Readers…by now you know that my blog, flahertylandscape, is all about plants and people–landscape journeys. Sounds fair and safe enough; but what I am about to share with you goes beyond strange.
Anyone who has worked in a garden–suffered blisters and callouses in a garden for fruit, vegetables, flowers, medicine–knows there is something more in those gardens. This is for you.
Magic? Gardens? Chocolate? Yes, definitely…but I never thought to combine them until the email I received this week from an almost forgotten friend. Donkeys’ years ago when I was in Tangier, we worked together on the Baie de Tanger–it was a tourist destination development project.
Now, my friend’s still in Tangier, but as an antique dealer with a second hand furniture store. He emailed that his house clearing-out business has been seeing an uptick in the last years as more foreigners have become less comfortable with the current extreme brand of Imam preaching in the Mosques…and the resultant increase in ‘aggro’ on the medina byways, the public realm–not at all the Morocco of years gone by.
When people split from Tangier, they leave things behind, most often cheap, locally built sofas, beds, sideboards, armoires…so he clears these places out and stocks his second hand store. Every once in a while, he finds things suitable for his small back of house antiques collection.
Unbeknownst to me, he had, from time to time, been lurking, reading the flahertylandscape blog. In a recent clearing-out, he found a thumb drive under discarded clothes in the bottom of an old wardrobe. When he opened the thumb drive on his computer, and saw the content was all about some kinds of landscape journeys, he immediately thought of me. You may now be wondering, just what was that thumb drive content?
The thumb drive held Art Nouveau images and diary text entries from a guy obsessed with the Moroccan landscape, its plants and gardens–especially the plants. The guy, his name was Christopher, had found some like minded landscape people living on La Montagne, way out on the leafy west edge of Tangier, in a sprawling villa, known as Loin du Monde Réel. And Christopher, a university student, was apparently working on some literary project or horticultural study.
When my friend went out to La Montagne to find the villa, he discovered it had been demolished and replaced by a new boutique hotel run by Lebanese, owned by Qataris–none knowing anything about the demolished villa or its previous owners. But the new hotel, he remarked to me, did feature a series of private garden courtyards, each built around huge, mature, certainly at least century old, Dracena draco, dragon’s blood trees.
The villa, according to Christopher, had been occupied by two dedicated plantsmen: Toseland, an Englishman who asked his friends to call him Tolly, and Fyodor, a Russian from St. Petersburg. Fyodor inherited the villa from relatives having deep family connections to the original builder of the villa, the first Portuguese ambassador to Morocco.
Toseland and Fyodor both engaged in botanical and horticultural research, along with joint explorations into applied plant and garden maintenance techniques. Fyodor’s botanical research explored how chocolate and plants themselves interacted on subtle platforms to provide a portal for humans.
The portal was some kind of transcendent event through which humans could gain access to their inner eye and thus see existence as it actually is, without the seemingly essential social artifices of time and space. To the carefully blended chocolate and lovingly cared for plants, Fyodor and Toseland added custom-grown herbed absinthe.
In the following diary entry, Christopher describes his strange day at Hibiscus House, his own nickname for the villa Loin du Monde Réel. Following Toseland’s explicit instructions, Christopher had made an appointment to fulfill his desire to walk their private Oval Garden.
In this diary entry, Toseland and Fyodor explain the process Christopher underwent in preparation for his walk through the Oval Garden. Christopher expected to see and understand for the first time the highest fulfillment of the relationships between humans and plants…but it did not exactly go that way.
