1: A NEW PLACE At the heart of my garden stands the house where I live. I remember very well the day I saw it for the first time. Back then, I was looking for a house outside the city. I wandered through villages and hamlets; I poked around, knocked on doors; I questioned corner-store owners and met secretaries of agricultural cooperatives. I chatted with fathers and mothers and shared secrets with sons and daughters. I had already seen quite a few possible dwellings, but this one I loved at first sight: a small meager house, the kind that looks like what were once called Jewish Agency houses. A modest lawn dying at the front, prickles and dry weeds tumbling around it, and a few ornamental bushes and fruit trees, some of which were about to die of thirst. The house stood on a slope. I went down and walked around it, and here was the surprise: an expansive, deep landscape that stretched out to the farthest western edges. It began with two plots of cultivated land with a few spears of cypresses at their margins, and above them two ranges of forested hills, dotted with dense impressionistic smudges of variegated green: the pale green of the Tabor oak, the dark green of the Palestine oak, here and there the gleaming green of the carob, and the green of the terebinth--that of the slightly faded Land of Israel terebinth and the more vibrant mastic. And above all this, veiled in the summer haziness of the valley, lay a familiar bluish range that extended from one end of the horizon to the other--the Carmel. Which valley? I don't want to insult anyone, but when I say the valley, I am referring to my very own Jezreel Valley. I turned around and looked back at the house. Because of the sloping nature of the plot, the rear of the house was supported by thin concrete pillars that created a space between the house and the ground below. Someone, I noticed, had built a small wire coop for chickens. I peeked in and saw four small carcasses bedecked in feathers, and they were all as dry as the tin water trough that stood beside them. When he left, that person had abandoned the chickens in their prison, to die of hunger or thirst. But the house filled me with the happiness of a new love, and even this evildoing did not curtail it. I examined the plants and trees around it: an old pear tree, a dying lemon tree, a shady pecan tree, two oaks and three terebinths, chinaberry, and jacaranda. A hardy prickly pear also grew there, and a crisp marijuana plant, remarkably green against the brown and yellow background. I wondered who might be coming to water it with such devotion? At the front of the house stood a fig tree, its fruit overripe, but when I drew closer to it I saw tiny mounds of fresh sawdust, heralding disaster, piled up by the trunks. A closer look also revealed tunnel openings dug by the fig-tree borer, a harbinger of death that eats through the flesh of the trunk and eventually topples it. Everything I saw suggested the garden would need much work and forethought. But although I've always loved nature, I had precious little experience in gardening. I was an observer: of my grandfather in Nahalal, and my mother--his daughter--in Jerusalem. # My grandfather was a professional planter who planted a vineyard, a grove, and an orchard on his farm. I loved watching him prune and trellis the grapes in his vineyard. The movements of his hands enchanted me. I was just a child and did not know how to express this in words, but I felt that the movements of a craftsman were the most beautiful movements ever to be embedded within the human body. To this day I enjoy watching carpenters, locksmiths, farriers, stonecutters, bakers--more than watching athletes or ballet dancers. My grandfather grew up in a Hasidic family in the Ukraine, and when he was old enough to know his own mind, he underwent a religious conversion from the work of God to the work of the land. But my grandfather did not forget his Talmud: the first trees he planted in his yard were olives, pomegranates, and figs, all close to the vineyard. It was no coincidence that these were the fruit trees the Torah included in the seven species that the Land of Israel was blessed with. Alongside the house he planted orange and grapefruit, two more pomegranate trees, and one unbelievable tree that yielded oranges, lemons, tangerines, and other citrus fruits that I do not recall--perhaps grapefruit and, perhaps, according to the storylike nature of my family, avocado or tomato. Either way, that tree aroused awe and excitement within me, and this only increased when I asked my mother how her father had managed to create it. "He's a magician," she said. Years later I discovered it was a perfectly ordinary grafting of bitter orange understock, but my mother's words were already engraved upon me, and the impression has never dissipated. She herself cultivated a small garden in Jerusalem, where we lived in the Kiryat Moshe housing project. I was about four years old when we first arrived there. Construction of the project had just finished, trees and flowers did not yet grow there, and the place looked like a construction site. But at the front of the apartment block we lived in was a strip of land divided into small plots intended for gardens, and behind it was rocky terrain. My mother followed in the footsteps of her parents. She immediately began to dry the swamps and make the desert bloom: in the front plot she planted dahlias, chrysanthemums, freesias, nice little plants that were nicknamed "summer cypresses," a decorative plant that in those days was widespread and popular and that I no longer see at all, and the wandering Jew that quickly hung down, covering the wooden fence along the sidewalk. There were no drip irrigation systems back then, and my mother dug holes, hacked out trenches, and