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Mother, you are my one and only

Text and photos by Guillermo Angulo, Colombia
Click images to enlarge

To Kit and Ben Knotts

When Miña, my mother, put out the little flowerpot with a pitiful daisy plant in it, the terrace of our house in El Poblado started to collapse. It came down just like you see in the movies, all in slow motion, with a lot of dust and no noise, and when the scene began to clear my mother appeared with a Mona Lisa smile, unharmed and undaunted, with a glass of aguardiente in her hand (the Colombian equivalent of Swedish Akvavit) that seemed to have come miraculously out of nowhere, and with her ever-present and always-lit Ginebra cigarette between her lips.

I didn't give her the benefit of the "I told you so" that she was expecting, since I had warned her a thousand times already: "Listen, mother, each cubic meter of earth weighs more than a ton and if you keep adding more and more flowerpots, one day you're going to bring the house down."

Drawing on the Christian technique of guilt transference which came so naturally to her, she said simply: "Ole, these new architects have no idea how to do their calculations," thereby confusing designers with engineers, and perhaps thinking of Rogelio Salmona, the best Colombian architect and friend of the family, of whom she used to say: "Such a good architect and such a bad husband." She regularly used marriage as a basis for her comparisons. So when she spoke of Joseph, the carpenter, she would say: "Such a good husband but such a bad carpenter." "Why, mother?" "Listen, son: you can find pieces of the Holy Cross, the True Cross, all over the world. So many that if you piled them on top of each other you'd end up with a cross higher than Mount Everest. On the other hand no one has located a piece of a chair or a bed made by St. Joseph. Such a bad carpenter!" (Years later Saramago, the Nobel prize winner, would validate this intuition).

All this is to let you know that my mother was a fanatic about all living plants. She would buy or exchange them, ask for cuttings, collect seeds and when needed even resort to stealing; she just pulled out any plant she wanted by the roots and ignoring the dirt stuffed the whole mess in her handbag. Thus, it was from her, I got my love of flowers. After my mother's death I found myself growing the same flowers as she did and when asked about the origin of my love for plants, I would answer: "It seems to be a late-blooming, or to be more precise, post mortem Œdipus complex."

The years went by and, as a writer friend phrased it, I went to taste the bitter caviar of exile in New York. And there, as a result of living so close to Central Park (the only open country that my wife -a diehard city dweller- is willing to tolerate) and because of my frequent visits to the Botanic Garden in the Bronx and especially the one in Brooklyn where I saw a great variety of plants, I began to focus more on orchids and water plants -although I did not realize at the time that these would become my future and obsessive love.

And then I began to visit the Rizzoli shop and other bookstores, searching no longer merely for literature, but for manuals on plant cultivation and classification. I had begun to fear that my mother's habit of talking out loud to her flowers ("Oh my! You are really pretty today!") would be passed down to me and might even be accompanied by other indications of hereditary insanity. But I found salvation with Elvin McDonald's book, Stop Talking to your Plants and Listen. This was my epiphany. If you really look at your plants with love they let you know, sottovoce, what they need.

And from books I discovered a love of our native plants, regarded by many people as no better than country cousins who come to town believing that caviar is a revolting salty jam washed down with ice-cold vodka and do not appreciate good wine. The books, which taught me that God is God, also revealed that the prophet of good garden design was not Mohamet but Roberto Burle Marx, a distant relative of that other Marx who had a preference for barren libraries over the exuberant and aromatic green of gardens.

Don Roberto, born in Brazil and endowed with a golden singing voice, was sent to Berlin by his parents to see an eye specialist since he was losing his eyesight, and to study bel canto. And there he deviated from his parents´ plan; he began visiting botanic gardens and in the German capital, of all places, discovered the rich flora of Brazil, to which later he devoted his entire life, enriching it with his discoveries and publishing his findings. Brazil is noted for its great achievements in recent years in the field of architectural design but non-specialist readers may need reminding how much the new Brazilian architecture is indebted to Burle Marx for the beautiful gardens that provide an ideal complement to so many of these wonderful structures. Burle Marx's eyesight improved and he retained his beautiful voice: he sang while he painted, or designed gardens and jewelry or entertained his friends.

 Roberto Burl Marx

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