Even though it seemed unrealistic to hope for a garden in Istanbul, every spring I would be overcome by a longing to dig in the dirt, to plant. In about July of 2005, it hit me again, and I started thinking about what I could do.
If you don't like metaphysics, just skip the next two paragraphs.
It occurred to me that it wasn't so much the garden (or anything else for that matter) as a physical entity that moved me, as my own response to it, my perceptions of it. Think of the possible reactions of several people looking at the same garden. One might say "pretty" and move on. Another might be overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Another might see it in terms of what it's missing (tomatoes, geraniums, whatever). And yet another might say "if I could put a parking lot here, I could make a lot of money." What makes the difference? The things that resonate inside them when they see/experience a garden. In that sense, the garden is just a piece of real estate but its essence, its beauty (that we perceive) is actually inside us. We all carry around our own garden inside of us. Or maybe our own parking lot. Why not, the world needs parking lots too.
So I decided to explore the garden inside me, see what it was, what it resonated to, and enjoy that. What I saw were qualities, growth, development, change. Watching a seed, which contains the entire potential of all that plant can be, sprout, grown and bear fruit, is fascinating to me. Once a garden is established, it's still developing; different plants come up, bloom, go down; seeing them make their reappearance in the spring is like meeting old friends again. As I looked at that aspect and enjoyed my "inner garden," what happened was that I started noticing "gardens" everywhere, in a dandelion suriving in a sidewalk crack, in a little green space betwee two buildings.
About two weeks later, a friend visiting from Rize who was visiting Istanbul called and said "You have to come see the place I'm staying! It's just right for you!" He described a two story house in a big garden, with fig, quince and mulberry trees, and a huge expanse. "Great," I said, "But is there an opening there?" "The ground floor comes open next month." It was August 29, which meant I had two days to give notice to my present landlord. We hopped on a bus and checked it out. It was amazing, just the entrance was a sell, a 30 meter path between an old wall and a mosque garden. The garden itself was overgrown, neglected for 12 years.
In Seattle, there is an old neighborhood in the First Hill area, which has become completely surround by hospitals and development. You go through all these immense buildings, and suddenly find yourself in a quiet several blocks of old houses on green, tree-lined streets. It's known by many people as "The Magic Bubble." The current tenants of the ground floor were gone so I couldn't even see the inside of the apartment aside from a couple peeks through windows. I said "I'll take it!" I knew right then that I'd found my own "Magic Bubble" in the middle of Istanbul. Or it had found me. Below is moving and decontamination day.
I've started gardens in neglected back yards before, but this was something else altogther. It had truly gone wild. It had been invaded by Ailanthus trees, or "Tree of Heaven," and a more inappropriate name has never been thought of. They are invasive, they sucker wildly and produce thousands of seeds. And they stink too. The Turkish common name is much more apt: "Osuruk ağacı," or "fart tree." There was a carpet of weeds up to a meter deep in places. And an added bonus: A decade or so earlier the owners had been forced to demolish a back corner of the building over a property dispute with the neighboring mosque. The cement, brick and other rubble from that part of the house was in a pile (as there is no vehicular access), but when I started clearing, I realized that much of it had been strewn througout the yard. I had my work cut out for me. I won't talk too much about the inside of the house except to mention walls painted suicide-invoking colors, wall-to-wall carpet in the kitchen with moldy sticky god-knows-what ground into it, and a floor with so much paint spattered on it that it looked like an attempt at impressionism.
The first job was to clear out the weeds, then get as much rubble out of the soil as I could. This is a never-ending process because it keeps surfacing; there is always more. When I gathered up all the weeds, I ended up with three piles as tall as I am, and I'm not a short guy. Eventual compost if I could get it hot enough to kill the weed seeds. I also began to become acquainted with some of the wildlife inhabiting the soil and especially the pockets between the rubble. Giant snails and slugs (I have 6 varieties which are worth a chapter in themselves), scorpions (the little fellow on the left actually showed up in the kitchen sink, but he has friends). The scorpions are not a dangerous type by the way. What is a bit more dangerous, or at least painful, are the 6 inch-long Scolopendra centipedes. Luckily our species seems to be the least aggressive, which I've determined by 1) pressing lightly on the back of a couple; they just try and get away; and 2) having one crawl up my pants leg and repeatedly get squeezed between my jeans and an expanse of tempting, tender buttflesh. I'll post a picture soon. Of the centipede, that is. The last picture here is roughly the same view after the bulk of the cleanup. All the rocks, rubble and bricks came out of the soil itself. Another 40 buckets full were gathered up and thrown back on the main (unsalvageable) pile. I think if I had known how bad that would be, I probably would not have taken the place. There was also the issue of a major bit of fraud on the part of the upstairs neighbor. But in the end it's been an amazing place to be.