My father leans over the balustrade to look at his garden. He is making sure plants that need protection from frost have been tended to. There is a chill in the evening air and a good chance that temperatures will dip below freezing tonight. I stand on my tippy toes, bolstered up by my elbows, chin resting on the flat top of the wall, preoccupied with my thoughts.
I have burning questions but I don’t know how to ask him. With effort I marshal my thoughts, enough to formulate one query.
“Is ‘Native’ a bad word daddy?”
The wall overlooks a sunken garden with symmetric flower beds, tall trees and short shrubs. Usually I take a keen interest in weeding, planting, feeding and all manner of care that he lavishes on his garden. He has taught me the names of every flower. There are foreign ones like Sweet Peas, Tulips and Larkspur as well as Indian varieties like Chameli, Gainda, Gulab. I know what grows when. I can identify a plant just by looking at the shape of its leaves.
Instead of answering he says “I haven’t seen you gardening lately. What’s keeping you busy?”
“I am reading more to improve my English grades; you asked me to check out library books and I did. So I don’t have time any more.”
He waits a while before adding “Native is not a bad word but first, tell me, in this garden, which flower do you like best?”
His voice floats across 40 years and thousands of miles with the clarity of the sunshine that surrounds me.
I am on the Stanford Dish, having signed up for a day of service with a group of volunteers to restore the area to its natural habitat. My job today is to plant oak tree seedlings and pull out the non-native species which are overtaking the hillside and killing off the native California scrub oak. The non-native plants suck up too much water and have ridden the hillside with squirrels I’m told. I get to hear from biologists about the natural flora and fauna in these foothills. I love this chance to be outdoors and learn but my heart weeps when I must pull out a healthy plant.
“I like them all daddy.” I remember saying. “I think a garden won’t be so pretty if we only had one kind of flower.”
“I think so too” he says. “Native refers to a person, plant or animal that originates in a particular region. In our garden there are plants from all over the world which means some are native but others are not. If left untended, the plants of different types can choke one another. Other times we have to help the plants that came from far away to live in a different kind of soil, or different temperatures. The plants adjust and they thrive together and when they do our garden is prettier.”
“Am I a native daddy?” I had persisted.
“Yes you are. But many of our friends and some relatives, have moved here from somewhere else. A garden of people, when they thrive together is prettier and is called a civilization.”
I remember thinking at that time that he did not understand the gravity of my question but of course he did. It was just that I was growing up too fast for his liking and he wanted another year of innocence from his child.
I plant a seedling, soak in the sun and promise to do my part in this garden.