Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Jessica L.
"If you’re not prepared to hurt your mother, Do not hurt the earth, Because she is in fact your mother" - Bruce Pascoe
My house is a miniature jungle both inside and out. Plants are found in every dark corner and narrow corridor. They rest in pots, in vases, on top of bookshelves, outside on the balcony and even laid flat in framed pictures. Some congregate near the window blinds, waiting for sunlight to seep through. Some hide in the shadows of rooms while others proudly face the sun. Stubbornly unmoved in their own place, they remain ever growing. Gracefully standing or dangling as they watch us, judging us with unseen eyes. Nature’s humble presence watches in silence, only to be cast aside by the chaotic clamour of everyday life. Still, they grow in the constraints of their garden pots, a tame and docile jungle created in suburbia, with a wildness hidden in their roots.
As a family of five amidst this jungle, we have different experiences living amongst the greenery. In a dark bedroom, my Dad admires the trailing leaves spreading from the unruly vines whilst he calculates the “green” he paid for them. In the living room a camera phone flashes, sparking a transformation. The ephemeral green and yellow leaves are pixelated into an immortal photo stored inside a phone simply from the light tap of my sister’s finger.
Towards the colourful balcony, my brother abruptly leaves the company of his piano. Stepping outside he stares at the wild mosaic of flowers, uttering small praises, then hastily returns to his black and white world. Amongst my family there passes a peaceful passivity in which they briefly acknowledge nature's place in the world before returning to their own routines.
My mother however is not a passive observer, but a vehement caretaker. She uses all the maternal skills she acquired from raising three kids to care for her fussy green babies. She showers them with water when their limp leaves scream for nourishment. She trims their dried leaves and branches, keeping them presentable. She fertilizes their soil and patiently waits for them to grow. The plants, being such eager children wanting to please their parent blossom and flourish, in response to her efforts and love. I am always in awe. How could she understand the secret unspoken language of plants?
Living with plants entails a certain level of commitment that I wasn’t interested in pursuing. Mum coerced me into it with intense persistence. She would ask me to water the garden at first, then it would be trimming leaves and then it would be repotting the plants. I was gardening without enthusiastic volition, but with her insistence on me trying.
So I attempted to start my own garden. I shovelled dirt into pots, sprinkled seeds carelessly, drowned them in water and hoped for the best. As the days passed, I repeated the ritual of watering and eventually added the task to my daily chores. The plants didn't turn out well. Some shrivelled completely into dried heaps while some were too cowardly to even grow. It was by no fault of mine that nothing could grow. It was the crappy soil, the poor quality seeds, it was the water and even the stubborn sun that failed me.
Plants only need the consistent elements of soil, water and sunlight - to really kill a plant requires one thing; neglect. On my part, the combination of neglect and disinterest were what I provided in abundance. Sure I watered the plants but I did not know what they needed. I paid no attention to when the bright green leaves began to turn dull and limp or when stalks began to turn dry and crisp. I didn't care about over watering, under watering, de-weeding, trimming or any of it. I did not care to listen to something that I thought could not speak to me. I was wrong. They spoke a physical language, a metamorphic speech expressed through the hues of green, the dryness of soil, the shedding of leaves, the expansion of roots and the climbing of branches.
My disinterest that was once so firm began to unravel, slowly like steady stems unfurling their leaves. The stretching stalks and serpentine vines creeping from dark corners were beckoning towards the sunlight. From such a small window immense light travelled through and from a jungle contained within four walls one of many lessons were being taught. These humble plants are patient teachers to ungrateful students like me. They constantly leave you messages, asking for your care and leaving you with a choice. To grow up with plants is a reminder to listen to what is being said even when you hear no voice. It teaches that caring for life requires more than sympathy, pity or obligation. For everything will speak if we learn to listen with more than our ears. Now I'm learning to do just that.
In my small garden nestled in suburbia where I've planted marigold seeds I patiently wait.
And in this silence, I am listening.
“Our spirituality is a oneness and an interconnectedness with all that lives and breathes, even with all that does not live or breathe” - Mudrooroo (Aboriginal Writer)
“We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve, never to destroy" - Tom Dystra (Aboriginal Elder)
“The land is my mother. Like a human mother, the land gives us protection, enjoyment and provides our needs – economic, social and religious. We have a human relationship with the land: Mother, daughter, son. When the land is taken from us or destroyed, we feel hurt because we belong to the land and we are part of it" - Terry Djiniyini Gondarra (Aborigin
al Reverend and Theologian)
The thought that nature speaks to us, connects with us and is an extension of us is not something novel. It is an ancient idea belonging to the collective knowledge of Indigenous peoples all around the world. In Australia, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have always acknowledged the connection to land as the unshakeable foundation of their culture and identity. It is a truth that is learned through experience, taught from the wisdom of the natural environment. “How I Learned to Listen” is merely me beginning to understand an inkling of the wisdom that has always existed within the Indigenous community.