When I was leaving for Victoria, a friend told me “nowhere have I seen Nature and urban life come together as beautifully as in British Columbia.” I was also told to “carry a bell if you walk in the woods” because she had heard it was common for people to come face to face with grizzlies on their running trails. There was both truth and exaggeration to these claims. There are by and large no grizzlies on Vancouver Island and black bears are extremely hard to run into in Victoria, even if you are trying. Mount Douglas (Originally, Pkols to the First Nations) and the sea beyond flank the part of Victoria that we live in – the houses all line up in rows surrounded by tidy, neatly cut lawns. Lawns happen to be green, giving an illusion of nature, but in fact are the most ecologically sterile of all choices that one can make for ones garden. Amongst the sterility of the North American lawn, are also pockets of biodiversity, vegetable gardens and flowering “weeds” that fight for life. Deer, or “pests” as they are considered here are affectionately tolerated, much like the cows in India. They weave in and out of open gardens feeding on prized rosebushes and fig trees.
Fig trees are not native to Vancouver Island. They were brought over by European immigrants, who first encountered the fruit circa 5000 BC. A previous Portuguese owner of the house we live in proselytized the neighbors on the wonders of the fig fruit and then promptly bequeathed the trees to my current Chinese landlord who continues the tradition of neighbors picking fruit. This meant we had cheerful Canadian converts wandering into the garden and picking the fruit off the trees, offering us fresh fig jam and explaining the wonders of canning. It also meant we could try recipes with fresh figs, picked from our garden, connecting us both to this particular time in our lives and very materially to the place we currently inhabit, tempering the meal we prepare with both contact and context.
The intrinsically woven life of urbanity and nature is not particular to Victoria but my friend’s observation does point to the insidious nature of green washing. For my friend, and for me, who are not ecologists, the pleasing hues of suburban green speaks to our own disconnect from the natural world and its role in sustaining life and urban community. The synonymity of green lawns with nature, even one that does not host life, cannot be consumed and is largely ornamental, is telling. The difference in British Columbia is in interaction. There are hikes and trails winding into a more disordered and alive natural world that are easily accessible. People in Victoria seem to enjoy the outdoors, they familiarize themselves with the language of gardening, they are beginning to reclaim the indigenous plants of the first nations and Victoria’s commitment to being the garden city means that the urban landscape creates and protects green spaces to nurture curiosity about the natural world.
I come from a garden city as well, even if it is a haphazard cornucopia, slowly concretizing around the urban wilds. At dusk in my own family garden, a luxury in the city I come from, I see kites, birds and fruit bats. In the nearby park, I know there are slender lorris and snakes that are fighting for survival in these fragile islands of green spaces in Bangalore. Nature and urban life colliding against each other and a more insidious problem – the template of what modern urban life and nature coming together should look like. It reflects our own blindness in forcing that template onto cities that are fighting to follow different natural and cultural maps. A very different manifestation of a garden city.
But central to these differences are also similarities and the fig trees in my garden in Victoria stand as a historically apt symbol of the things we humans, value, no matter what template we follow – contact, continuity and connection. This tree belongs to the Ficus family, a keystone species that has the distinction of being cultivated, worshipped and nurtured by almost every culture that has encountered it, over millennia. In our Victorian garden as well, it attracts birds, bees, deer and as soon as the fruit ripens to split open, it will become host to a feeding frenzy of pollinating wasps. When our neighbors wander over to pick fruits and chat and share – we too, like our ancestors before us, pick fruit together, exchange warnings about the wasps, learn about each other and swap recipes. We begin to enter the rhythms and flows of natural and social worlds woven around the trees. Sharing our garden fosters contact, connection and slowly, belonging.
In a world where so many people are moving and displaced, gardens can begin conversation. They can create a safe space for flowers, birds, animals and communities. In a world spiraling out of ecological control, they can reaffirm a sense of rootedness and community. We travel the world carrying the perception that the natural world is something to be ordered, obliterated or controlled, that there is a template to how the urban and natural world can interact, instead of allowing movement to weave us into the ebbs and flows of the world we inhabit.
I had begun to observe the trees in my garden with interest but no real curiosity. The trees followed their own rhythm, hosting guests, trembling in sudden winds, stilling in the exuberant sun. Over time, harvesting them created a relationship with the trees and my neighbors brought home a sense of connection borne from them. As this time in Victoria comes to a close, I know I will remember our Ficus with affection, encircling us in a cheerful similitude against a backdrop of neat acultural green lawns.
Sunayana Ganguly (pictured at right, upon arrival at UVic) is currently an Assistant Professor with the School of Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India.
Her three-month visit to CAPI, from May to August 2018, was part of CAPI’s “Regulating globalization in South and Southeast Asia” project, which has the goal of “activating a dynamic community of young global leaders around the world to conduct interdisciplinary research on innovative governance and justice strategies to mitigate the harsher effects of economic globalization in South and Southeast Asia.”
About the funder:
The Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships (QES) is managed through a unique partnership of Universities Canada, the Rideau Hall Foundation (RHF), Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) and Canadian universities. The QES-AS is made possible with financial support from IDRC and SSHRC