From Christopher’s thumb drive files:
20June: Tangier, Christopher’s Apartment
- Woke up late, nearing mid day–stepped out of my apartment onto the rooftop terrace to check the weather over the Strait of Gibraltar–a sunny, clear, quiet spring day when high atmospheric pressure chases away all clouds and all winds;
- A good day–a day I had been looking forward to–the day of my appointment to walk the Oval Garden at Tolly and Fyodor’s villa;
- Stepped back inside and squeezed fresh orange juice for breakfast;
- Worked on short story ideas till early afternoon, then went downstairs, found a Petit Taxi, and headed to the Hibiscus House for my Oval Garden visit;
- I was a little early, and Tolly walked me into the library where I continued my readings in Hooker and Ball’s 1878 Journal of a Tour in Marocco and the Great Atlas–after a while, Fyodor came in to see me;
- He started again about Stargate and its architectural portals, which in order to work required massive portals on each end of a strange, ill-defined passage–a wormhole or whatever–he talked about the cypher required to enter the massive portals; but he noted to me, in his disdainful Russian way of fluffing things off that weren’t important, that was all only fiction;
- The key, for his own botanical portal work, he explained, the key to crack the botanical cypher in order to pass through portals was the alignment of complex human and plant factors–that, he said, was not a concoction, but a real-life, true story–his life’s work;
- He went on–try to grasp, my young American friend, the critical coarse factors when considering physical movement through a portal–temperature, pressure, chemical composition, as well as the even more important human subtle factors, including detached mental state, intellectual focus and spiritual openness;
- Fyodor emphasized if a person brings these to the portal–the plants, themselves, then become the portal;
- Plants can only be in the proper alignment and condition to function as portals having been nurtured by humans who understand these relationships;
- Without the correct approach, without the correct activities during human nurturing of plants, the plants’ balanced strength of willingness and ability to become a portal will be stunted;
- Intent by humans, though subtle, is a strong force, a critical factor–it is central;
- Please consider this, he emphasized, humans can search for the unknowns via two paths: either by prescribed works or, by their own exploration;
- We are developing a third path, a bio-botanic path–essentially a supercharged blend of the above two traditional paths;
- We have a garden lovingly cared for–the Oval Garden–a garden where plants are served and maintained most intimately, most lovingly–your walk, your portal discovery in the Oval Garden will be a 50/50 proposition between you and the plants–the Oval Garden plants;
- Fyodor looked at Tolly knowingly and smiled, saying–some botanical savants of significant repute from other cultures, from around the world have said: ‘Once you go plant, you’ll never go back.’;
- I was still rather uncertain about what I was headed into but I said–OK, let’s walk the Oval Garden;
- Tolly said, good, but first we need to prepare–your energy is very American, very aggressive–before the walk it is normal to make some preparations–let me show you upstairs to our garden antechamber;
- There we will relax for a while, have something light to eat and drink;
- We will watch the sun begin to set–as soon as it drops below the horizon–a very auspicious time–you can then enter the Oval Garden and walk at your leisure–til your heart’s content;
- He led me out of the library, around a corner to an inconspicuous, altogether ordinary door, could have been a service door, through which we passed, then slowly up one long flight of stairs on a steep, narrow, cast iron spiral staircase;
- As I reached the top of the staircase, I found myself in the center of a new, an unexpected room;
- I was surrounded by a large number of floor-to-ceiling plant trays and stands–strange, exotic, quite tropical foliage I had seen before only in greenhouses like Kew and Hortus Botanicus–striking foliage, beautiful forms, organic veining–my eyes were captured–my mind distracted–I was already enveloped in a landscape journey;
- Then I heard Tolly speaking–he said carnivorous plants–special plants that Fyodor collaborates with in his research–the antechamber is where he keeps them when they are resting;
- From your eyes, I see these plants are all new to you;
- Because of your interest and attachment to plants, let me give you the Genera of those now surrounding us: Aldrovandra, Nepenthes, Cepalotus, Dionaea, Drosera–in their uniquely personal fashion these are portal plants on at least two levels, intriguingly beautiful portals for the human eye, and portals for the certain death of smaller life forms;
- The garden antechamber felt like a greenhouse extension–it was twelve sided–five sides were connected by solid walls to the villa second floor, and the balance seven walls were fully floor-to-ceiling greenhouse glass with an overview of the gardens and the landscape beyond–a wide horizon from the east south east counter clockwise to the north, then continuing right the way round to the west north west;
