Monday, April 06, 2015

Garden of good and evil

THE GARDEN is as good a place to learn about good and evil. “A garden eastward in Eden” came to mind while the husband and I chose plants for our small garden.

Were Eve and Adam overwhelmed, too, by the sales spiel of the serpent into committing the original sin? Following the recommendation of a grandmotherly seller that described it as a “good plant” (“so obedient, you stick it into the soil, it does God’s will”), we brought home oregano.

Unlike Eve and Adam, who chose knowledge in the garden east of Eden, oregano is obedient. We planted the cuttings and, three months later, the oregano has grown to almost three feet, green leaves peering over the windows like an inquisitive child checking out what’s for dinner.

Oregano is useful, too. Gently shake the leaves and release a pungent odor. The herb repels mosquitoes and cures cough. In Bohol, oregano-flavored “humba” favors jackfruit instead of pork.

But what good is good without the presence of evil? Gardens cannot be stocked only with the useful and wholesome. Weeds make life interesting. Whoever said gardening means calm and quiet has yet to take on weeds. Only way to excise evil: hand-to-hand combat.

Doing battle with a small sprig of heart-shaped leaves and dainty lavender blossoms that hide a monstrous stem, hooked thorns and a root twisted deep into the ground set up a whole afternoon of reflection. Where is the master gardener that can create a hybrid of the persistence and endurance of evil, crossed with the purity and beneficence of good?

Old-time gardeners bargained with good and evil, according to the “Old Customs and old wives fables” collected in Margaret Baker’s “The Gardener’s Folklore”.

My secondhand hardbound copy traces that in the British Isles and North America, the “greatest body of gardening lore… revolves round Good Friday”. This is influenced by Christianity and pre-Christian belief in the White Goddess or Mother Earth, the “feminine principle” of fertility and rebirth guiding agrarian communities.

One English gardener expressed the pre-Christian belief in Satan’s hold over everything beneath the earth: “Seeds go to hell to make their obedience to their Master before they come up for you.” By planting on Good Friday, consecrated by the Lord’s sacrifice, a gardener eliminated or shortened the journey a seed had to make to the underworld.

Baker cited the American practice of treating Good Friday as the best day for spraying fruit trees. Devon gardeners swear that anything planted or grafted on Good Friday “grows goody”.

In Britain, Good Friday is the “right and proper day” for planting potato. This 390-year-old practice is quite a “neophyte” among superstitions, observes Baker. A High Anglican and Methodist talked about Good Friday as “spud day,” with the former commenting on the symbolism of putting a “dead-looking thing into the earth, knowing that it will come up again.”

What about weeds? Some old-time gardeners believe weeds were placed to curse the ground for Eve and Adam’s disobedience. Others believe the curse is not eternal, best uprooted when the moon is full because, according to the ancients, no plant will germinate when it is struck at its peak.

To Christian or pagan, the garden is an arena of good and evil.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 5, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

The ways to read

A WEBSITE simplifying science for kids clarified why summer always has this effect on me: Earth spinning on a slightly tilted axis = more hours of daylight = more hours to read.

It would be cool, so to say, to be in the North Pole during the summer because the daylight would be endless there, with no nights at all.

From book blogs, I found several common themes running through summer-time reading. Many readers squeeze in a book or more while going on a holiday voyage or taking a quick break to the beach.

For this kind of “retreat reading,” the wisdom is equally divided between those who recommend narratives that share the setting of the reader and those who prefer a book that creates its own “imaginative getaway” within its pages.

I enjoyed the Aug. 8, 2014 The Guardian review by reader Daniel Gooding who found Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” “perfect” for “under-the-sun reading.” Gooding read the novel’s opening line while lying under the “scorching blue skies over the Platja de Torrenostra” in Spain: “It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”

Not all reading in summer is for escape. Children specially must be encouraged to read in summer. Three months of being idle results in young minds going through “summer slide”.

According to the Reading is Fundamental website (, children who don’t read over the summer will “lose more than two months of reading achievement”. Summer slide is cumulative. By the sixth grade, children who don’t open a book in summer will be two years behind their batch in terms of reading achievement.

The RIF website suggests ways for encouraging children to read. In our family, picking a novel that’s part of a series works well. It’s based on the “salted peanuts” rule: it’s virtually impossible to eat only one peanut.

In summer 2014, I read and chased all 19 but one novels in the Inspector Rebus series created by Ian Rankin. Edinburgh detective John Rebus was followed by the Los Angeles tandem of psychologist Alex Delaware and homicide detective Milo Sturgis, creations of Jonathan Kellerman.

Rebus, Delaware and Sturgis are tangled masses of humanity, as internally messy as the bristling criminals they confront across a thin divide. They are worlds apart from the other genre sleuths I followed a decade or two earlier: Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Jules Maigret.

If I gathered all my idols in one place, what would they say to each other? Gentle spinster Ms. Marple, rock-music aficionado Rebus, gay-and-grim Sturgis, and Monsieur Poirot of the mustache and “little gray cells” will acknowledge their debt to my girlhood love: Nancy Drew.

For creating Nancy, Carolyn Keene was my favorite author until I learned that this was a pseudonym the Stratemeyer Syndicate invented to tap about a dozen ghost writers to pen the 80 or so mysteries that started my serial reading.

Keene may have turned out to be a fiction within a fiction. But thanks to writers, ghost or real, my summers have been an endless read.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 29, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”