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Notes from the Backgarden


(© 2002)

Living in central Amsterdam I share the pride of many city dwellers that I have a small garden. This tiny 6x 8m microcosm is my daily wilderness. It and the little neighbouring plots form a small courtyard, following the pattern determined by the building lines of the original 17th century plan. The quarter is part of the older city, and began as the harbour expansion. Amsterdam grew increasingly more prosperous with the increasing influence of trade and particularly the Dutch East India Company and expanded beyond the earlier city walls.

To watch how this space survives, reflects the attitude towards the wider environment. The garden is filled with rampant verdure: native Dutch plants from the nearby botanical gardens, ferns, out-of-control privet bushes and a rhododendron. These hide the earth which itself covers a filter, building materials and imported soil. These were necessary to cover the remains of ancient harbour workings. A romantic idea, a beautiful historic continuity but filled with lead and other heavy metals. To be on the safe side, we garden in plastic gloves.

Sometimes some of the surrounding 20 households explain to me that as the garden has no manicured flowers, it really isn't a real garden and I have no need to get upset when I am removing, tin cans, plastic bags and food remnants. I'm learning that my perception of the space is entirely personal, but slowly with time the neighbours acknowledge my eccentricity and are beginning to accept that although this doesn't fulfil the "criteria", it is green and cared for.

When the overhanging elder tree of my neighbour was pruned to a solitary vertical stick, I realised in turn that I had no concept of the environment as my neighbours saw it. Apparently it was messy, shady, lost leaves and oozed sap. Strangely, I believe that is the nature of trees! That one tree was vital. It was our only element by which to gauge the seasons. Now it is no longer there, it is quite disorientating, an urban environment without a frame of reference. The birds, ever resourceful, have taken to nesting in the roof insulation. They are becoming more reliant on food handouts since the tree's berries disappeared.

The old city is a beautiful, intensely urban landscape. The parks are well-loved, well-worn places. Strangely, that veneration disappears in the small undistinguished corners. The value of those remnants of nature in the highly ordered environment seems overlooked. In their place in parks, avenues and nature reserves, of course they are highly valued… It is as if the trees must be placed in the appropriate context to be admired.

Lilian Cooper is an artist and writer living in the Netherlands.

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