Summer in the garden by Stephanie Wescott

Image by the author

Many years ago I dreamed vividly of a garden. It was densely floral, in an English kind of way. It neatly framed a small cottage. Perhaps I had been reading Bronte, and my mind had taken me to the home of the Rivers.

The dream was so poignant I described it to a colleague the next day. Her partner was into dream interpretation and sent me an analysis. He wrote that this place didn’t necessarily exist; it was symbolic, but I place I was looking for nonetheless. It was a place where I would find the peace I had been trying to build into my life.

The garden in my dream was nothing like the gardens I liked—the ones that represent pure and true Australiana, bush shrub or coastal, dry, sharp beauty, flowers the colour of vibrant earth. I grew up in the country, and at one stage lived across the road from open paddocks home to bulls, a short walk from a river called the S-Lagoon, named for its shape, where gums hung lazily over the water. I lived the be-home-at-dusk kind of childhood. Fingernails caked with dirt, hand-me-down clothes braving days of bike rides, falls and skids to the knees, reckless freedom.

I also grew up in Eltham, which, if you know it, is a unique suburbia of Australian gums, broad hills and narrow bends. Here, I grew up on smells, sounds of twigs and dry leaves crunching, snapping and the cicadas hissing, and the acutely natural quiet of an afternoon.

I didn’t realise how deep and how necessary my sensory connection to place was until I lost it.

When I moved out, I first lived in a converted warehouse apartment, all brick with an upstairs balcony reprieve and a view of the south of the city. My front door opened to a laneway known as Artist’s Lane for its gallery wall of street art. Still, like most alleyways, it stank of piss and at nighttime it was unsavoury. Then, a stout 1950s brick home in Malvern with a yard of stoic roses; followed by a large townhouse on the beach, with a small courtyard containing an outdoor table, some coastal shrubbery and an outdoor shower.

In each of these places I failed to find what I needed in the things around me. It was never again like my Eltham home, or my homes among farms in rural Victoria. I longed achingly for particular smells, and when out walking or camping, would pause to listen to a kookaburra, or to smell the potency of a crushed eucalyptus leaf. I longed for deep silence and space to listen to trees and birds.

The summer of 2019/20 was an unsettling and disturbing time for Australian people. We were under relentless attack from desolating bushfires, with no assurance from our prime minister that he understood how acutely we were hurting. I spent weeks in deep grief. Unable to sleep, stricken by anxiety, I wondered if anything would feel the same again. I wondered how we would ever recover, how we could forgive ourselves.

During this time, I sought comfort and solace from my garden. I had moved house. This one, on three quarters of an acre devotedly cared for by its owners who built it in 1975, resembled the garden of the dream in my early 20s. It is unmistakably European, but hints of homage to native species, what has thrived here on Boonwurrung land for thousands of years, can be found still.

My dream for years has been to grow my own food, heirloom and organic. And so, soon after moving in, I set about preparing soil, gorging on blogs, books and YouTube clips, tapping into the deep knowing and connection dormant somewhere in DNA. I even read a book called Moon Planting.

I spent hours entangled in the brute and primal work of hands in the soil, digging, pulling, planting, using my raw, untuned senses to figure out how to make my land functional and productive. I would also wander, in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, through each section of my garden, each time seeing something surprising. Bees, abundant and busy, a pair of wedge-tailed eagles hunting together each day at 5pm, a stocky blue-tongue lizard, fat worms just under the soil’s surface, engorged and brown. The relief from my terror and fury was ephemeral, and I found it only in my garden.

On January 6 I shared photos of my garden on my Instagram account, captioned:

I have felt so guilty stepping into my garden over the past week. It remains green and thriving and oblivious, and that seems very cruel and unfair. It is housing many birds, small creatures and bees, protecting and feeding them. It is absorbing some of our grief. Today, again, it is cloaked in smoke; a small hint of the horrors unfolding elsewhere. I share these as a small reminder that there is beauty still.

My garden saved me this summer. After seeing a relentless roll of images of bushfire-scorched land, the charred remains of animals frozen in panicked escape, the contrast to the dense greenery of my own yard was too jarring to comprehend completely. I felt ashamed of loving my own garden when animals had lost their habitats and people were returning to the ashes of theirs.

There is no way to reconcile this, and no way to justify why my home stands and others don’t. The only thing left to do is feel the depth of my grief to the core of my body, to not turn away from the truth, and hope that there remains gardens like mine, and the wild Australian bush, and stretches of land undisturbed by human interference; some kind of beauty you can only dream of, real and whole in front of you.

I hope with everything I have that this land, and its preciousness not only for how it fixes us, but for its own autonomous right to exist and thrive, is not lost. For now, I’ll tend to my own garden, pour my grief and sadness into it, allow it to help me feel relieved and broken, humbled and powerful, all at once.