‘Polo’ the constant gardener

Nick Tayag

ON the morning of Christmas day last year, I thought I heard some rustling sounds in front of our house. My wife and I looked at each other quizzically: If they were the usual street kids asking for pamasko, how come they’re not knocking or saying anything?

Frantic, I opened our pedestrian gate and was surprised to see a man in blue shirt wearing a cap, bent over our plant box. I asked what he was doing, the man slowly turned towards me and with a sheepish smile explained: “I was just taking out the dead leaves and weeds.”

Polo! I exclaimed. Very typical of him, always driven by a compulsion to care for plants first and foremost wherever he finds them.

Actually, I had been expecting him that morning because for over 20 years now, without fail, he would drop by our home every Christmas day morning, except in 2020 during the long shutdown due to the Covid pandemic.

I have grown so accustomed to his Christmas visits that I wouldn’t consider Christmas day complete without seeing him. Even for just a few minutes, we would have a short casual talk, as I quiz him about the whereabouts of ex-officemates, friends and acquaintances we have in common. It’s the usual “Maritess” chit-chat, I am embarrassed to admit. That’s because Polo has stayed connected to many of them; everybody likes to have him around.

Polo is so straight and honest, updating me on happenings, without guile or malice on his part. And trustworthy, too. If there’s info that’s confidential, he would say so or he would keep silent and just smile and it’s up to you to get the message. In all these years, I never heard him badmouth any of our common acquaintances. He knows his boundaries around what he can share with other people, building trust by not oversharing.

Elisio Polo is his full legal name. It’s funny because at first I thought Polo was short for Apollo. I first met him many years ago when we were both working in a Jica-funded project where he was a “janitor-gardener” on a contractual basis. A naturally amiable, helpful, and courteous person, he was liked and admired for his work ethic.

Assigned to take care of the garden where we worked, he would meticulously tend the plants for hours, even under the heat of the midday sun. Visitors and guests always had a good word about the blooming plants and flowers, which they would notice before entering our building.

If there are animal whisperers, Polo is probably a plant whisperer. He once told me that he talks to plants and maybe they respond positively to him. That’s probably the key to his magic with plants.

At first, I considered the idea of chatting with plants eccentric behavior. But now I’ve stopped scoffing because there’s now research showing that speaking nicely to plants will support their growth. This may have more to do with vibrations and volume of one’s voice. Plants appear to react favorably to low levels of vibrations.

I am now starting to believe that Polo, like other gifted gardeners, must have some sort of “spiritual” connection with plants. Maybe it’s the way he speaks, for he never speaks loudly or angrily to anyone. Maybe plants perceive his ministering presence, the way he is truly attentive to their needs for water, or new soil, or nutrients.

Truth be told, there was a time when I took Polo lightly. His favorite topic was gardening, about the gardens he designed and maintained in the past. He gave me tips on how to design our front yard garden, what plants are best suited to our soil, how and when to water them and so on. But with no interest in gardening, I just let the words go over my head.

But now I am beginning to value what he’s telling me and the kind of person that he is.

That’s why on the day he dropped by, it dawned on me that with everything he knows about plants and gardening, Polo should be a teacher conducting a workshop on gardening and plant growing. In Japan, he would probably be revered as a shokonin, the Japanese term for master, not only for his natural gift and superb skill but also for his utter devotion and dedication to the caring of plants.

I admire his self-discipline. Polo must be in his 70s but he is still very healthy. He says he exercises every day and is a long-distance walker. The same discipline he follows in caring for his plants is what he applies to himself in terms of self-care. He has no vice, meaning he doesn’t smoke or take alcoholic drinks. Did he drink beer then? I don’t remember.

He is also a man of simple faith. There is one anecdote he related to me that started me thinking. One day, he saw a lumpy paper bag on a garbage dump as he passed by on his way home. Something told him to go closer and see what was inside. It turned out to be an old statue of the Lady of Fatima, but with a chipped hand and face. He brought it home, cleaned it and next day he had it repaired by a statue maker, had it blessed by a priest and since then has kept it with him in his room, serving as an inspiration for him.

He says although he seldom goes to mass, he prays to it at night before going to bed. He deeply believes it was his prayers to the Lady that enabled him to endure and survive a serious illness that befell him sometime in the past. Her presence in his life, he says, is also what prevents him from being lured by temptations of fast, easy money through dishonest deals.

That story was a teachable moment for me and those of us who pride ourselves in our knowledge of the bible, theology and our direct connections with people in the Church hierarchy. Often, pride is a wisdom killer. Most of the time, our sense of self-importance gets in the way of discerning the wisdom of people of simple faith.

As St. Paul admonishes us: “Do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”

Sometimes I fault Polo for his naiveté and simplemindedness. He seems to have no further ambition in life, contented with his lot. So trusting, he has been taken advantage of many times over. Yet he never hesitates to share freely what he knows.

But on the other hand, he seems happy with what life has given him. Maybe he’s found his true calling. He doesn’t even carry a cellphone with him. Give him an old pair of shoes he would gladly accept them and make them look new. Was it Confucius who said: “Life is really simple but men insist on making it complicated.”

I also read that “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them.” In that sense, Polo is wiser and more honorable than many of us who are driven by the compulsion to acquire and possess more and more, even at the expense of turning back on our ingrained values.

Opening myself to the earthy knowledge of this constant gardener keeps me grounded on what is most important in life. It enriches the ground where I am rooted. Every time he visits me, I am like one of his plants, growing a little bit more even at this ripe age.

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