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The Shah’s Portable Gardens

Para Ana

Behind the glass box, lit dimly, the Ardabil carpet is exposed to squinting eyes, pressed against the Earth by gravity, the way it is supposed to be, like a butterfly to a windshield (even if it sometimes falsely levitates). It was likely crafted to dress the burial place of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili in Ardabil, Iran, an important site of pilgrimage. This carpet summoned pilgrims, traveled with none. Now it attracts other tourists to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they murmur around its transparent cabinet like moths to a soft tungsten-filament light bulb.

Although its field is lush, with vines and leaves in serpentine confusion, although its wavelengths of flowers and stems proliferate as if soaked by dense nightly rainfall, this is not properly a garden carpet, that kind of Persian rug that represents an enclosed paradise with quadripartite structures, water channels and fountains. And yet the Ardabil carpet is a garden, too, of sorts. Take its wool and the pasture that enabled the wool, the grass that fed the unshorn sheep. Take its colors: gold distilled from pomegranate rinds, or indigo fermented from basma leaves. The rug is now sealed from the outside world, from the droplets of awe-driven exclamations (mist on the windowpane) to the dust and soil of surrounding parks and pathways. Less than once a year, the vault is opened and inspected for the presence of insects. Curators look under the carpet (primarily for moths). Henry David Thoreau once said: “I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.”

Let us not forget Virginia Woolf as she imagines herself in A Room of One’s Own, trying to grasp a slippery idea, which she compares to a little fish, and walking with extreme rapidity across an imagined grass plot:

“Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment.”

But gravel is not like grass. The ankles hurt, the joints are made present, and there’s that sound of crushed rock. And in our thoughts, a persistent intruder.

“As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession, they had sent my little fish into hiding.”

It is a well-known fact that the female tread is bound to hurt the turf. To tear at its order and volatilize its perfume. (To squish its balm.) It is preferable, always, that no woman dare—

“That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library.”

That a famous turf is cursed by the sole of a woman is a matter of utmost importance to a turf, woven or otherwise. Therefore, it is preferable, always, that no woman dare—

The Ardabil carpet is a garden of sorts. Take the rumor that enabled the knotting. The fuel that fed the hands, the hour-long conversations. Although, maybe—yes—the silence. Take the silence, hands, the silence. Take the silence of the hands.

 

San José, Costa Rica, 3/12/2020, 6:31 a.m. Halfway through our vacation together, my sister and I set out on a day trip to La Paz Waterfalls from San José.

[Driver looks in the rearview mirror, catching my eye. He glances from my face to my sister’s and back again.]

DRIVER: I am very open about gay couples: the other day I befriended one. They were good customers. They’ve taken to travel, you know? Maybe it’s because they can’t have kids, you know? HAHA. So much time and money on their hands. HAHA.

[My sister and I exchange looks across the backseat.]

Somewhere, Costa Rica, 3/12/2020, 8:37 a.m.

[My sister is using the hygienic facilities of a roadway rest stop. Driver approaches me through gravel. Dust.]

DRIVER: Listen, I am sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t realize maybe you and Ana were . . . you know . . . you were . . . together.

ME [deadpan]: She’s my sister. So, no worries. [Sound of van door sliding shut.]

As opposed to the Persian garden, the Japanese Zen garden scorns symmetry in an effort to emulate the seemingly random patterns often found in nature. Yet, some of these rock gardens even dispense with vegetation altogether. Axiomatically, I should contempt them, but I don’t—I have learned the hard way to love the geological aspects of my life. There are rocks within, and stones: from millimetric sand grains to dwarfed mountain boulders, arrayed randomly like silver halide crystals on photographic film. Besides, this proportion of inert matter to biomass is perhaps more representative of the actual distribution of the weight of the world. Rock gardeners ripple the dehydrated waters with rakes. They are diligent pruners. They stunt trees to more-human dimensions. I too have swum in the pleasure of what can be caught totally in a single glance. All Zen gardens are enclosed: their walls themselves are enclosed, crowned with quaint tile eaves. We are animals with tiny reassurances.

For instance, my sister. For months, as a child, she would fill her pockets with sand from her kindergarten’s sandbox and empty them out onto our patio after school, not telling anyone of her plan to transport the sandbox entirely by degrees, until she had it all for herself. My mother, like a Zen master or simply unaware, swept the sand each day to levels of as-yet-unseen minimalism.

The elements of the Zen garden are meant to evoke other natural entities, such as waves or forests, even mountains. This substitution works metaphorically, for there are tenors and vehicles between the wild and the garden: shared soundscapes, forms and textures. Perhaps the best rock gardens have dimensions that bring us back into the world, so we can see it in another light. By contrast, Persian garden carpets operate symbolically, with the vertical stroke of universal attributes that transport us out of this world. They are meant to be otherworldly. Persian carpets can be so abstract as to induce the opiate drowsiness of drummed rhythm. A garden is a state of the mind.

My sister made a sand garden that was erased with the break of every morning. It was a river, a ghost, a fuzzy gust of wind, an almost dune but never. My sister stole a garden fistful by tiny fistful. Some gardens, inexistent or otherwise, are not allegorical.

 

I travelled with my sister to Costa Rica because she promised I would love the country. She had been there before with my mother. Fully 25 percent of its land area is protected, including land designated as national parks. Considering that most of the country’s biodiversity is constrained to the limits of the reserves, it is perhaps safe to say that 4 to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found scattered around these insular sanctuaries.

My sister and I travelled from one sanctuary to another, through a country scarred by highways (long asphalt guillotines for fauna) and flanked by field after field after field: of bananas, palms, and pineapple (Some scientists think there might be a connection between coffee production and relative biodiversity. Unfortunately, after a string of gray matinal experiments, I have confirmed one cannot subsist solely on coffee. One must, sooner than later, break her fast), I caught a glimpse of a strange horizon, like a controlled wildfire. Those are ornamental plants, our driver noted. We were seeing fire crotons, thousands, grown as a crop to be sold, just like the other plants. They wounded the landscape with red-hot blades. This is the type of plant you are bound to find represented on an organic coffee bag, meaning, somehow, Buy me, I’m tropical and steamy and exotic. Ornamentals. A writer cannot but acquiesce to the rightful need for ornamentals. We must, I thought. Not far from there, I saw through the window, unambiguously, a grass farm, a vast field of turf, where some patches were rolled to reveal a dun subtext. Huge cylinders, coils of green, were ready to be shipped out and relocated at a distant park or yard or golf course, where torn and sewn pieces would again take root.

“This is the type of plant you are bound to find represented on an organic coffee bag, meaning, somehow, Buy me, I’m tropical and steamy and exotic.”

On seeing them I felt a searing anger. I recognized it had something to do with deceiving the soil, with the permanent epilation of its turf. It took time and energy and water for the land to grow those green expanses of carpet, which were torn out, were torn out and torn out. Rolled and baled away. Somewhere, then. Perhaps someplace where a woman can tread and keep track of glints of fictive fish. Maybe there, where pedestrians are shorn from sex and gender, they can resign themselves to the green paths of being, simply, pedestrians. But here, as yet, was the scar: the earth beginning again.

After hours of fields and listening to our driver talk about communism, we arrived at La Paz Waterfalls Gardens. Because, to a visitor, many of these natural parks can look very similar to one another, my sister couldn’t remember if she had been here before. Oh yes, I remember, she kept saying, always followed by Wait, no, actually I don’t. We walked into the butterfly observatory, a huge glass bell where over twenty-five species of butterflies show off their erratic flight. (These flight patterns, a defense mechanism, are unpredictable for predators.) Morpho peleides is the star. A hundred of them speckle with blue our field of vision, which is not the same, not ever the same, my sister’s and mine. But the smaller Myscelia cyaniris has more iridescence glazed upon its cyan field. The creatures pulse like a blinking insertion line in a Word document, closing, opening, a blank space.

As we walked through the conservatory, careful not to step on a pair of wings, dodging our way through a web of invisible flight threads, my sister became convinced she had, in fact, never been to these gardens before: she would remember. (I too would remember.) Butterfly chrysalides hung on branches as big drops, like the aftermath of a green downpour, and we exited. Outside, after a procession of dioramas, where sad monkeys, sad sloths, and a sadder ocelot all shied away from pilgrims, there was a trail that led to the waterfalls. Like five beads on a necklace, the falls are interconnected by water. One gives way to another, farther down.

In 2009, the Cinchona earthquake cracked open the entire region, adjacent towns disappeared, more than a thousand people were forcibly displaced. So were the waterfalls, dislocated, severed from the stones they had patiently eroded. Around 1873, back in Iran, the Shaykh Safi al-Din shrine was damaged by an earthquake, and the Ardabil portable garden was sold to an English carpet trader, who eventually sold it to the Victoria and Albert museum, after William Morris, a great British writer and textile designer, suggested the acquisition. No one ever thinks about glass cases under seismic activity, about the leaks (be it gushing or trickling) of frogs, snakes, leopards, of fringes made of silk, amid the shards.

Early Persian rugs were often flat-woven, in a dialogue of warp and weft, and therefore lacked the pile where dust gathers. (Frequently: insects, moths.) Then the rug makers incorporated the true form of grass, the modest height, the plushy depth where we sink, millimetrically. This they achieved by the technique of knotting. The Ardabil carpet has a knot density of 5,300 knots per ten square centimeters. Pile carpets, more labor intensive than their flat-woven counterparts, were primarily knotted by nomadic women. The time-lapsed growth of carpets had to do with the quiet rhythm of their hands as they worked, a braided introspection.

Despite the mass production of carpets today, I still think about the early weavers, the silence of their hands. Their work exported, sold, taken to shrines. (Shrines where their makers might be asked to keep off the grass.) The portability of such gardens is inversely proportional to the knotters’ social mobility. I think of feminine murmurs, of women’s feet taking root in Isfahan or elsewhere. Not on carpets, God forbid. Directly on the ground.

 

Persian rugs are highly ornamental. They are also a species in danger of extinction—more accurately, an entire ecosystem in danger of extinction. The rugs slowly fade over centuries, along with the diversity of plants and techniques that made them possible. No longer will we find the pomegranate seeds, dispersed, or broken basma leaves, the scent or tincture, and the voices or lack thereof, an almost steam, anywhere. And I worry. Even if some extant specimens have been consecrated to glass boxes in diligent museums, there’s always the occasional moth. Their makers had time on their hands.

Perhaps it was not so much the need for more leaves and flowers but for quicker leaves and flowers which spurred the invention.

Nowadays, a Persian rug, or a simulacrum of a Persian rug, can be made in China, with intricate computerized designs, executed by the hum of automatons, on a nightly basis. The craving for ever more labyrinthian textiles, the kind William Morris designed in the nineteenth century, gave way to the very first computer, which was inspired by the binary punched cards of the Jacquard loom to store programmable instructions. Perhaps it was not so much the need for more leaves and flowers but for quicker leaves and flowers which spurred the invention. Dark butterflies make lacunae even in my recent memories. There is no longer time for time on our hands.

Like traveling. We had to break our journey, of course. We flew from Costa Rica to Mexico City and drove back home, with suitcases packed with coffee and half-formed memories to be rounded off with photographs. My sister shows me one. For a moment I share her vision, but in the near past tense. Should I post this one? she asks. In the display screen of her camera I see a hazy waterfall that had seconds enough to sink in: a long exposure. I think of water and sand. My sister’s ghost Zen garden (entirely, by degrees) leaving, in a blur. We didn’t see the dunes that will fray in Costa Rica as our planet slowly warms, but right now I prefer not to think about them. I’ve never known whether sand is a form of dust. I suppose it should be pulverized further to be considered as such. Stones can always be pulverized further. No sand or dust of rock gathers on the grass, unless where men have broken ground. Where was it that men have not broken ground?

(My sister is the narrow slit in an hourglass. My sister is sifting time through time. My sister, too, is a garden. She is the type of garden that is full of thereness, and is also always allegorical.)