pharmacy and the Five & Dime. Before heading out into the world at large, I worked in the box office at The Coconut Grove Playhouse and in a health food store. I watched the gentrification and glitz of a new era nibble away at the greenery and vibe that made the Grove so wonderful.
I didn’t stay to fight for it, so I can hardly complain about the developmental damage my hometown went through. Instead, I skipped off in search of damage, as it were. I thought that grime and dumpsters and burnt brick facades soaring upward, the packed and excessively loud cells of cement on cement and person on person, and even (don’t laugh) cities in snow were the things which real writers needed to experience. Almost everywhere I went, however, I noticed trees, or the lack of them. When they were part of the urban landscape at all, it was as afterthoughts inside wire enclosures, spindly urban pit stops for dogs or places to chain your bike. Always in the back of my mind was the garden.
I now live in Japan, thousands of miles from The Kampong. My great-grandfather actually visited Japan twice by boat, and he fell in love with the flowering cherry trees here. They are blooming as I write this. Fairchild imported and planted Japanese cherry trees on his estate in Maryland, vigorously promoting them as the perfect candidates to beautify the Potomac area of Washington D.C. Through his efforts, and the generosity of many others, Japan and the U.S. share gifts of seedlings back and forth to this day; a trade agreement of flowers.
Like those trees going back and forth, I come back to my childhood home every year because, to a large degree, it still exists. Thankfully The Kampong has not become a Disney-like pseudo-garden attraction. Today, I am a poet who specializes in haiku, a highly condensed Japanese poetic form. As children, we learn that haiku has a 5-7-5 format, but (sorry) this is not a good place to start teaching the form. The most crucial part of haiku is that it situates the poet’s existence within the cycles of nature. In haiku, human passions, desires, constructs, and ego are not meant to be the poem’s main subject. The position of the poet is meant to be on a par with, say, an ant, heron, or cloud, observant of nature and involved with it, but not its constant brutal master. I come back to the garden to remember what that looks like.