Following the publication of The Philosophy of Gardening, translator Karen Caruana considers what it means to be gardening through the second summer of a pandemic and reflects on the relationship between translation and travel.
It’s June 2021 and I find myself sitting at my computer, staring out the window onto a scene green with leafed-out trees, the blowing wind revealing the nuanced shades of the leaves’ undersides and sending them to the ground. I’m reminded with a start that it’s too early for leaves to fall, and that the falling leaves are those still remaining on the trees ravaged by a plague of Gypsy moth caterpillars, and that the benevolent wind is not only dislodging the few remaining leaves, it’s further drying out the already-parched soil as we find ourselves in a drought situation so early in the season here in Ontario. And so the eternal season of COVID-19 lockdown measures draws to a close after 14 long months, only to be replaced by an epidemic of a different kind. Hungry caterpillars. Drought. And yet I can choose to focus on the verdant leaves instead of letting my eye be drawn to the denuded branches of the oak trees and the yellowing, parched grass. It’s really all about what we choose to see and what we choose to unsee. What we chose to focus on and what we chose to be distracted by.
Instead, my thoughts turn to the end of pandemic-related restrictions, from being able to eat at outdoor eating establishments, to see more than five friends at a time, and to travel. Memories of travelling by train in Germany come to mind, and I recall the intriguing scenes of allotment gardens I would see from the train window, always near the railway lines, always on the outskirts of cities, but near enough to the city centre for the high-speed train to not yet have picked up so much speed so as to make seeing the little details impossible. Still, details seen from a train don’t equate actually setting foot in one of these little communities. I’d always wondered about the people who maintained these plots. Were they old or young? Were they more bourgeois conservative or anti-nuke hippies? Did they sometimes spend the night in their cute little garden palaces? From the train window, the gardens always looked perfect. Was this a requirement? Were weeds frowned upon? Did people socialize? Did people share their harvests? Their knowledge?
Often, my translations allow me travels of sorts. I’ve found myself transported to Morocco, translating someone’s university transcript from French to English. I’ve travelled to China, translating a Swiss-German photographer’s account of an endurance race. I’ve even sailed around the world, translating a sailor’s book about his solo circumnavigation. Sometimes the stories are so exciting, it’s all I can do to only let the story unfold at the speed at which I translate it. But sometimes, I read ahead.
And so I had the opportunity to travel to Germany and take a leisurely tour of one of these allotment gardens through my translation of Myriam Paulsen’s essay Among Garden Friends. I was not disappointed. She answered all the questions I had, and more. I gained further insight through Severin Halder, whose piece, Learning by Digging—What You Can Learn from Community Gardening, consists of the questions and answers covered in an interview with a group of passionate community gardening enthusiasts. The whole history of how shared gardening spaces came to be is covered in Dagmar Pelger’s piece, Gardening is Commoning, and the multitude of urban gardening projects explored by Judith Henning in Urban Permaculture—City Gardening with a Hidden Agenda are nothing short of inspiring.
As borders begin to open and last summer’s pandemic garden projects become overgrown, I invite you to pick up this book, ignore the weeds, and be inspired. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be tempted to pick up your trowel, dust off your knee pads, don your gardening gloves and tackle your ambitious gardening dream—at least until the travel restrictions lift!
Karen Caruana is the translator of The Philosophy of Gardening. When not mulling over words, she is an avid gardener (she once operated an organic herb farm), a passionate environmentalist, teaches yoga, and enjoys spending time outdoors. She lives in Marmora, Ontario.