The Mighty Jungle Meets Ketut!

This afternoon I took a break from writing, wandered to the railing overlooking the garden, and there were Ketut and Wayan, hard at work, beating back the jungle. It’s a thankless chore, like doing laundry or washing dishes, tasks that every homemaker knows must be tended to on a regular basis or they soon get out of hand. It’s not at all like weeding a Minnesota garden a couple of times over the course of three months, which is the sum and total of the growing season there.

No, the jungle is aggressive. If it weren’t tamed, it would soon take over everything, vines snarling around pillars, curling over walls and doorways, snaking through open windows. So the garden Ketut planted that looked so feeble at it’s inception, has morphed into a domesticated jungle that requires daily attention.


Last October, Ketut planted every stick that is now a tree and every blade of grass that is now a thick carpet.


This is the same corner that Ketut was planting in the previous picture.


Wayan is carrying two hacked leaves from a banana tree that was encroaching!

Besides being a superb gardener, Ketut is half monkey. If there’s an offending branch or frond that’s too high off the ground to snag with the long knife-stick, he’s up the trunk in a flash, making quick work of the unfortunate interloper.


This is NOT a tree-hugger pose! He has his long knife-stick in his right hand and is hanging on for dear life with his left!


With focused intensity he’s going after a cluster of bananas that fell prey to one of the raggy squirrels that love to eat the stem of the flower which pretty much ensures that the bunch dies or its growth is stunted.


Hmmm…I wonder if I can reach that dried  palm leaf waaaay up there….!


Wayan looks on as Ketut hacks.

And you may as well get used to hearing about Wayan. Wayan Puji is Ketut’s cousin from the same village of Abang Songan, and he’s now a permanent fixture here. (I’m high maintenance…it takes two!)


Wayan Puji

Ketut’s hobby is gardening, and Wayan’s hobby is cleaning! At least that’s what Ketut says, and I believe him. My windows have been washed, inside and out, three times in two weeks. My floor is swept every day and scrubbed every other day. And both guys like to cook so I’ve had to cut out rice and noodles to ward off the creeping poundage! It’s a lovely problem to have.

How do I describe a life that’s so unlike anyone’s frame of reference unless they’ve lived here? I write these blogs but they’re just words and snapshots of an existence that defies explanation. And yet I persist, hoping that something gets through, some part of the magic, the wonderment, injects itself into the reader with the kind of awe I feel every single day. Toward that end I write, and write, and write!


Diplomacy Bali style, you only think you know what you want!

The jungle has it’s place. My idea of a garden, however, is more orderly, manageable, controlled.

In the months preceding the acquisition of the small plot of land adjoining mine, I visualized, sketched, imagined what my garden would look like. Ah, lovely! A solid base of mosaic stone pathways known as batu sikat to create the backdrop for potted palms, bougainvillea, gardenias, and other tropical varietals. It would go from this, its current jungle-ish state,


The ‘before’ look of my future garden

to something more like this.

Garden plan

The basic idea

I show my drawings to Ketut who will be instrumental in manifesting the vision. (In other words, to him falls the questionable pleasure of uprooting and relocating the jungle and transforming it into planned perfection.) “Oh,” he says, with that tone that I’ve come to recognize as not being quite on my page. “No small mountain???”

For the sake of clarity, the Balinese style garden is a series of earthen mounds. In the center of each is a tall tree that is bordered by leafy plants in varying hues of green, red, and yellow, which are again skirted at the lower level with shorter flowering shrubs creating a mountain affect.

Julies garden

Balinese style garden

There is no question that it’s beautiful. But I want something  different.

“No small mountain,” I say, with the inflection of voice that leaves very little room for doubt. “I want pots, not mountains.”

Ketut is thoughtful and quiet.

“What are you thinking?” I get wary when there’s no give and take.

“Oh ya,” he says, and nothing else.

A day passes and Ketut’s industry is beautiful to behold. The jungle, like Bali magic, disappears and I venture into the cleared space to reintroduce my plan, just in case. Ketut speaks first. “Ya, three small mountains, one here, one here, one there.” I decide to go the route of diplomacy.

“Ketut,” I try to be patient. “Tell me what you see.”

After a brief explanation I see the same thing he sees, a traditional Bali garden.

“I don’t want small mountains, just pots. Many batu sikat and pots. Is that possible?”

A small “Ya,” is my answer.

