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Pansies in the potholes
My Facebook status update this evening informed the world that I had spent the afternoon walking around looking for potholes. In London. I've been travelling for a while now and have been missing some things about home but god forbid I reach the mad stage of missing, of all things, potholes. No, the reason I've had my eyes peeled for a couple of days on footpaths and roads and cycling lanes instead of my usual pastime of peeping into people's gardens is that I am looking for, well, gardens. Miniature gardens left behind by guerrilla gardener Steve Wheen. I know about them, I've seen pictures on his blog, I try to imagine what they would look like on the streets and what it would be like to see one but I can't find them. Finally I just contact him and join him as he goes on another of his gardening excursions. An afternoon well spent in London. Looking for potholes.
It's not how he usually works. Usually he's seen a pothole, and through the week he's made plans and devised designs for it, then gone to the Columbia Road flower market to look for the right plants. Because he's shy, he works in the morning when there are not too many people about and is done in about an hour. But today, he has a TV crew shooting him so it's taken a bit longer and after lunch we head for Brick Lane in east London. East London is where Wheen lives and a big part of the project is about taking control of the places and neighbourhoods we live in. He finds a small pothole by the footpath and clears it of cigarette butts. Quickly he empties some compost into it and puts in some pansies, a beautiful red cyclamen and some gerberas. Some miniature gravel creates a road, on goes a little Big Ben, a black London cab and a red bus and suddenly it's a little London scene.
Two women with a little girl walk by. "Oh look at that, it's a baby garden, a fairy garden, " says the mother. The girl is enchanted.
"I never use any characters, only miniature props. A chair, a miniature book... who sits in that chair? Why is it there? Who reads the mini book? I like leaving that to the imagination, " says Wheen. I think of little elves and fairies lounging about reading in the middle of a busy London street instead of under mushrooms where they might usually be found.
Wheen, who works in the Google creative lab as a creative producer, is an Australian who missed the sprawling spaces and gardening back home, so he took up guerrilla gardening after he moved to London eight years ago and in 2008 started planting little gardens in potholes. It was not just his way of bringing attention to potholes since as a cyclist they annoy him greatly, but also something that became a part of his Master's thesis (Wheen has a Masters in Design Studies) project involving finding moments of unexpected happiness, of turning something negative into something positive and of bringing a smile to people's faces. Holes of happiness is what he calls them.
As I stand there I'm annoyed at how many people walk past lost in their world without noticing the mini garden. Then there are an equal number who notice it and instantly, involuntarily, without knowing they are doing it, smile. Some walk on, some stop to look while some retrace their steps and shoot pictures. "That's really cute, I hope it survives, " says one girl.
He next puts up a little shrub with pink berries in the middle of a square pothole so that it looks like a tree and puts a little bench under it with a miniature version of his own upcoming book The Little Book of Little Gardens. Most of his gardens are topical so that he spent a year thinking about his Olympic series of gardens before which he did one for the Royal Wedding. Also, everywhere he travels he plants, including one in Bangalore. "There was no shortage of potholes there. I was spoilt for choice, " he says expectedly. I've been thinking the same and imagining the potential in my home city Mumbai. And after all the years of inner pedestrian rage at walking on uneven broken footpaths, of driving on potholed roads and of trying to get things fixed by the civic body, I feel liberated. I suddenly don't care. Think about it. If I did this all of the city would be a beautiful, delightful garden.
"It's strange isn't it?" he says, "As a cyclist I would want them to fix the potholes but as a gardener I don't want them fixed because then there would me nowhere for me to garden. "
We are hanging around waiting for the TV crew to get some sound bytes from passersby who notice the gardens when a man walks up with his shopping bags and stops to look. He bends down and pulls out the pansies. I can feel my heart breaking a little bit. The man then stands there and meticulously empties one of his bags so that he has an empty one to take away the plants in. Wheen and the crew continue filming him from across the road and stop him just when he's about to pull everything out. "I thought someone had thrown the plants away, " the man says with a shrug.
As we are walking away after redoing that little garden I ask Wheen what it feels like to leave the gardens behind like that. "I enjoy the process of creating, coming up with ideas and putting up the gardens. I enjoy that. When I leave it behind I can imagine its fate. But when I actually see one being destroyed, it breaks my heart, " he says.
I'm sorry, I think it'll be a while before you see parts of Mumbai being transformed into one beautiful garden of linked potholes by me. It would take someone with a heart that's made of sterner stuff than mine.
Steve Wheen's blog is called thepotholegardener. com
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