- The ventilated peaked roof was 100% greenhouse glass, but it was difficult to make out the details because well chosen tropical climbers had been planted along the inside edges of the antechamber and then trained on trellises to grow beneath the roof glass, allowing only 20% of the available sunlight to enter;
- This garden antechamber, the more I observed, became a veritable womb…a womb of green;
- The antechamber was large enough to have three comfortable arm chairs, separated by side tables displaying some lighted candles–short, squat candles, obviously of long and regular service, and a couple smallish oriental incense burners;
- More potted plants, not only carnivores, surrounded the seats;
- I paused to closely observe these new plants–the patterns and colors on these leaves took me somewhere in between the organically flowing descriptions in Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and the sinuously veined street plans in Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside in Chicago;
- Caladium hybrids, Tolly said–my hobby–some of these are linked back to Louis Van Houtte’s original hybrid work from the latter 19th century;
- In between these caladiums were numerous pots of small ferns, I had no idea what they were–Aspleniums, couldn’t be sure–but their softness relaxed me;
- Tolly took my arm and led me to the glass windows–we stood, looking out over the garden below, the Oval Garden;
- He showed me the set of French doors opening out onto a terrace–those doors were locked but I could see that the terrace was small, only large enough for six or so people to stand;
- The narrow terrace was laid with pink granite, bordered on its outward curving edge by an iron balustrade in the style of Hector Guimard–the balustrade connected the two staircases at the ends of the terrace;
- Where the Guimard iron balustrade met the staircases, there were half-height pink granite columns, a meter and a half high, each supporting a patina’d bronze fire bowl–the fire bowls were burning–flames gently licking upwards–almost inviting the sunset;
- The two staircases mirrored each other as they curved down into the Oval Garden, where their pink granite paving continued to flow onto a generously wide oval pathway which, stretching into the distance, gave structure to the entire garden;
- I could feel the garden gently attracting my emotions…beginning to exert on me an art nouveau seduction;
- Tolly gently guided me away from the mesmerizing view and suggested we sit down in the arm chairs to begin preparations;
- I sat down;
- Between the candles on the side tables were three small brass censers–incense was burning–frankincense and myrrh resins on charcoal–smoke pleasantly, gently curling–my breathing gradually slowed–each involuntary inhale lightened me;
- My senses of sight and smell, each through their own unique channels, softened my relaxation;
- On the table between our two chairs was a collection of serving articles–looked like tea caddies;
- Tolly opened one and took out a small box–I held the box–dark walnut, like a Brienz box from Switzerland–it was aged, warmly patina’d and beautiful–finely crafted–carved with intricate detail the Swiss mountain fresh edelweiss flowers, their bracts, their leaves;
- I kept admiring it–when I opened it, the smell of bitter dark chocolate flooded my nostrils; inside the dark box were six, bite size wafers set in a soft beige tissue wrap;
- My eyes noticed an incongruity, or so I was thinking–on the inside of the lid was clasped, a hand lens;
- Tolly began instructing on the chocolate–he told me to take one wafer now and carry the remaining five in the box with me for refreshment while in the Oval Garden–the hand lens, he added as an after thought, might prove useful for detail explorations during the walk;
- As I put a wafer in my mouth he instructed, let it dissolve on my tongue, sweet at first, then bitter in the end and, this he said was important, just to engage my thoughts on the plant;
- Focus, he said, on the Theobroma cacao, provider of all the components that I was tasting–hold my concentration on that taste, explore the taste, until the taste was no longer;
- We did not speak further while I tasted the chocolate wafer;
- I was slowing…relaxing deeper;
- What can I say about meditation on the changing tastes of dark, bittersweet chocolate;
- Maybe fifteen minutes later, Tolly poured a room temperature glass of white chocolate milk which he offered to me;
- It, too, was bitter underneath, yet lightly sweetened, leaving a lesser, a lighter bitterness in my mouth–it was refreshing almost cleansing with top note aromas, according to Tolly, of cardamom, camphor and all-spice;
- The spices swam playfully through my mouth–to become, on swallowing, deeply resonant and long lasting base notes;
- Tolly recommended I savor and meditate on the source plants that provided all the tastes and aromas I experienced in the transcendent, white chocolate liquid;
- After I had finished the 150ml of white chocolate milk, Tolly cleared away my glass and set an enclosed tantalus on the side table;
- The tantalus looked to be of dark green striated tortoise shell, and I could see, growing out of each corner, the daintiest inlaid mother of pearl floral intricacies;
- My eyes once again entranced me–the closer I inspected the floral intricacies, the more I could see emerging from amongst the flowers–I don’t know how many–frolicking green fairies;
