Patricia Morris reviews …

Garden of the Jaguar: Travel, Plants and People in Chiapas, Mexico

by  Bernadine Coverley

Just when an English woman of a certain age could be retiring to her country idyll in Suffolk, she volunteers as a labourer in a Mexican forest garden.

With a horticulturalist’s eye for the meanings to be read in sky and undergrowth, in Garden of the Jaguar (Green Bee Books, 2010), Bernardine Coverley gives an account of her experiences in Na Bolom, in San Christobel, Chiapas, Mexico.   Here she can engage with a  bucolic, pastoral corner of Mexico with long-haired shamans and shoe-less children – but it is a peculiar kind of paradise.  It includes, along with native wisdom and ancient knowledge, un-paradisal squabbles,  plain bad behaviour, revolutionary fervour, political rallies and masked gunmen.

Part of her achievement as a writer is her lightness of touch. Despite or perhaps because of her acquisition of more than a fair share of worldly adventure and a certain celebrity, Coverley makes her powerful observations in a murmured, incidental tone so that the reader is suddenly stopped in his tracks – while the writer simply continues on, probably barefoot.One worker at Na Bolom confides affectionately to Coverley her deepest secrets about love and revolution and introduces her to the economic hardships of a community whose livelihood and heritage coincide with ecologists’ battles against big industry and the state. Meanwhile, the surly breakfast waiter, Manvel, becomes a comic motif  as he unaccountably and continuously refuses to serve Coverley as he does the other members of staff.When she is away from Na Bolom for a few days, a pine tree is felled and she returns to discover it has been allowed to fall just where she has been labouring for weeks to perfect a patch of the garden. She is upset. She is resigned. She is amused.  How much does it matter?

All life is here. And that includes subtly changing relationships, their evolutions minutely and mildly appreciated.The secrets of orchid cultivation are confided to her by two rivalrous experts, rivalrous not in their horticultural aspirations but in their political interpretations of government policy regarding this endangered plant.  When she finds an isolated turtle conservation project run by just two scientists, she enjoys the remote island beach as if she has it to herself; and then round the cove she comes upon a military base, its purpose unclear.  There are criminal gangs that dig up the beach at night to steal the lucrative turtle eggs; there are gangs that smuggle drugs ashore. Not long afterwards she learns that a solitary young couple has been murdered around that very time on that very beach for accidentally witnessing these crimes.

The book is part travel diary, part forest gardening manual, part meditation on the vagaries of life and the certainties of the natural world.  The gently authoritative tone of the text masks the writer’s spirit of supplication. Her focus is on quietly learning whatever she can, whether it’s the Spanish language or about herbal remedies or compost or temples.  While the book works for the reader as “a good read”, we become aware too that incidentally we are accompanying the writer on a trail of personal transformation.

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Garden of the Jaguar:  travel, plants and people in Chiapas, Mexico by  Bernadine Coverley
From Amazon and  www.bernardinecoverley.co.uk

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