watered her garden with a hose and funnel. The practice of watering like that has since disappeared: at the time, passersby would come up and ask to drink from the water in the hose. There were those who drew the nozzle to their lips, and there were those who cupped their hands and drank from the water that pooled there. The former, my mother determined with the derision of a country woman, "drink like city folks" and the latter "know how to drink." In the pocket of every child in the housing complex, attached to the latchkey, was another key with a square depression that opened garden faucets from which to drink and then closed them. This is how we quenched our thirst when walking home from school at noon. There were garden owners who welcomed us and there were those who chased us away with threats and shouts. In the plot at the back, my mother tended another small garden, fundamentally different from the one at the front. There was nothing but a few square feet of rock, but she was accustomed to hard work. My mother wanted to sow and plant, and she knew how to do it. She brought wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of earth from the nearby field--today the site of several houses and the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva--and enriched it with manure that she also collected there, produced by the cows that dwelled in the small cattle sheds of Givat Shaul and grazed by our houses. She planted plum and pomegranate, and in the crevices between the rocks she embedded cyclamen bulbs and seeds. Our neighbor, Amotz Cohen, the teacher and naturalist, planted grapevines in the adjoining plot and fenced them off with prickly pears. Gradually, their gardens took shape. # I went back and contemplated the house I had found and the land surrounding it, and I was sorry that my mother and grandfather and neighbor were no longer with me, to instruct and offer advice. But a few days after I purchased the house, one of the village elders paid me a visit, and I found him to be brimming over with goodness. His name was Yosef Zaira, and like most of the village founders he had also emigrated from Romania. His nickname hinted at this: Puyu--Romanian for "chick." A few years later, Puyu passed away. I remember him well and feel his absence. He was an educated and entertaining man, a sentimental cynic, a gifted painter, and an expert on fruit trees. In subsequent meetings he taught me a chapter or two on the history of "the great Romania," as he referred to his beloved birthplace, while drinking țuică and playing backgammon, a game at which he excelled. Now he brought a saw with him, telling me to remove all the dead branches of the lemon tree: "Take them all down! Don't be afraid! It'll all grow again. If only we could get rid of every dead thing inside our own bodies and souls!" I did as he commanded and also dug a ring around the tree for watering. "Its diameter should be the same as the tree's," Puyu said. "That wide?" I asked. "You surprise me. After all, you come from a family of farmers," he said. "Did they never tell you there's always another tree in the earth? The branches are the roots growing downward!" So I pruned and watered it and the lemon tree recovered. Its shriveled leaves unfurled and opened out, new leaves developed, it flowered and returned me a favor: an abundance of small lemons, uglier yet more delicious than any lemons I have ever tasted. I cut and cleared away all the weeds and thistles. I watered and mowed the lawn, bringing that back to life as well, and I planted a hedge of bougainvillea to separate myself from the road. But lo, summer ended, autumn passed by, and my first winter in this new place arrived. Rain fell, and all the seeds sprouted afresh: thistles and dill, mallow and Spanish golden thistle, dog's tooth and everything else our forefathers grouped under the hazy heading of thorns and nettles. I felt like Jason, surrounded by enemies who sprang up from the teeth of a dragon planted in the earth. I understood that a long and difficult battle lay ahead of me, and that my enemies were strong and determined and not about to surrender easily. But the weeks passed, and suddenly a few cyclamens blossomed by the side of the house, a single daffodil peeked out, and in the next-door garden something surprising happened that took my breath away: hundreds of red anemones burst into bloom, imbuing the garden with color and turning my northern-facing window into the frame of a magnificent picture. When the blooming season was over, I asked permission to gather anemone seeds from the neighbor's garden. I also brought cyclamen seeds from the nearby cemetery, hyacinth squill bulbs, corn poppy seeds, Syrian cornflower-thistle and lupine seeds from a friend's garden. I procured bindweed seeds from bushes blooming on the verges of Highway 6. I bought sage seedlings, savory, and wild marjoram in a garden nursery, purple rockrose and white rockrose, as well. The experts call them sage-leaved rockrose and soft-hairy rockrose, but that's what we laymen call them. That was the beginning. Since then I have added many other wild plants to the garden, some of them sowed from seedlings and others planted. With time I have become quite good at it, but I have never reached the highest standards of gardening. Perhaps I began too late and perhaps I am too busy with other things. Therefore, this book is not a manual or a textbook, either of botany or gardening. It is simply a collection of impressions of a modest wild garden and a gardener who tends it and looks after it, someone who, at a relatively late age, found himself a hobby, and perhaps even a new love. Excerpted from My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer's Eden by Meir Shalev All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.