Gardening in the Tropics

Marloe Mens


Brief Lives

Gardening in the Tropics, you never know
what you’ll turn up. Quite often, bones.
In some places they say when volcanoes
erupt, they spew out dense and monumental
as stones the skulls of desaparecidos
– the disappeared ones. Mine is only
a kitchen garden so I unearth just
occasional skeletons. The latest
was of a young man from the country who
lost his way and crossed the invisible
boundary into rival political territory.
I buried him again so he can carry on
growing. Our cemeteries are thriving too.
The newest addition was the drug baron
wiped out in territorial competition
who had this stunning funeral
complete with twenty-one-gun salute
and attended by everyone, especially
the young girls famed for the vivacity
of their dress, their short skirts and
even briefer lives.


The Learned Pig


My Father’s Blue Plantation

Gardening in the Tropics we revel in
Hot Tropical Colours. My father’s land
was blue. In his prime, his banana
plantation came right to our doorstep.
We lived deep in this forest of leaves
made blue by the treatment against
Leaf Spot Disease which he humped around
the fields in a battered spray-pan. On
Banana Day (which I think was Wednesday)
we went off to school eyeing all the way
the bunches wrapped in blue banana-trash
waiting at the roadside for the truck.
We fervently prayed ours would find
acceptance in the sight of the Inspector
for every bunch was earmarked to pay for
something. Sometimes it was shoes. We
didn’t choose those in Hot Tropical Colours
since each child could have only one pair
(for school and chapel) and we were taught
only black or white would find favour
in His sight.

But all this was ages ago.
We children fled the blue for northern
light where we buy up all the shoes
in sight. My closet is filled – finally –
with a rainbow of shoes in Hot Tropical
Colours (which look marvellous against
the snow). My father’s house (I’m told)
is visible from all directions now
(some crops grow only in young gardens).
Alone, fanning sand and stoning breeze,
my father lets in all that air, lets that
Hot Tropical Sun pour down to fill his
blue lungs and warm his old and vegetating


The Learned Pig


The Knot Garden

Gardening in the Tropics,
you’ll find things that don’t
belong together often intertwine
all mixed up in this amazing fecundity.
We grow as convoluted as the vine.
Or wis. And just as quickly!
Only last week as our leader left
for another IMF meeting, he ordered
the hacking out of paths and
ditches, the cutting of swaths
to separate out flowers
from weeds, woods from trees. But
somebody (as usual) didn’t get it
right (what goes on in mixed
farming is actually quite hard
to envision since so many things
propagate underground, by
division). Returning, our leader
finds instead of neat trench
and barricade separating species,
higglers and drug barons moving
into the more salubrious climes
while daughters of gentry are
crossing lines to sleep with
ghetto boys with gold teeth
and pockets full of dollars
derived from songs on the hit
parade. In the old days, he’d
have ordered some hits himself
but agencies that give aid
are talking human rights now.
Instead, something more subtle
– like poisoned flour or raging
tenement fires – is allowed
to spread. While citizens are
dying our leader is flying again,
off to another IMF meeting
in the presidential jet high
above this dense tropical jungle.
Meanwhile, the fertilized soil
(nothing like fire to do it)
bursts into new and twisted growth
of such profusion by the time
he returns, it proves
too impenetrable for landing.
Avoiding confusion, our leader
travels on, searching for
unencumbered skies, over the
Cayman Islands, or Liechtenstein,
or Geneva.


The Learned Pig


Seeing the Light


Gardening in the Tropics nowadays means
letting in light: they’ve brought in machines
that can lay waste hundreds of hectares
in one day, they’ve brought in (since we have
already passed this way) other peoples to hack
and burn through; smoke obscures the sun for
months now, there are not enough trees to pull down
the rain. The animals are gone too; without hunters
they’re no longer game. By the time they’ve cut
the last tree in the jungle only our bones
will remain as testament to this effort to bring
light (though in their chronicles they might have
recorded it by another name: Conquista?
Evangelismo? Civilization?)


Before you came, it was dark in our garden,
that’s true. We cleared just enough for our huts
and our pathways, opened a pinpoint in the canopy
to let the sun through. We made the tiniest scratch
on Mother Earth (begging her pardon). When we moved
on, the jungle easily closed over that scar again.
We never took more than we needed. Always gave back
(to Earth) our thanks and our praises, never failed
to salute the gods of the rain, the wind, the sun,
and the moon in her phases. Never failed to provide
tobacco smoke for the spirits to feed on that show us
the game. When the yuca or the maize was ripe,
we celebrated. By the stars and planets across
the green (and dark) terrain, we navigated.
In all of this, we took up so little space,
it would have been easy for you to greet us
when you came – and move on. There was enough
in the jungle to provide gardens for everyone.
All over these green and tropical lands there
could have been pinpricks of light filtering
through the leaves to mirror the stars of Heaven,
invert the Pleiades.


But from the start, Earth did not please. You
set it alight, you disemboweled it, you forcefully
established marks of your presence all over it.
As you tore up what sustained us, our world
under your sway fell into the true darkness
of Night, fell apart from lack of regulation.
For we no longer had power to summon the spirits
with tobacco, with invocations to harness the
blessings of the sun, the rain. You told us your
one God had the power to bring us the true light,
but we’ve waited in vain. To this day – as catastrophe
holds sway and earth continues to burn – there are
things we still cannot learn. Why did those
who speak of Light wear black, the colour
of mourning? Why was their countenance so grave?
Why on a dead tree did they nail the bringer
of light, one Cristo, torture and kill him
then ask us to come, bow down and worship him?
Ifet, with all the strange things that have happened
to us since your first coming, it’s not so hard perhaps
to believe that in some far-off land this Cristo,
this person who had never heard of us, was
nevertheless put to death, gave up his life,
in order to enlighten us. Maybe many more trees
must die to illuminate his death, as many leaves
must fall to cover up our dying.


Olive SeniorThese poems were originally published in Olive Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 1994.

Republished here with kind permission from the publisher, Insomniac Press.


Image credit: Marloe Mens.

This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig


Olive Senior

Olive Senior is a Jamaican poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She was awarded the Musgrave Gold Medal in 2005 by the Institute of Jamaica for her contributions to literature. In her own words: "I've been meandering across borders all my life and continue to do so, and my writing career is a reflection of that: I write in different genres - fiction, non-fiction, poetry. I have publishers in Jamaica, England, Canada and the USA. I'm of mixed background racially and socially. I travel a great deal. I live in several different worlds. But, 'If crab no walk, him nuh see worl' and I'm the perpetual seeker."