Enduring images of an unforgettable city

21:16, Feb 26 2011

MY PHOTOGRAPHS of Christchurch mock me now writes Rosemary McLeod.

They record a city that belongs in my memory, filed away with everything else that will never be the same.

I was there in February two years ago. Then, as now, it was hot, in the last flush of summer and heading towards autumn, with the first leaves starting to turn. The Ellerslie Flower Show, then as this year, had been about to happen in Hagley Park. An offer of free entry this year from mayor Bob Parker's office is kicking around my house again, but I won't be there; nobody will.

The city's gardens, nostalgic for England like so many of its ruined old buildings, were one of the reasons why we'd idly thought we could retire there one day. Its old and lovely trees - introduced species from the other end of the world, a bit like us - seem to have survived last week's catastrophe in a way that so many human beings sadly didn't, their roots running deep and stable, like the city's quaint stone buildings and modern high rises all seemed to be, and were not.

My photographs show French marigolds, phlox, sedums, salvias, lion's tail, and almost black- leaved red dahlias, stunning at this time of year. They'll be blooming now, but in a grieving city.

I brought back images of two stunning herbaceous borders - Sir Miles Warren's at Governor's Bay, and the one in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens that I've always made a point of visiting when I've been in town. They're an old- fashioned type of art form, the way I see it, a luxury needing constant attention, models of planning, foresight and skill. Garden designers have to imagine a border through all the various plants' phases of growth and dormancy, and in every season, to ensure there's always something the eye can rest on with pleasure.

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Sir Miles's garden - how ironic this now seems - was enhanced by architectural salvage from old demolished buildings. He had a gift for integrating it with faultless placement, like the top of the Greek column that seemed to have tumbled into his vegetable garden in an ancient cataclysm, a visual joke.

His home was badly damaged in last September's quake and no doubt it is again. I hate to think of that idyllic, orderly world of his tumbling chaotically downhill, nature having the last derisive word on human endeavour. For ages, his border was my screen saver. Its colouring, textures and design seemed to encapsulate serenity.

I wonder if the communal garden in Lyttleton has survived, and whether they'll still have Saturday markets on the hillside selling local produce, old- fashioned Eccles cakes, bunches of proteas, and irresistible junk. The Time Ball Station seems to have crumbled, perhaps beyond recovery. I won't be having scones and tea there again with the friendly women who helped restore the 19th-century living quarters in period detail, down to the sack apron in the kitchen. And did the gaudy Volcano Cafe survive? It looked so cheerful.

The places I stayed, and where I ate meals, are history. I hope the antique dealers I always looked in on - Derek and Justine - are safe and their best treasures are unharmed; that Scorpio Books is OK; that the shabby motel where my little boy loved bouncing on the trampoline withstood the shocks.

I have my own map of Christchurch in my head, with imaginary lines between these destinations. It is now erased. It's the trees I hold on to in my memory now. I think of tall copper beeches, maples, rhododendrons and oaks keeping mansions safe from prying eyes, and framing Hagley Park, where people gathered in the midst of disaster, too stunned and shocked to be glad to be alive.

The trees have survived. If only we had their resilience.

Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington writer and Focus contributor.

rosemary.mcleod@star-times.co.nz

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