Another day passes. More space is cleared and new plantings appear along the back wall.  It’s taking shape. With drawing in hand I once again venture into the clearing, drumming up the necessary resolve to hold firm with my vision.

“It looks beautiful, amazing!” I tell him, and it does. But I don’t see any indication of a design that includes my decorative pathways. “Where will we put batu sikat?”

“Oh, very expensive,” he says.

“How expensive?”

“Maybe broken.”


“Ya, land very soft, easy make batu sikat broken. Maybe a little a little around pot. And here small mountain…”

The end of this story is obvious by now. In true Balinese fashion, Ketut has given me what I want, his way. He never tells me I can’t, but with gentle stubbornness he guides me to reach that conclusion all by myself. I have to loosen the reigns. When I do the results are always spectacular. The creativity that erupts in such abundance in this culture astounds me. I have no doubt my garden, when left to Ketut, will be a thing of wondrous beauty. I’ll have a few pots, he’ll have a few mountains, and I’ll believe it was all my idea in the first place.


Ketut hard at work in the new garden

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

I’m a farmer’s daughter. Even after we moved to town, I spent summers driving tractor, hoisting bales onto the hay wagon, and swatting mosquitoes. While classmates were traveling to Europe, or hanging out at the local drive-in, I was thirty miles from nowhere harvesting alfalfa. And here’s the scary part: I liked it. Love for the land and its produce is intrinsic, a part of who I am.

So when I asked Ketut to take care of the garden, I imagined he would water it when it was thirsty and keep the grass cut. After all, that and a little fertilizer does the trick in Minnesota. Right?

What was I thinking? This is Bali.  A garden here looks more like the Disney Jungle Cruise on steroids, and I’m clueless. I’m learning to stand back and let those who know what they’re doing, take charge.  So when Ketut showed up with a wicked curved knife in his hand and said, “Cut garden,” I just backed out of his way, nodding assent.


Ketut in my ‘garden’

I didn’t pay much attention until I heard a tree crashing to earth. To my dismay, I found Ketut, knife flailing, doing battle with the jungle that appeared to be swallowing him alive.

“Ketut!” I must have sounded alarmed because he stopped hacking for a moment.

“What?” he said, looking at me, eyebrows raised.

“Snakes!” I think I may have been shouting. “Hati-hati!”

“Where snake?” he said and I immediately felt stupid.

“No snake,” I replied, “Just…please be careful!”

He grinned, “Ya,” he said. I don’t want to know what he was thinking.


Piles of branches litter the yard

Several hours later the ground was littered with hacked vegetation and instead of a mass of tangled vines, there were identifiable plants.

“What will you do with all of this?” I asked him, motioning at the piles of tropical foliage.

“Make new,” he said, whatever that meant. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. He grabbed a handful of the most colorful branches and carried them to the garden’s edge. With a few swift motions, he jabbed the stalks he had just cut, back into the ground.

I watched with my jaw hanging open. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Make new,” he said again. “Rain come, grow-grow.” I almost laughed at the impossibility of that idea. If I stuck a branch from, oh, say an oak tree, in the corner of the yard in Minnesota, no amount of rain would make that sucker grow! But I bit my tongue and said nothing.


Ketut jabbing the branches into the earth “Make new!”

Just then a movement under the bushes froze me in my tracks. I stared into the darkness. Plop! It wasn’t a snake, snakes don’t plop. I squatted on my haunches and peered into the undergrowth. A warty, brown blob stared back at me. It looked like an alien life form. “That has to be the ugliest frog I’ve ever seen!” I said.

Ketut joined me for a look. “Married,” he stated matter-of-factly. Then I saw the problem. It wasn’t one, but two ugly-as-sin toads, enjoying a moment of intimacy in the garden.



A song came to mind…Cole Porter…Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

I left the garden, Ketut, and the toads to their business, poured a glass of wine, and pondered the rich layers of this experience. What a privilege to have so much to learn.

A few hours later we had another epic monsoon. Today those plants look like they’ve always been there. They didn’t miss a beat. No post traumatic transplant stress for them! Suddenly I’m aware of the possibilities. Seeds. Everything I eat has seeds, and here they’re probably not the GMO variety. What if I planted chili seeds, and papaya? How about a few garlic buds, and ginger root? Mango? Visions of eating delicious meals harvested from my back yard garden plays like a B movie through my head.

I run the idea by Ketut. “Possible,” he says. Of course it is. Just about anything is possible in paradise.

%d bloggers like this: