News In The Garden

This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

"Our president just fired our secretary of state."

I was sitting at the wooden table under one of the gazebos with the purest of blue skies overhead, in the midst of a carefully designed rock garden surrounded by orange trees. The shocking fuchsia blooms of a bougainvillea cloaked the nearby stucco wall. This place is idyllic. The news was not.

"I'm so sorry!!" Oumaima exclaimed sympathetically, as if I personally was the one who just got axed on Twitter.

My volunteer gig at the nonprofit Amal Association in Marrakech was to help them rebuild parts of their web site, and being constantly online meant I could also enjoy a steady feed of news all day while I worked. I could start the day with Monocle and BBC, and then around midday Morocco-time I transitioned to public radio as the east coast of the US woke up. Sitting in a beautiful garden, helping incredibly good people who do inspiring work, mainlining global and political news -- this is pretty much as good as gets!

Oumaima is the director of Amal's Targa Center, and the garden was my workspace during the time I volunteered there. The wifi from the upstairs office reached far enough that I could sit in the warm shade amidst the plants and birds while I built web pages, rewrote copy and edited photos. From here, I could watch the daily rhythm of the tourists coming in for cooking classes, the trainees hurrying to their kitchen stations, the kitchen prepping and dispatching meals. At predictable intervals, staff and trainees would congregate for sweet mint tea, and to eat fresh bread dipped in honey and olive oil. At unpredictable intervals, Oumaima would appear full of excitement for new ideas, rushing from meeting to phone call to meeting, but always taking time to focus her attention on the person in front of her. (Even when the person in front of her was focused on what's happening in the White House on the other side of the planet.)

While energy swirled through the classrooms and kitchen each day at Amal, I found my groove outside. When I hit an HTML snag that I couldn't solve or just generally reached my limit of screen time, I'd leave my laptop in the front garden and take my earbuds with me to the herb and vegetable patches in the backyard... and I would pull weeds.

The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

Honestly, pulling weeds was more fun for me than building web pages, but that wasn't what they needed from me most. Pulling weeds was a treat, the web site was my job.

The first time I visited Amal it was February, and the garden beds had tiny sprigs of green that seemed adorably optimistic in the vast tracts of brown dirt. By mid-March though, the tiny shoots had transformed into self-respecting plants and by April the green had overtaken the brown completely, with stems and leaves and vines rioting in defiance of their garden beds' neat edges.

I would happily spend hours in that garden, carefully teasing out individual weeds out from among the coriander, sage and spearmint. I would attack with vicious joy the noxious creepers that overtook the gravel walkways, and feel satisfied when their eradication was complete. While I worked, I would not come close to draining the reservoir of news podcasts on my phone, but I would occasionally instead crank up the Hamilton soundtrack and sing along (badly) while I freed the potato plants from the crab grass that encroached their space.


The staff and trainees at Amal seemed partly amused and partly mystified by my love of weeding; only the head gardener was unambiguously delighted by my hobby. I loved the satisfaction of applying just the right amount of tension to a reedy, annoying stem and seeing its full root emerge from the ground. I loved the immediate difference that was visible -- rows of beautiful greens in fluffy soil, free of pestering interlopers. I really loved the massive haystack of weeds that would pile up at the edge of the garden as I worked.

I think Rex Tillerson's firing stands out among all the news stories I heard during the untold hours I spent in those gardens for two reasons. First, Oumaima's response was uniquely un-American in that she was thinking of me personally, rather than reacting to the information itself. If I had relayed the same breaking news to an American, it would have been met with a highly charged opinion -- about the president, the circumstance, Twitter, something. So that fact that she said, "I'm so sorry!" struck me as humorously unusual, and also very kind.

But second, my departure for Morocco and West Africa was only weeks away when President Trump reportedly demanded to know why the US should accept immigrants from "shithole" African countries. And now Rex Tillerson was in Africa, apparently to smooth over the fissures that statement caused, and he gets called back to Washington in time to read his firing on Twitter.  I felt a personalized proximity to the bookends of this news story. And I listened to coverage of the fallout while working in a beautiful garden, surrounded by an incredible group of people who are truly making the world a better place every day.


[March 2018]