Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth: Vanessa Eidse
January 14 – February 12, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Ellen Peterson

If given the opportunity, I would not revisit the garden where I spent my childhood. One magic acre of flowers, tire swings, and a treehouse across the road from a row of badly distressed houses and a smelly factory. I don’t go back there because I know it would be smaller than in my memory. I prefer to keep that magic place frozen in my mind. What surprises me is how often that garden visits me. I was not expecting to find it, full of flowers, on grubby McDermot Avenue.

The flowers in Vanessa’s garden are alive, sending a visible, flowing scent to the sky and pulling down filaments of rain. They are buzzing. I imagine that I am underwater and the flowers are straining against their wiry stems to float. If you bend closer, you find the flowers hold pictures in their petals, little moving scenes. You have to be careful because hiding in the flowers there are bees or wasps, stinging things. If I listen closely I think the flowers are speaking. The roots of the flowers snake off around the wall. All gardens have serpents. They disappear around the corner to some underground river or food source or all the way to China. I watch the bees and though it is dark, the flowers are bright and warm me. Watery twilight in an unexpected garden and time to go inside soon.

In another part of the garden is the treehouse. We had a treehouse like this one, but this one has two ladders and no walls. It looks very strong but when I choose a ladder to climb, it bends and sways a little as if the tree is much higher than it looks, or it is bending in the wind. When my friend climbs up the other side it’s like a mirror. Both of our faces are surprised. We stop at the top instead of crawling in because Vanessa’s treehouse is full already. Someone has been making maps like we used to in school with salt and flour. We made maps of Canada with stiff-peaked Rockies, and lakes painted poster blue. There was always an unbendable temptation to taste some of the paste. Vanessa’s maps are small: you can pick them up and read the raised lines like a palm. Someone climbed up here and made a picture of everything they saw tonight in the garden. Flowers and wings and beehives. There are hundreds, in stacks like pancakes. They shake a little when I climb up another step. The towers of salt, decks of cards, all tremble and teeter. Rattling stacks of bones.

Vanessa says I can take one if I want to. I feel like I am stealing, even so. I choose my own beehive and resist the unbendable temptation to taste it. Down on the ground you can see where the roots of the flowers went to, snaking around the wall. They are plugged into machines, blinking like machines on hospital shows. The machines glow in the half-light and say PLAY PLAY PLAY PLAY PLAY PLAY.

Vanessa’s garden is the garden I long for and the garden I fear. It is smaller than I remember the garden where I used to live. The flowers are not alive the way I remember, but they are living. It is a fossil garden, both dead and achingly alive, a film to watch of an extinct creature. You can never go back: you have to go back. I am uneasy. I am comforted and at home.

Ellen Peterson is a Winnipeg theatre artist, performer and writer. She resides and gardens in the North End with her husband, her dog, and her new baby girl.