Monday, June 18, 2007

Starving for the Green

This post was originally in "Multiple Realities of Istanbul" but as there were increasingly more posts relating to gardening and only marginally to Istanbul itself, I decided to split the gardening posts off into their own blog. Transferring them all will take a bit of time.

All you have to do is check out Istanbul on Google Earth to see that central Istanbul has a lot of cement in it. It's not devoid of greenery; there are parks and they are working on making more, planting median strips and highway embankments.

It wasn't always this way. There was a distinct Ottoman garden culture, and old engravings and photos up until the 1950s show a city full of wooden houses, many of which had back gardens, small towns along the Bosphorus backed by lush hillsides and fields. But with a few precious exceptions, the building boom caused by the massive migration that began in the 70s and continues unabated has made that Istanbul a thing of the past. The fields behind Arnavutköy that produced their famous fragrant pink strawberries now sprout endless rows of cement apartment buildings. In most neighborhoods there are only a very few old houses remaining among the valleys of concrete; they and the shady courtyards of some of the old mosques are enough to remind one that this was once a very, very different place. Still, its a city built on fertile soil in a fairly mild climate, and any area left free of cement quickly goes green. Pretty much any sidewalk crack or rock wall has something growing out of it. It's as if it still longs to be a green place.

Like most foreigners living here, I started out in the Beyoğlu area. It's Istanbul's main "European" face; dominated by the pedestrian İstiklal Avenue, it is probably the easiest place for a foreigner to live. English-language bookstores, lots of cafes, easy transportation, varied shopping and resturants and an "anything goes" atmosphere are some of the many reasons many newcomers choose to live there, or in the once ill-famed but now swank neighborhood of Cihangir.

But I didn't grow up in a big city, I grew up in Iowa, at the edge of town. We always had a yard, my mother was an avid gardener, in 10 minutes I could be in fields or woods, and that's where I spent most of my free time.

In Seattle, a city with a real gardening culture (probaby because just about anything will grow there), I was seriously bitten by the gardening bug. I lived in my last house there for almost nine years and soon the weed infested lawn in the almost bare back yard was gone. The picture here shows where I started every morning; my garden was like another room of my house.

When I came to Istanbul, it was for a specific reason, to study music. The original plan was to stay six months, but it ended up being six years and counting. I went back for a summer to wrap up affairs in Seattle, sell replaceable belongings and put other things into storage, and, hardest of all, deal with the garden. Having already farmed out the real treasures out to trusted friends, I held a sale in August. In a day's time, what was diggable or if any real value was gone.

But "Slaves to the Goddess Flora" have no emancipation day. Or to put it another way: once a hortisexual, always a hortisexual. The first house I lived in had two small balconies. They were completely filled with pots within a month or so. Then I moved into a place with no balconies. I went to window boxes, and what was too big to live there was donated to the back yard of the music school I was attending. (I quickly encroached upon that garden as well!) The next place had a balcony again, and space for window boxes and they were all filled in short order.

But as nice as potted plants are, they are no substitute for direct contact with the dirt, the smell of soil, of weeds ripped out. On a small balcony you can look at your plants, but a garden is (ideally, to me), a place to be in. They are places of constant change. Each spring, summer, fall, even winter would bring memories of what was growing during that season back home; the smell of sweet box, or winter daphne, the excitement of the first poppy opening in May, the first raspberry off the canes. I would always just put it off with the logic that finding a house with a garden anywhere where I could afford, and that wouldn't put me out in isolation, was just not something I could realistically hope for.

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