In the days before I wandered the world I lived in a place where there were gardens by the sea. In my garden there were sweet peas and hydrangeas and gladioli, and above all else there was a particularly beautiful rhododendron that bloomed every spring. For the rest of the year it overshadowed the flowerbed, a shelter for flora and fauna. Then one day there was a fire in the garden. It swallowed the cheery little gladioli and it reduced the sheltering shrubs to ash. That was when I left the garden behind and decided to wander the world.
When I am weary of wandering I occasionally visit a garden close to mine, where the gardeners always welcome me and feed me and listen to the stories of my travels. I call two of the gardeners in this garden Mad and Crazy. Mad is called Mad because she often says, ‘It’s MAAAAD’ when describing the activities of others. Crazy is called Crazy because of her repeated use of the phrase ‘People look at us and think we’re crazy.’ I don’t think they’re crazy. Or I didn’t until today..... I like Mad and Mad loves me. Crazy is warm and engaging and extroverted, but I often feel that at any moment she might stab me in the eye with her secateurs.
Today as I look around the mad, crazy garden I see something that roots me to the spot: a glorious, untameable rhododendron growing in a rose bed. Now, roses are to me completely insincere flowers. People send them as gifts devoid of their thorns as if they were things incapable of pricking at flesh; they can be sanitised and grown in hothouses and printed on the front of greetings cards and ultimately they mean nothing. Rhododendra are often berated as weeds but I don’t classify them as such. I see it as sublime that they can grow in any soil and that they expand to take up the full space that their natures dictate. Nobody confines their blooms into the tiny circumference of a bouquet; they live outdoors in the gardens and forests of the world. Given this rather obvious distinction between the two shrubs, I am somewhat taken aback when Mad sighs, ‘Everything is growing well in the garden, except that tall rosebush. We can’t control it at all. It’s a mad creation.’
‘It’s crazy.’ adds Crazy.
‘Incorrigible.’ Mad acquiesces.
‘It’s just all over the place, ‘ Crazy declares.
‘It’s a rhododendron.’ I state the fact and they both roll their eyes towards Heaven, as if such a ridiculous notion were unworthy of verbal response.
I decide to spend some time in the gardens by the sea, and I often visit Mad and Crazy with their neat little gladioli and their well regulated rose beds, but yet every time I find myself there I stop for a while alone to commune with the beautiful rhododendron. It is not as tall or as wide as it might be; it has been the victim of misplaced topiary. Nevertheless, every attempt to make it behave like a rosebush brings out its true nature; where it is pruned it grows wild in every direction. I love it more than any plant in the garden.
The strenuous efforts on the part of Mad and Crazy to convert my rhododendron into a more typical garden shrub have begun to fray at the edges of my nerves. Today as I sit drinking tea with those most fervent gardeners I am wearing a T-shirt bearing the likeness of a rhododendron grown over many decades to its full splendour. Above this the word ‘RHODODENDRON’ is emblazoned across my bosom. But we are not talking about their garden today, and indeed as it is not my garden their shrub management is probably not my business... Mad is asking me about my own garden. What does it look like so long after the fire? I can’t answer because I haven’t been in my own garden for years. I don’t even know how to open the gate anymore. Crazy asserts that one day I must go and look into my garden, but I know that today is not that day, neither is tomorrow and the day after that probably won’t be either. For now I am a visitor in a pretty garden. With a neat lawn and friendly little gladioli before me, why should I think of an ashen wasteland somewhere else?
I am enjoying the spring in the gardens by the sea. The air is warm and there is a promise in the new blossoms appearing on the cherry trees that are scattered here and there. I decide to go and visit the rhododendron, to see its flame-like flowers bloom when the pitiful roses that surround it have yet to produce anything worth seeing. Maybe my own spirit is like the rhododendron, maybe pruning will actually make it grow. One day I might no longer feel that I have lost limbs.I open the gate to the mad, crazy garden and I move quickly in the direction of my most beloved shrub. I am frozen to the spot. In the place where the rhododendron grows I see a stump the size of a rosebush. Scattered in the rose bed lie a plethora of rhododendron branches. I fall to my knees and reach out towards the branches, but I know that I could as soon gather them up as I could lift the pieces of a broken heart. I will go and find Crazy’s secateurs and I will hurl them into the sea, and then I shall wander the world again.
A long, long time passes before I find myself anywhere near the gardens by the sea. I am weary and tired now, and the thought of the mad, crazy garden is not so overwhelming. Afterall, I always receive a warm welcome there and I do like those cheery little gladioli... and maybe I shall be able to avert my gaze from the desecrated flowerbed. It was never my right to question or comment on what Mad and Crazy do in their own garden. The rhododendron I loved was not my rhododendron; my own rhododendron was destroyed by fire and its ashes have blown into places where I shall never find them. I shall not sit in its shade again and no other shrub, no matter how similar, will replace it. I pause for a minute and then open the gate of the mad, crazy garden which today seems peacefully quiet. Then I see it towering infront of me and above me and on every side of me; a tall rhododendron, fully in flame-like bloom. It has grown wild in every direction; it has finally taken up its own space. The roses and the lawn and the happy little gladioli are not engulfed by it, they grow in harmony.
I see the distant figure of Mad approaching. She sees my wonder and says, ‘Hello. Good to see you after so long.... I see you’re staring at the rose bed. Turns out that vexatious rose bush wasn’t a rosebush afterall. Would you believe it turned out to be a rhododendron?’
I suddenly realise where I should be. I chat for a while and then make my way to a deserted garden. The gate hasn’t been opened in years. There is very little ash left; some of the plants have grown wild, the grass is knee high and there are weeds everywhere. Weeds are a sign of life. They are green and growing where once everything was dry and blackened. I will work in my garden and I will tend the plants that have continued to grow, and I will plant smiling little gladioli. I plan and work and dig and plant, and every now and then rhododendron petals come to me on the breeze.