Eden in my backyard
Healthy pursuits add years to our lives.
AS I look back over the years, I can still feel the stress that comes with trying to eke out a living in this harsh and inhospitable world. I had made preparations for an early retirement so that I could get away from the madding crowd.
I collected many varieties of flowers and plants to start a garden which would give me immense pleasure and a restful place to wind down later in life. I had to make do with whatever little land I had to lay out a gratifying garden in my home in Kuching, Sarawak.
To make it a little out of the ordinary, I experimented with seeds and cuttings from faraway places. Most of them could not adapt to the climatic conditions here. But some of them thrived very well.
My star apple tree ( Chrysophyllum cainito) is still growing healthily. I grew it from a pip in 1981. I planted it for its ornamental and aesthetic value. However, it has also provided me with a perennial supply of tasty and succulent fruits. Because it is alien to this country, many people come by to admire it.
Sometimes I wonder if it is bearing the wrong fruits, because it looks very similar to a durian tree. Due to the change in environmental and weather conditions, it is a little out of sync with the seasons. It starts to flower after each crop. A beautiful feature of this plant is that it needs no cross-pollination. Consequently, I am assured of a big crop of fruits at regular intervals.
The dangling branches sway and bend sharply during heavy storms but are able to ride out the heavy beating due to its inherited ability to withstand hurricanes in the Mississippi region.
Because it grows to a great height, this star apple tree is one of the many landmarks and calling stations of migratory birds that come to visit this place every year. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongos ( Dicrurus paradiseus brachyphorus) are regular visitors, especially during the rainy season. The male species has a long and forked tail. They make a variety of melodious sounds. Some produce a note like that of a panpipe. Others produce a deep tone not unlike that of a bassoon. Together, they make sweet music.
Lately, these birds have become a rare sight. The onslaught of bulldozers and heavy equipment has removed the tall jelutong and tapang trees nearby to make way for concrete buildings. This has removed the drongos’ calling stations as well.
However, the star apple tree has remained to provide a home to many permanent residents which include the fantails, bulbuls and spotted neck doves.
Another tree that has survived the years is the lulu tree which I collected from Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. It is quite similar to a local tree commonly known as Kuning Telor. However, the flesh of the fruit differs. It has a powdery texture and looks golden yellow. It tastes mildly sweet.
The fruit itself also looks yellow when ripe, hence its common name the Golden Fruit Tree. Again this is a self-pollinating plant and it produces a big crop of fruits now and then. Because there is often an abundant supply of fruits, they weigh down the branches and break them.
When they ripen and fall to the ground, they attract insects which in turn lure the Pied Fantails to catch them in the air. It is delightful to watch the aerial chases as these aerobatic manoeuvres require a lot of skill.
I have added vegetables to my little garden as well. It is a joy to grow them together with the exotic plants. Watching them grow, flower and produce fruits fills me with a sense of achievement, besides providing plenty of chemical-free vegetables for the dining table.
Because of the heavy rainfall in this part of the region, I have to be selective in choosing the type of vegetables to grow in my garden. Tomatoes, egg plants, square beans, cangkok manis and long beans are the usual plants grown here. They need very little care. Since these are deep-rooted plants, they are not easily damaged by the rain.
Very little effort is needed to prepare the soil because it has been tilled and loosened over and over for many years. Besides, it is well cultivated and so very few pests are found here. I bury mown grass in the vegetable beds to fertilise the soil. Sometimes I add dried chicken manure to make the soil richer.
Tomatoes are grown in long rows and supported by a railing of PVC pipes. When the fruits are about a week old, they would be protected by a mess of plastic netting so that burrowers will not be able to lay eggs in the fruits.
The square beans are hardy plants and are easy to grow. I plugged a few metal rods on the garden wall and they have served as vegetable racks year in and year out. The creepers love these racks. When they are in full bloom, they invariably invite a giant bumble bee and a pair of sun birds to enjoy the nectar in the flowers.
I have tried my hand at budding, grafting, marcotting and inarching. These are difficult procedures and I have only been successful in marcotting the star apple tree and inarching a limau kasturi tree with a limau purut tree.
There is a family of spotted neck doves that lived with us for more than a decade in this garden. The hen pigeon would usually lay two eggs in her nest in the lulu tree and incubate them.
The cock pigeon would perch nearby waiting to take its turn to warm the eggs. During this time, the birds did not come down to feed often.
However, when the eggs hatched in about 21 days, they would have a voracious appetite. They would swoop down their feeding place every 20 minutes and wait for their food.
We would feed them with crushed biscuits and sometimes, dried egg yolks.
They needed these to feed the young. Often, they would come into the kitchen to pick up food crumbs when the meals were late in coming. They needed about seven to eight meals a day.
When their chicks were strong enough to feed on the ground, the parents would allow them to do so for about 10 days, after which the hen bird would give them many swift raps on their heads, telling them to get off and learn to fend for themselves.
The cock was more compassionate and led them away to stay in the star apple tree or any other tree nearby, feeding and caring for them until they could fly away to join the bachelors club.
This is a place for the flock that have not made a home for themselves yet. It is in a huge quinine tree a stone’s throw away from my garden. They lived quite a regimented lifestyle. They forage for food in the morning and returned home at sunset.
Sometimes, they would move to other trees. The leader of the flock would enter the roosting place first. Sometimes, a young bird would unceremoniously fly into the resting place. It would be kicked out and made to take its queue.
This was a time for the cock and the hen to take a breather. It was a relief to see them resting on the rooftop, grooming and pecking each other, and preparing themselves to bring up another generation of new chicks.
This same process was repeated over and over for many years until they tired themselves out. They were paired for life.
One day, the hen pigeon swooped into the kitchen and waddled into a corner, shivering feverishly. I wrapped it with a piece of warm cloth but could not save it. It was an emotional farewell. The cock was in shock for a long time. It refused to come down to feed for more than a month.
When it did, I could see that it was devastated by grief and distress because it was very panicky. It had become so timid that it was easily frightened by anything that moved in the garden. It took the cock a long time to regain its composure and realise that I meant no harm.
Soon afterwards it too left us. It had fought many hard battles to protect the family. I have seen it fighting with a young contender for more than a year, warding off this intruder. Although a new pair of birds came to replace these old guards, memories of them lingered on.
Besides gardening which has given me many hours of immense pleasure, I also play a few musical instruments such as the clarinet and guitar to keep myself happily occupied. As they say, music has charms to soothe the savage heart.
Very often too, I would set up my easel beneath the star apple tree to do some painting. The serene atmosphere gets the creative juices flowing.
My first job as a surveyor gave me plenty of opportunities to traverse the length and breath of the forest of Borneo. This enabled me to acquaint myself with many of the plants and animals found in the Sarawak forest.
Later, slogging with fellow Harriers around the countryside gave me even more opportunity to observe the flora and fauna in their natural surroundings.
The artist in me loves to capture for posterity, the creatures and plants that dwell in the mud banks and bushes of Borneo island.
Music to fill my days, art to add colour to my life, and gardening to provide food for the body and soul – uh, this is the life!
Creative streak: The writer pursuing his passion for art under the shade of the star apple tree in his garden.
The star apple tree provides an ample supply of succulent fruits all year round.
The lulu tree produces a huge crop of fruits every now and then.