- Tolly paused while I enjoyed the tantalus as a work of art;
- He remarked that the tantalus was called the home of the green fairy–it was an absinthe tantalus;
- Then he reminded me about the importance of focusing on the history of the plants and processes that he would now assemble for the absinthe drink;
- While speaking, he slowly opened the tantalus to reveal its contents–he identified a small carafe filled with a green liquid–absinthe, a distilled spirit he called it; next, a larger carafe of iced water with a built in stop-cock, a fountain he called it; then, a glass bowl containing a couple blocks of roughly crushed, refined, cane sugar; and finally, a single glass and a perforated, flat spoon;
- He told me that the locked doors to the garden would open automatically at sunset–I should enjoy the drink and engage my eyes, all my senses, gross and subtle, my mind and intelligence in the beauty of the plants as the sun was setting–he asked me to observe the beauty of this time of day and surrender myself to the plants I will meet on my walk;
- From the sideboard on my right, Tolly rotated out a wood tray into its position just above my lap, at the height of my elbows–he placed the iced water carafe and the empty glass on the tray;
- Then, from just above my shoulder, he turned on a small LED spotlight and adjusted it so that it sparkled on the tall, thin, but wide mouthed glass sitting in front of me–he poured a measure of the opaline absinthe spirit into the glass–placed the perforated spoon over the mouth of the glass and with tongs put a small chunk of the white sugar on the flat of the perforated spoon;
- Next, he opened the stop-cock on the side of the ice water carafe–he adjusted the stop-cock to allow the water in very slow drips to fall onto the perforated flat spoon sugar chunk–he told me I could shut off the dripping when the sugar was fully dissolved which he said normally was a ratio of four measures of water to the original measure of absinthe;
- It seemed like a drop fell on the sugar once in ten seconds–very slowly–the water drops landed on the small block of sugar then fell again, drop by drop into the absinthe;
- As he made these preparations, Tolly highlighted the plants in the absinthe spirits: wormwood, Artemisia absinthium; star anise, Illicium verum; fennel, Foeniculum vulgare; green anise, Pimpinella anisum; and a custom selection of minor botanicals, as he described, to establish the nexus of its unique bouquet, the heart of its transcendent potential;
- Tolly very peacefully and in slow motion explained the unique absinthe procedure–the louche was the mixing of the two liquids–the cold sweet water and the absinthe spirits themselves–an esthetic experience of delicate nuance;
- The liquids, he said, were destined to engage in a dance, choreographed by transcendent music–music so highly refined to be beyond the range of human hearing; yet that music could be heard through careful observation by human eyes;
- He instructed me to watch the glass carefully as each drop of cool water fell, releasing the absinthe potencies;
- What I saw with each drop was a continuously evolving three dimensional slow motion ballet movement wherein liquid opalescent marble cat’s eyes appeared first;
- As each drop fell, my attention was captivated–time, what was it, where was it–time had escaped;
- My eyes quickly gained improved focus–these opalescent cat’s eyes began turning and twisting until their fine whispy threads became Mandelbrotean shapes which themselves began their own twisting and turning, dancing, as Tolly had said, as they dissolved into clouds–a soft mixing of these herbs and water and spirits, de-concocting and uniting;
- I became absorbed in this dance, I heard no more talking–only an internal music inspired from what I was seeing–all my other senses shut down as the louche, the cloud developed, materialized and then dematerialized, until the aromatic fragrance increased and took over–gradually an opalescent cloud filled the entire glass;
- I shut the stop-cock;
- It was time for me to fully sample the aroma, to sip, to enjoy the aroma as the liquid moved over my tongue, rested and slid slowly down my throat–the aroma was the music and it filled my head from the inside out;
- I had become non-different from the adagio music–I was riding on a musical journey– it was all so…delightful;
- Slowly the sun’s late afternoon low angle intensity yielded and permitted the atmosphere to reveal more spectral colors–the colors of the day began their evolution into the colors of the night–a sonata second movement had begun–the sunset colors in the sky then danced their way onto the plants–the music became my landscape journey;
- I did not see Tolly leave and the next I heard was the automatic unlocking of the French doors and their opening onto the terrace above the Oval Garden;
- I stepped out onto the terrace, looked down and across the oval lawn, the oval pavement, the tall oval hedge–this was the Oval Garden;
- The central oval lawn was expansive–at its edge, the oval pathway invited my exploration;
- I saw an unusual placement of gloriettas along the oval path–they all had vines and climbers in variety–leaves and flowers dancing about their heads;
- The gloriettas were not symmetric in their location, nor were they equally spaced and it was hard to tell how many there were, more than three–but more than four?
