Finding Common Ground in a Garden

By Rachel Globus

      Lou Webber was out to get some dirt on Pablo Neruda. Not just any dirt, he told me over shrimp cocktail at Gary Simpson’s latest opening: “I wanted some meaningful soil.”

     “Meaningful soil” is at once ubiquitous and difficult to come by. Lou is part of a tiny army of volunteers in search of such soil from each of the 191 countries recognized by the United Nations. Upon visiting a foreign country, volunteers seek out a location that is either personally or historically significant, which can be difficult if one comes armed only with a Fodor’s and a suitcase. But in fact, this project offers an opportunity that many vacations don’t: the obligatory adventure of finding common ground with strangers.

     Lou arrived in Chile with no idea where to find the soil. At the American Embassy in Santiago, the country’s capital, he explained his part in the project and asked for suggestions. Without hesitation the representative said, “You’re talking about Pablo Neruda.”

     Pablo Neruda, poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate, had several houses in Chile, one of which is located just outside Santiago. The house itself has a curious history. Neruda named it La Chascona, or “woman with tousled hair,” for his third wife Matilde Urrutia, who was the muse for some of his most famous poems. The two came to live there together when a gardener, embittered because the poet had fired him, told Neruda’s wife of the affair, causing a precipitous end to the relationship, and the formal beginning of one that would last the rest of his life. After Neruda died in 1973, his homes in Santiago and Valparaiso were ransacked by members of an opposing political party. Today, the houses – Isla Negra, La Sebastiana, and La Chascona – are museums.

     “I wanted someone who knew what happened, who would verify it wasn’t just dirt from the parking lot,” Lou explained to me. But communicating this to workers at the museum posed a challenge for someone who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Fortunately, a bilingual woman working at the hotel where Lou stayed offered to write a note in Spanish explaining that the soil was to be part of a “magnificent sculpture.” Obtaining the soil didn’t take too much work after that, Lou said of his encounter with a museum employee, “I showed him my note and smiled a lot.” The employee then took him back to the garden to collect the soil.

     Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto – the poet’s original name – was born in 1904 in a small town in central Chile. At the age of ten he wrote his first poem, which received only a distracted “Where did you copy this from?” from his father. However, just ten years later he stepped into the international spotlight as Pablo Neruda – the surname borrowed from Czechoslovak poet Jan Neruda as a pseudonym because his parents didn’t approve of his vocation – with “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” A few years later at the age of just 23 he began his long diplomatic career with a consulship in Burma (now Myanmar).

     It is said that Neruda’s words are the most translated of any poet in the world. He is known as “the people’s poet,” and his many years abroad as a diplomat took him from Burma to Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Argentina and Spain. While some of his poems reflect the loneliness of travel abroad, many others reflect his increasingly strong leftist political beliefs, for which he was removed from his consulship in Barcelona, Spain when he publicly sided with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. A common criticism of many of his poems is that they are limited by their rigid ideological framework, but for the beauty of his words and the vehemence of their expression Neruda became a national and international hero.

     Like the Chilean world traveler, Lou tells me, he’s been “ridiculous places.” During his 34 years in the military, Lou witnessed both enmity and solidarity among strangers. In Chile, he found the latter: “you didn’t have to do anything except make the connection,” he said. Would he collect common ground again? “In a minute,” he confirms: “I liked the idea, the concept that people would begin to see we’re not separate islands of people, that we’re all one people.”

     It was a realization the famous poet also experienced. Making the arduous trek across the Andes into Argentina in flight from Chile, Neruda tells, “Dimly I understood, there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of the world.”

     Like the dirt, Neruda is a piece of Chilean history. And this history – of passion, of loneliness, of courage – is common ground.

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