The shadow of penal supervision

The Gardener: Reflections on Pervasive Punishment

This guest post comes from Aniysa Ruhi, one of the students currently studying Pervasive Punishment at the University of Glasgow. It is her ingenious, evocative and creative response to the reflective essay task outlined in my previous post.

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Gardening has become a hobby of mine. I planted lavender in the front garden beside my bedroom window, in the hopes that, when it gets bigger in the coming years, I would smell it on the summer breeze. Lavender is a dry plant, but I’ve seen them survive the Scottish downpour in other gardens. Plus, they are low maintenance since they can go without water in the summer months. I also planted a knee-high, evergreen fir tree out of nostalgia for the home I grew up in. That one had been much taller. On the last spare patch of soil, I took a chance on a bright pink rhododendron with 5 flowers and strong almost plastic green leaves. I knew nothing of the care for this plant but in the shop, it looked so vibrant that I felt the impulse to buy it.

I dug up all the weeds and thought about soil. I’m usually scared of worms and bugs, but that May I didn’t think much of them, they were where they belonged, and a necessary part of the ecosystem. I accepted these facts as they were, and it became easy. I felt brave in a small way for overcoming my old fears, especially given that I was discovering new ones in adulthood.

I tried to pull up the weeds by the roots, but they had been left for too long, and I didn’t have the arm strength. Inevitably some got away, deep in the earth, soon to surface again. It wasn’t a perfect environment to grow, but it was what I could manage and afford at the time.

Our front garden had the worse reputation among the neighbours. As I weeded away, they stopped in the middle of the street to give me advice, folded arms leaning on the fence. Some offered seeds for herbs, others volunteered gardening equipment. I politely declined their help, and felt slightly irritated by their comments, ‘finally,’ ‘good for you,’ ‘I was going to do something about it if you didn’t.’ ‘…far too overgrown.’ ‘someone had to take care of this mess.’

I planted the rhododendron last. I gave them all plenty of water to survive the summer and weeded the garden every month or so. Whenever I had water in my backpack after coming home from work I would empty it onto the plants, if I remembered. As I supervised the growth of my garden, I realised it was also a reflection of care and commitment invested in my home. I planted them expecting these plants to grow in the coming years, with longevity in mind.

I felt fixed in place. Our flat belongs to my parents, and they plan to stay here indefinitely. For the foreseeable future, this garden was my sole responsibility, an inheritance of sorts. Still, no one allocated me this role, I volunteered out of personal interest and concern. I thought myself capable of gardening.

The summer passed, I felt pride every time I saw my garden. The weeds were persistent, but from the deep-rooted system I had started with, they were expected. I didn’t want to use any sort of weed killer in case the soil became toxic and barren, it was natural for some weeds to grow. Still, they couldn’t grow so tall as to block the sunlight or sap the nutrients of the plants. I always weeded by hand, careful not to cause lasting damage.

As autumn approached, the fir tree stayed as vibrant as it did in the summer, the lavender, dulled in colour and the rhododendron stayed in bloom before wilting, leaves and all, in late November. I had a different set of expectations for each plant, and the slow, natural changes or resistance in them felt assuring to watch. Classes started up again, I didn’t have much time to garden, nor the tolerance for the sharp cold, but the weeds also grew back slower in winter.

The first day of snow that year, I frantically googled ways to guard my plants from the blizzards to come. I hadn’t even thought of the effects of the cold, until I saw the highly visible white piles of snow weighing down the leaves. Balancing in high piles on the smallest perches.

In fact, I barely considered that something as routine as winter could be harmful. I wore thick jumpers, bought new boots and even called the snow beautiful, watching from behind a glass pane. Not until I saw the snow have a visible, weighted impact on the exposed plants did I think of the consequences. Didn’t it snow everywhere sometimes? When it happened under my watch I was somehow responsible. It was so easy to plant in the spring, when the idea felt full of potential. Even when I did remember the snow, there wasn’t much I could do at this point.

A small crisis- what if they died in the winter? I couldn’t control the cold. The only consoling thought I had was that at this point, it was out of my hands, they were already invested this far into the year, and if they didn’t survive, I would have to start all over again, and use the failure as a learning experience.

Or give up all together. Abandon the concept of a growing, living, place that I helped to build. Cover up the garden with woodchips. Conclude that the soil was difficult to grow on anyway, and that the whole endeavour had been a poorly thought out experiment.

As It turns out, the best thing to do was let them be. Snow has an insulating property, and its best to leave the layer, as opposed to disrupting it. This was a natural process after all, contained in my garden but still connected to soil and sunlight, like anywhere else. I let the months thaw into spring. Sometimes it just takes time. Admittedly, I overreacted.

Spring came again, I felt somewhat disheartened to garden, but the evergreen tree thrived on, taller now, a symbol of success. Even in the snow, it looked positively festive. I had planted it there knowing it was at a low risk of wilting. But this couldn’t be carried through to the other plants, they were fundamentally different, despite the common soil. They had different needs, they didn’t simply adapt anywhere, they were still unpredictable. It was clear they needed more attention, especially the rhododendron.

I learned too late, when the new leaves were coming in, that it required pruning in early spring. A whole new concept that I couldn’t really wrap my head round. By cutting away the branches they grow back bigger? Seemed counter intuitive. Last year’s dead leaves still hung limply and would hinder any new growth. This summer, only one flower blossomed on the bush. I was just happy it survived the freezing winter.

I like to think that the act of gardening as mutually beneficial, especially when I see tiny birds rest in the shade of the fir tree, but I can only speak for my experience as a gardener. It’s important to me to watch something change and grow. It helps me think in terms of slow change and the gradual process of growth. Only after a series of exacted, continuous acts does change occur. Naturally, like rain or curated, like a watering can. The result is the same in the end. By the time anyone else notices, it’s a serendipitous bloom- I like to remember the hard work and winters endured. It’s not a linear process. There’s a whole world I can’t see beneath the earth. I work with what I can see. Uprooting everything just to satisfy my curiosity would be fundamentally destructive, and selfish of me.

Maybe my care is an intrusion against some natural order. Maybe my plants don’t even belong in a garden and should have stayed potted for longer. Even so, I like to believe that in the long term the branches might grow even taller than me one day. They will be so strong, I won’t think twice about their health. Though for now, in these early days, I choose what to bloom.

Inspirations:

  • Supervisible‘Unnamed’ by Elvis (Scotland) – picture of tree growing in cage at an angle
  • The Invisible Collar

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