garden tales from a Brit abroad
Having lived on three continents, I am increasingly struck by the similarities and connections between gardens in seemingly very disparate countries. What confirms my location is not the plants or the layout or the use people make of the landscape – but the wildlife.
In Massachusetts, it was raccoons trotting along the tops of fences, the mongoose on the doorstep, and the occasional skunk lurking in the shrubbery that told me I was no longer in England. [One eagle-eyed reader has pointed out that native Bostonians would have been equally amazed by the mongoose; it was probably in fact an opossum.] A friend who lived only two hours north of Boston could entertain me for hours with tales of the moose and bears in her cornfield. It was as if she was on personal terms with space aliens. When we were in Paris, I was struck by the complete absence of grey squirrels in any park or garden, even though we were under three hours by train from the squirrel-laden London parks. Now in India, it’s the monkeys who confirm I am indeed a long way from home.
Last week I spent some time up on the northern ridge, researching the impact of the British on the Indian capital. The ridge is an ancient geological feature that runs diagonally across the city and was home to various grand colonial figures in the nineteenth century, and site of much of the action during the 1857 Uprising. Originally scrubland, it has for a hundred years been managed as forest. It is neatly planted, with park benches, wide paths, fences and litter bins. In the softer light of the Indian autumn, you could almost imagine you were in the UK (although the bougainvillaea slightly gives the game away).
It’s the bundi monkeys everywhere who are the real signal. To locals they may be nuisances who rip up gardens and carry TB, but to me they are an otherworldly joy, frolicking and leaping and just gathering in big social groups, in the same way that the jaunty raccoons never failed to delight in the States, even while locals muttered about vermin and rabies.
Fellow blogger Jack at Sequoia Gardens writes about the baboons who occasionally wreak havoc in his South African garden, and I find myself relishing the unfamiliarity of his homeland in a way that descriptions of similarly native species like phygelius or crocosmia would just not achieve.
So I am grateful to our little urban monkeys, desperately displaced as they are from their native habitat by human encroachment, for reminding me daily that, despite the clipped shrubs and English-style lawn that cover so much of Delhi, this really is a different country.