A Deeply Layered Exploration of History and Assumptions

When we were still living through five years of renovations, I would escape the smacking nail guns and screaming drills through tiny acts of gardening. Now that the builders and the portaloo are gone and our 1913 fixer-upper is as fixed up as it will ever be, I can’t wait to finally finish the front garden. 

This is where Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place and Belongingcomes in. I met the author, Mariam Pirbhai, during a writing retreat organised by Mountain Ash Press and, as she read from her book and talked, I felt an immediate connection to the way she sees the world. Maybe this is just her open and generous spirit but maybe it’s also because we’ve both lived in several countries and feel a tad out of step with the predominant cultural landscape of southern Ontario. 

During our conversations at the writing retreat, Mariam, who is both academic and artist, was gracious and supportive. She’s a focussed listener and sharp observer, considered in her questions and statements. So it’s no surprise to find these qualities spread out on the page as Mariam searches through plants and their histories of transcontinental migrations for a larger understanding of her roots and what she calls “stories of here.” 

Like Mariam herself, this is a deep and layered collection. Through various plants (from roses to champa to black-eyed Susans), she invites us to reflect on the assumptions embedded in our way of living and our landscape. We walk with her as she pieces together her and her family’s story of “multiple uprootings” and as she tries to extend with respect her émigrée-settler roots by learning about and creating her own garden full of flora native to the ancient soil of the Mississauga people. 

Despite my conversations with Mariam, I had no idea her medley of finely honed stories would resonate so deeply with me. Sometimes we’re not ready for a book but still it calls to us. When I bought Garden Inventories, I was pushing myself through the numb stages of grief and unable to concentrate. Now, a few months later, I urge you to pick up a copy, steep a cup of tea and allow yourself to sink into Mariam’s sketches. 

I read the essays with a pencil in hand, nodding my head and underlining sentences like this one: “States of arrival, like states of rootedness and belonging, do not begin and end at a customs checkpoint. More often, they emerge over time, and bear no expiry date. They grow in the spaces we create and curate for ourselves, like this little square pocket of land that is our garden.”

Mariam and I have different experiences yet somehow we tread common ground. Mariam, an accomplished author, was born in Pakistan, and lived with her family in England, the UAE, and the Philippines, and I grew up in Ontario with most of my adult years in France, England and Australia. So many of Mariam’s points resonated with me: our confusion over the reverence for “cottage country;” our questioning of the need for large swaths of lawn; our desire to understand and respect the Indigenous history of the land as well as plants native to our areas; our searching to fit into new places by learning about plants; and interestingly enough, our common cringe at the word “yard.” 

While some in Canada may disagree with Mariam’s interpretation of “yard,”  it made complete sense to me. In many places outside North America, a yard refers to an industrial space, more of a working area. A garden, however, is filled with greenery and flowers, a pleasure to be cultivated and enjoyed. I can’t help but think the dynamics between yardand garden are a microcosm of my immigrant experience and the assumptions of others: as the new arrival, I have constantly been asked to adapt, to learn new ways, to refrain from talking about what happened before, to give up who I was – not just culture or language, but even specific words.

Garden Inventories is about so much more than green stuff. I learned about the history of parts of southern Ontario and Pakistan, about apples and roses and mulberry trees, as well as about Mughal and Persian civilisations. It made me think about my different lands and the nostalgia I carry for each of them. 

In this and many ways, I felt like Mariam was speaking to my experiences, my longings, my heart. And–now that spring has finally arrived–her researched list of native plants will help with my own gardening dreams.

Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place and Belonging, by Mariam Pirbhai. Published by Wolsak and Wynn, 2023.