Lessons from a pawpaw tree

I first noticed her as a result of her clothing: bright and traditional and beautiful (I am drawn to bright colours like a moth to a flame). She was old with wrinkles in her face and had long grey hair in a very neat plait down her back. I slowed down and started walking as she held me with those  wise eyes. Lifting my right hand in salutation I felt my face crack a smile. She was sitting in the freshly disturbed ground with her legs folded under her with the flexibility of a much younger person. Her dark and wrinkled face also cracked into a toothless smile while she bobbed her head in a very respectful greeting. I found myself standing next to her and watched as she worked the tomatoes, carrots and other organic kitchen waste into the ground. She did this lovingly, tenderly. I turned, deeply touched, and continued my run. 

This is a little flowerbed on the corner of a block of flats. It is summer and the temperature has not dipped below 35 degrees Celsius for a while (it is currently 41 deg C). Despite this I am outside running and this wise woman is gardening. We live in a place where you cannot, should not, do gardening – it is a collection of many block of flats without any private gardens. Waste, of any nature, is disposed of and sent to the same dump; recycling just does not happen. The sight of someone other than a laborer (what workers are called here) working in this specific garden was so odd that I stopped running – I never stop unless I absolutely have to.

I am a farm boy and love the open spaces, nature and the ability to move. I get out of my flat to run in this heat because I need the space. I suspect that this lady is much closer to nature than what I could imagine. I met a similarly clad and wrinkled lady who is the mother of a friend. She is 78 years old and have left her village for the first time in her entire life to come and live with her last remaining son. My friend tells me that in India you live off the land by living for the land. I totally project this sentiment onto this stranger.

Months after last seeing this lady (I saw her often during summer) sitting and working organic waste in the flowerbed I noticed (for the first time) two trees in the flowerbed. Both are pawpaw trees. Both are in areas where the old lady sat. And one of them is bearing fruit. I found myself stopping again; this time to take a photo.

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I am surprised by the existence of these two trees – I saw, but never noticed them and I never made the connection between their appearance and the old lady’s gardening (I have not seen her for some time). I am also amazed at the amount of fruit on the tree. My third surprise is that the legion of gardeners let it grow – they completely rip everything out of the flowerbed to plant new flowers at the beginning of winter. One gardener described it as “garden scrubbing”. It is not allowed to plant any trees in this giant complex other than those already in the gardens or those that grow naturally.

I feel certain that these two trees grew because the lady had stuck to her love and connection with nature while going against what should and should not be done. It is obvious that these trees were not just planted here but that they grew from where they now stand. She sat, despite the local culture and the heat, and did what she loved: gave back to nature and planted something that would benefit anyone who would stop to pick a fruit. She had brought something new with her to this little garden. I am further convinced that her careful process rendered the ground rich in nutrients that fed the trees and thus enabling the fruit in this tree’s first year of existence.

For the rest of my run I wondered how these trees were allowed to grow. My fantasy is that the old lady had a conversation with the gardeners and had, through a mutual love of gardening, agreed to nourish and nurture the trees. Their growth would not have been allowed without some very serious conversation (based on experience where they ripped out a little girl’s strawberry plants from a date-palm bed while it still had fruit on [they were just doing their job and following the rules]).

I am aware of my own blindness of what goes on around me. On noticing the pawpaw tree I was pulled back into my immediate surroundings. I noticed the love that went into the gardens in a very unforgiving area of the world. My run has taken on a new quality that delights me! Instead of retracting into my head and running on reflective autopilot I remembered to take in the gestures and beauty and nature around me. The pawpaw tree reminded me that it is OK to sometimes go against what should and should not be. I am also reminded that it is possible to make a change against all odds and that one can achieve this with compassion and relationships. I learned from the pawpaw tree that there is so much beauty around us; all we need to do is notice it!


By Niel Stander

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