- I stepped down the curved stairs, and paused at their foot which was marked by a pair of solid, meter and a half tall, pink granite columns, like at the head of the stairs, each supporting a graceful bronze fire bowl, glowing gently with low flames–I started into the Oval Garden;
- I walked left, following the path toward the closest glorietta;
- As I walked the oval, a slight breeze brought Jasminum polyanthum from the first glorietta–that fragrance filled my lungs–I floated forward on it and the next thing I remembered was…I was back in the antechamber–I held the empty chocolate box–apparently had eaten all five remaining chocolate wafers;
- Tolly, seated next to me, asked–how was your walk–it’s nearing midnight, you have been in the Oval Garden for more than three hours;
- I was out of touch;
- He arranged a Petit Taxi–my next memory was of the following morning when I woke up in my apartment;
Lyum Jm’a (Mosque Friday), 21June: Tangier, Christopher’s Apartment
- The sun was still low in the morning sky as I stepped out on my terrace–had absolutely no memories of my three hours in the Oval Garden the night before–I was puzzled;
- In the afternoon, discarding Tolly’s invitation-only procedure, I headed back to the Hibiscus House and met Tolly at the front door terrace–he said he could take a reluctant minute, invited me in, offered me a seat in one of the lounges and a drink–I asked him what the hell happened yesterday–I had no memory–nothing after I was about to arrive at the first glorietta;
- Tolly looked at me–no memory?! …hmmm…;
- Yesterday evening in the antechamber, he said, those preparations were for easy access to your pineal gland;
- He continued, some say that if the pineal gland has been abused by continuous and intense drug use or hardened by improper diet, it can be shocked into inactivity–shrink, stiffen and withdraw during attempted access–that is most likely what happened;
- If you’d like to take another walk in the garden, he opened his smart phone and checked his calendar, July before we have any time, come after dinner on the 9th, spend the night here in our guest accommodation to take the walk at sunrise–the sunrise experience is always a softer walk than at sunset, especially for people like you who are good hearted–people with good intentions are naturally best suited to sunrise;
- It works like this–you get up two hours before sunrise–wash and clean yourself–take a half glass of room temperature orange juice followed with a half glass of room temperature water;
- Then an hour before sunrise, I’ll go with you to the garden antechamber where all the rest of the preparations will be like last night, ok?;
- The garden doors will open a half hour before sunrise and you will be on your own–sound good?;
- I agreed–this was a mystery and I wanted to get to the root of it–but to wait three weeks before my next visit?;
- Tolly suggested that perhaps by taking up my normal daily activities, the routine would free up those things suppressed in my memory–that was reasonable;
- I went back to my apartment and caught up with chores;
- Nevertheless, I felt like I was halfway in between Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and…David Cronenberg’s Interzone;
- The cleaning chores gave me something to hold on to–I still mulled over this strange event of yesterday at the Hibiscus House–definitely a mystery on many levels;
- When I finished cleaning, it was late afternoon–I walked into the Place de la France–paused at the Cafe de Paris–observed the crowd, but did not enter;
- Instead, headed over and hung out at Brahim’s Juices and Sandwiches for awhile–sat at a quiet back table and tried to work up some more story ideas–I sensed that this Oval Garden mystery, if nothing else, could possibly become a vein of stories;
- But how could I forget what happened in my three hours of walking in the Oval Garden…and the pineal gland–what was that all about?
- It was late, ate a sandwich for dinner at Brahims, then took a Petit Taxi home for the night.
Credits: All the above images are licensed by Creative Commons and are attributed directly by links to their providers’ web sites.