A Gardener’s Odyssey

© 2011 Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson

It was a chilly night in February when my husband and I left our home in Missouri for a six month tour through Southeast Asia. We had just sold our farm, replete with herb, flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees and berries, all neatly edged in native stone.

The ad that our real estate agent came up with boasted, “Beautiful gardens in a park-like setting.”  The statement seemed appropriate enough, yet it seemed to be missing something. We thought of adding, “Owners’ backs hurt like crazy from hauling rocks, mowing lawns and picking up sticks.” Or the more descriptive, “Property comes complete with large family of moles and one evasive and destructive armadillo.”  It was all true, of course, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been much of an enticement to get those prospective buyers over to the place to have a look, so we deftly left that part out.

The house sold quickly and despite our sentiment for the place we were giddy to hitch up our backpacks and be free of the work and responsibility that comes with keeping up a “park-like setting”.  Sure we’d miss it; our gardens were labors of love that took years to create, but what lay ahead was an adventure that would last a lifetime.  So we said goodbye to all our favorite plants and special hidden places, shed a few tears and hit the road.

Our journey took us to exotic places.  We rode elephants in Thailand, stood at the massive stone gates of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and rode a train along the stunning, tropical coastline of Vietnam. We journeyed up the great Mekong River through the rugged mountains of Laos, swam in the crystal blue waters of Angkor Wat © 2011 Jill Hendersona Malaysian island paradise and stood face to face with wild orangutans in the verdant jungles on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In Singapore, our seventh country, we stood before towering skyscrapers and marveled at the efficiency and modernity of that tiny island nation. A short flight took us Down Under into the strangely beautiful landscape of outback Australia, where kangaroos are as common as robins on a lawn. We capped off our adventure with a stop in New Zealand, where our spirits soared among the snow-capped Southern Alps and endless coastal hillsides dotted with grazing sheep.

I’m sure that by now you are wondering what globetrotting has to do with being a gardener, but really, it’s not nearly as subtle as you might imagine. You see, during that six-month odyssey across ten countries, three continents and two hemispheres, one undeniable theme was repeated over and over again.

Throughout the countries in which we traveled, gardening seemed to be the theme.  We touched, tasted and smelled the products of gardeners.  We found ourselves drawn to countless village and city markets of indescribable vibrancy and variety. We spent hours ogling over a vast array of colorful fruits and vegetables, some of which we recognized as © 2011 Jill Hendersonvarieties that we grew at home, but many more that were completely and wonderfully alien to us.

At times it seemed as if everyone we met was a gardener of some stripe. Flower gardeners, market gardeners, exotic orchid gardeners, backyard gardeners and just plain farmers.  Even the children gardened. And without fail, every time we mentioned that we were also gardeners, an immediate friendship was struck. Even when we couldn’t speak in words, we managed to converse in an age-old language of pantomime that was clearly understandable.  After all, every gardener the world over understands the movements of digging the earth with a shovel and before long, we would be comparing calloused hands and dirty fingernails with knowing smiles that gardeners seem to carry with them at all times.

We felt lucky to have met so many wonderful people who freely shared their knowledge and experience with us.  In the mountains of Vietnam we had a long discussion with a farmer about the difficulty the people had trying to save cabbage and onion seeds in the region; while in Indonesia, a fellow gardener passed on to me seeds that had been in his family for generations.  In Malaysia we discussed composting and green-manure techniques with Batak tribesmen living deep in the jungled mountains.

Amidst the more serious discussions of gardening techniques were humorous stories of cheeky monkeys raiding fruit trees and armadillos tunneling through tomatoes – funny stories of trial and error that everry gardener has.  Some of the more precious moments were brought on by language barriers.  One such moment occurred in a small traditional Batak tribal village in Sumatra.

While there I was served the most amazing cantaloupe I had ever eaten in my life.  I asked the server if it would be possible to have some of the seeds from the melon to take home to my own garden.  The cook quickly came to the table and brimming with pride, presented me with a handful of just-cleaned seeds.  Of course I was curious as to what variety the cantaloupe was so I asked him, “What is this called?” and he replied in Bahasa Malay, “Semangka”.  For our benefit, the waiter stepped up and us that Semanka meant melon in English.  I tried several more times to rephrase the question but each time the reply was always the same – Semanka.  The three of us were beginning to sound like an Abbott and Costello routine, and as we began to see the absurdity of the conversation, everyone, including now interested bystanders began to laugh. © 2011 Dean Henderson  I realized that what was funny to them was that I was trying to squeeze out of them a name that didn’t exist.

After a time I learned that most of the produce in the village had been grown from seeds that had been passed down from generation to generation, and this particular fruit was known simply as “melon” or “white melon”.

When I finally got those seeds back to the US and into a local seed bank, I labeled the package simply as Semangka. The best part of this and many other encounters like it was that through our connection as fellow gardeners, every language and cultural barrier that stood to divide us crumbled under the weight of understanding smiles and laughter and camaraderie that we shared as fellow gardeners.

Before we set out on our journey half-way around the world it seemed as though we were tired of gardening. Our bodies ached and we dreaded the three long, droughty months of yet another Ozark summer. But as our aching backs eased and our calluses softened, what we discovered was that we never stopped longing for our garden – or any garden, for that matter.  The scent of soil had long been impregnated into our fingerprints and the red earth of home rans like blood through our veins.  We could no more stop being gardeners than we could change the way the earth spins.

An odyssey is a long and eventful journey and that is exactly what our six month sojourn across southeast Asia became.  It was during that trip that we discovered that the act of growing one’s own food spanned countless languages, continents, and ages – and that despite the fact that we were strangers in a foreign country, our fellow gardeners readily embraced us with both arms.

It was through that singular connection, that web-like strand of commonality, that we made lifelong friends, learned more than we ever bargained for, and renewed our spirit of gardening among someone else’s verdant fields – armadillos and cheeky monkeys notwithstanding.   copyright Jill Henderson

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2011 Jill Henderson

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

7 responses to “A Gardener’s Odyssey

  1. Wonderful…………………….

  2. wonderful read Jill. Here in Thayer quite a few gardeners are coming together to share, buy and sell and just learn from one another.

  3. This was just great and HOW i relate. I think like you I could no more stop gardening….even when this has been the worst temperatures ever 95-100 degrees every day for two weeks and every bug known to man…but ah today we got 3/4 inch and it dropped from 100 degrees to 80. I miss you my friend and love your posts.

  4. Thanks so much, Mary. I miss you too. Gardening is always hard work, no matter how much you try for it not to be, but it’s a passion that can’t be replaced. Just remember that you are an inspiration to so many people who love to garden and love to eat what you grow in your garden! Hang in there -the heat won’t last forever!

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