Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place, and Belonging
by Mariam Pirhabi
Wolsak and Wynn, 2023
172 pages
Reviewed by Michelle Hardy

Michelle Hardy reviews Mariam Pirbhai’s Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place and Belonging.

In the past, I’ve asked questions while planning a garden. What, when, and where to plant? Will it grow? Will my choices overshadow plants already living there? These seemed preparation enough to approach my own patch of soil. Then I read Mariam Pirbhai’s Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place and Belonging, and realized my gardening concerns and motivations have historically been grounded in the present; they signify my attachment to and perceived ownership of my garden as my place. Mariam Pirbhai’s global approach to gardening in Southwestern Ontario has uprooted my settler perspective.

Published in 2023 by Wolsak and Wynn, Garden Inventories is a sequence of essays culminating with a prose poem. Literary, historical, and pop culture allusions are planted none-too-deep within the table of contents. Subtextual questions within chapter titles offer witty, provocative, postcolonial reads before this creative nonfiction narrative even begins.

The opening chapter, “The Land That Is,” wonders whether rootedness is bound by birthright, family, genealogy, and heritage, or can it be established in other ways? Next, “Contrapuntal Gardeners” references Palestinian theorist Edward Said’s contrapuntal vision of the “displaced—where lived experiences of different geographies or different lands coexist in counterpoint, each one unique but interdependent.” Contrapuntal elements of this text include Mariam and her husband Ronaldo. Personal narratives of family migrations unfold during the couple’s routine nature walks. Conversations, such as why the West developed a taste for trees that don’t bear fruit, meander through their Waterloo neighbourhood and Grand River region, and eventually form the foundation for this book. “By Any Other Name” cautions beware Canadian flora appellations; Indigenous history, heritage, and stories have been lost through the robbery of names. “Anthropology of the Cottage, or a (Second) Slice of Precambrian Pie” examines symptoms of immigrant exclusion through the lens of Ontario cottage country. While researching a summer staycation, Pirbhai finds herself wedged between competing up-at-the-lake narratives of settlement and displacement—narratives in which navigational prepositions like up and articles like the keep locals on the inside and others out. The chapter “Garden Inventories” pulls misrepresentations of weeds from a larger discussion of the oft-neglected complications surrounding conservation areas. “Startling Lawn Facts” substantiates colonial allegations inherent outside this country’s own front door; Pirbhai’s lawn arguments are arranged in a trim and tidy annotated list. The author concludes with “Not Your Garden-Variety Settlement Story:” a prose poem written for another anthology and reproduced with permission in this text. The poem resembles an afterword, so allows for reiteration.  However, the poetic form also demands we end up somewhere new. Do we? Let’s backtrack first …

Pirbhai classifies Garden Inventories not as memoir, but rather as an émigré-settler’s sketchbook of the place she has arrived: a geographic kaleidoscope, she writes. Complexity and diversity are conveyed through a medley of forms: art; photography; poetry; vacation rental ads. Meticulously conducted research bangs up against irony and humour. An artist herself, the book is a mixed-media creation incorporating stories of neighbours and family.

The author’s original artwork resides on the cover: a representation of a Mughal Charbagh, a quadrilateral garden irrigated by water channels. Pirbhai gathers her parents’ fondness for growing food took root in the garden legacies of the Mughal Empire. She writes: “Historic upheavals and subsequent migrations only deepened my father’s passion for the fruits and foods of the East, and only compelled my mother to further dig in her heels in the gardens she nurtured in each of her homes. These two sensibilities combined have much to do with my own interest in how foods and plants (and of course people) travel.” The cover’s design sings songs of diaspora, migration, and South Asian ethnicity. The lush colours echo Mariam and Ronaldo’s discussions of why fruit trees have moved from reverence in the East to suspicion in the West: fruit left untended eventually makes a mess.

Inside the colour-saturated cover, this text bursts with literary and pop culture allusions. At first, I thought she can’t drop references to seventeenth-century Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Fifty Shades of Grey in the same book. Unpacking neither, she risks flattening each to the level of cliché. As more allusions stack up, I eventually think: why not references to Shakespeare, Joni Mitchell, and the 1978 arcade game Space Invaders? Despite its academic rigour, Garden Inventories is not elite. All readers have a place here; there’s something for everyone to recognize.

Essays are meant to argue, test theories, and provoke; Pirbhai’s compositions are no exception. She had me arguing with her, and with myself throughout: Hey! You can’t say that. Not about my back yard. But with time and contemplation, I met her in place. Pirbhai’s strong convictions, however, sometimes complicate her message. For example, she prefers the word garden to the colloquial term yard (author’s italics). To her mind, “yard conjures barren lots where used cars and radiating computer parts go to die.” After multiple denigrations of this word, she qualifies her opinion by explaining that a yard in the first half of the twentieth century “served a number of important functions: an open-air shed for tools and household items, a dumping ground for trash and, for some, a space for growing vegetables or other subsistence produce.” But for me, the damage has already been done. As a child who grew up playing in a spacious yard, next to my mother’s garden, and then as a mother who raised her children to do the same, I find Pirbhai’s harsh stereotype of yard inaccurate. I also wonder what she has against fish, because she deems the name of the yellow trout lily to be “wholly ugly (I mean, who names a flower after a fish!).” In her discussion of cottage anthropology, Pirbhai confesses her tendency to overgeneralize, and reminds herself “not to paint all cottagers with the same brush.” Her startling lawn facts may rev up many a mower when she quotes an environmental journalist’s definition of lawn: “nature purged of sex and death.” I find Pirbhai’s lawn paradox funny: “a capitalist culture obsessed with individualism and the right to private property has adopted a residential model of unrelenting conformity and the illusion of communalism.” Postcolonial critique: it pokes and provokes.

At its end, Garden Inventories is land acknowledgement in broad terms. By subverting appellations and narratives of conservation, Pirbhai demonstrates how research and knowledge place people on the inside. She applies the universal notion of rootedness, in plants and in people, to her garden and herself. When her prose poem concludes, Pirbhai sounds different. Softer, gentler. Settled. Home.