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At a barbecue recently, one of those gloriously traditional Saturday-evening affairs where a dozen or so people sit around an outdoor table and drink beer and wine and eat bread and dip before – when someone can be bothered – the meat is eventually cooked, I was reintroduced to thyme.  Yes, thyme, the herb, not the ‘indefinite continued existence of the universe in the past, present and future’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it.  The host, a kind and gentle soul, did the honours; we’d arrived early so she showed us around her herb patch before other guests turned up.  The thyme in the centrally located terracotta pot immediately took my interest, because as a little boy and then as a not-so-little teenager it was my favourite plant in the whole wide world.

Back when I knew nothing about anything (though I still don’t, it has to be said) I enjoyed gardening very much.  I had my own plot at the rear of our North Shore home in Sydney.  The yard was terraced there and I was allowed the lower, partly hidden level, which had been a cricket pitch before my brothers moved out.  More a rock garden, I filled it with plants bought on sale from the local nursery or ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s beds or, more often, stolen from the bush over the road, which isn’t good, I know, but it’s the truth.  Thyme, however, was the beloved plant, because it’s one that’s impossible for a dreamy teenaged boy to kill.

I shared all this with the barbecue host, and then declared that I’d be sure to visit a nursery and buy myself a piece of thyme.  Which I did the next morning.  At home I pinched the leaves and put my thumb and forefinger to my nose – what a delicious, pungent smell and how, yes, it transported me back to that rock garden I had in Sydney.  So I potted up my new plant and put it pride of place on my own outdoor table.  It was like I’d reunited with an old friend, or had discovered a part of me that had been submerged by years of being someone I’m not.

Yesterday I did some research on Thymus vulgaris, the second part of the name not at all appropriate for such a cheery plant.  The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, the Greeks liked bathing in it because it was thought to be a source of courage (I love that); in the European Middle Ages it was placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares, which I’ll be sure to remember.  I learnt that thyme’s central element, thymol, is a key ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, that it can cure tinnea and ringworm, that it’s used to prevent mould in bee colonies (another image I adore), and, just to show that absolutely everything has a dark side, it is one of the 599 additives to cigarettes as it improves flavour and relaxes the trachea.

I’ve since dug out an old photograph of my little lower-level rock garden and just now Blue-tacked it on the wall in my writing room.  It’s so easy to imagine being that skinny, pimply young kid lost in a world of plants and soil.

It was – is – such a good world to be lost in.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 February 2010)

Being in bed, the teeth have been cleaned and there’s that lingering minty freshness, and then, with a book in my lap, leaning over to the bedside table and taking a couple of sips from the glass that’s there, the glass that’s filled with newly poured, fridge-cold water.

Planting – it might only take a couple of minutes for the pot to be filled with soil, the plant to be eased out of its punnet or dug up from another part of the garden, and then for it to be patted down and watered, but the benefits last for days, weeks even, potentially whole lives.

Going for a drive while listening to a dusty old home-made mix CD and coming across a forgotten song.  I experienced this yesterday when driving in the rain between here and Robertson (the home of the big potato, would you believe) – happy behind the steering wheel ‘Grace Under Pressure’ by Elbow came on.  I had to reach for my hanky, let me tell you that (and stay clear of cars overtaking as if there was no tomorrow).

Absently – even aimlessly – walking down my hallway and catching a glimpse of my library.  There’s nothing like it; it’s as warming as an open fire, as reassuring as an arm on the shoulder.

Riding down the street on my trusty treadly.  I just love being on that thing, especially at the end of the day and the brain’s looking to empty.  Hands on handlebars, riding gloves on hands, the sense of silence and stillness in the traffic, despite all the energy required and the movement.

These things that are ordinarily ecstatic.  Yours?

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