The garden is three islands of soil surrounded by sidewalks and the walls of the high school. My work partner was a woman of 70, sturdy as an oak, who emigrated from the Ukraine 20 years ago, after Chernobyl. We parked two girls in wheelchairs on the grass so they could watch us work the plots, already densely planted by her in the Ukrainian style – flowers on the perimeter, vegetables, herbs and fruit trees at the center. I planted pumpkin and marigold seeds, she covered them with sheets of newspaper (to keep the birds away), and I watered them with the hose.
My fellow-gardener was a concert violinist in the Ukraine, and sometimes she brings her violin to school and plays for the kids in the special-education program. Her favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. We talked about the latter’s dance of-death with Stalin and she said, “The Communists made their own truth. One day a man was an enemy of the people; the next, they named a street after him.” Her husband is Polish, born in Chełm – a city of fools, according to Jewish folklore (see Isaac Bashevis Singer). She visited once, to view a memorial for the Poles dead in World War II, her husband’s father among them.
We talked of gardening, Poland, the war, children, Russian (the language was mandatory in Ukrainian schools), herbal medicines, blackberries – and mushrooms, the subject that moved her to eloquence: “The Communists could not control our love of mushrooms. They tried but we kept it secret. We always love our mushrooms.” I told her of my meeting with Mikhail Iossel, the Russian-American writer who wrote a story about a gribnik, a mushroom hunter, based on his childhood in a birch forest outside Leningrad. “I have been there,” she said. “The Communists gave it that name. It is St. Petersburg.”
In “Lascaux,” an essay in Barbarian in the Garden, Zbigniew Herbert describes his first morning in Montignac, a village in the Vézère Valley near the Paleolithic cave paintings. He eats an omelette with truffles for breakfast, which prompts a digression on the much-prized, pig-hunted, subterranean mushrooms:
“Truffles belong to the world history of human folly, hence to the history of art.”