Although I’ve visited hundreds of gardens over the years, several of them more beautiful than words can express, it is rare when I leave one having experienced a kind of shiver, knowing that I have just witnessed something rare.
On a recent group tour to gardens in and around Haifa, I was ready to call it quits after lunch. But the group concensus was to continue on to the last garden scheduled for the day, in the heart of Haifa. When we arrived at our destination, over an hour later, the neighborhood looked a bit run down: it was on a hill, overlooking the city, was made up of what appeared to be older, low rise apartment buildings, several on stilts. I assumed that the garden would be nothing special and that we would be on our way within 30-45 minutes.
I had been given a bit of information about the owner beforehand. As a 3 month old, he had been put on a train to Auschwitz with his parents. Somehow, his aunt had the courage to jump off, with him in her arms. He never saw his parents again, lived in Holland until his late teens and then moved to Israel. A garden designer his entire life, he had stopped practicing 5 years ago and was finally able to spend all of his time tending to his own creation.
As we stood at the back of the apartment house, he explained that originally he just started digging up the land, only to find that it was filled with stones. When his neighbors saw what was happening to their shared property, they called the police to complain. The police, after coming over to check out what the hullabaloo was all about, decided not to intervene.
And so this garden maker continued digging, chipping, chiseling, designing and building, laying stone upon stone, creating walls, grottos and havens for water elements. As I walked down the first level of steep steps, wildflowers were growing in the crevices of the wall with roses planted in a narrow bed above it. Walking down several more steps, a grouping of outstanding brugsmanias, hovering over the garden, overpowered me. Each time when I landed at another level, I was surrounded by stone: the flowers scattered in narrow beds or container plantings built into the tops of stone walls were dwarfed. By the time I reached the bottom of the garden, I felt is if I had spiraled downward into what….I don’t know.
At each level, the garden’s walls and several of the walkways had been built of differerent sizes, shapes, and types of stones. They were intricate and enthralling but at the same time, for lack of a better word, incongruent. I felt nothing soothing about this space.
Any type of stone that he found on the property ended up being part of the garden. Remember, this is a man who dug and built everything that was in his garden by hand. For a person at any age, this would be a monumental undertaking; but it was obvious from his history that he had to be in his late 60s-early 70.
Any commentary I write about someone’s elses motivation or psyche is a guess based on my instincts. Keeping that in mind, here’s what I think. The creator of this garden has suffered more than I can even dare to imagine. This garden was given birth from deep within his soul. It represents his attempt to create a safe haven; one that will protect, calm and keep him from the mad world on the outside, the world that extinguished his parents, made him an orphan and forced him to be on his own at a young age. Miraculously, in spite of all of the horror he had experienced , this individual was and is still able to create a pulsating, breathing and unique work of art.
As he told us, he thinks and dreams about his garden all of the time. It is his life.