Ex paradiso

Last summer, we met Raffi. Or at least, my wife and kids did. The great children’s entertainer of the 80s, 90s and 00s was sitting under a blue umbrella in the Saturday market at Ganges, Salt Spring Island. This, for readers from away, is the largest and busiest of the rural Gulf Islands that lie just offshore from Vancouver.

Now, Ganges used to be a pretty conservative, Anglican kind of place, its chief attraction an old-fashioned candy store. (I mean, it seemed to have been fashioned for old people.) Today, at least in summer, it is the capital of a northern Bali: sleek yachts, packed patios, unbroken tans. The Saturday market is a Utopian extravaganza where exquisite crafts and sumptuous food get hocked for cosmic prices by stunning, ageless hippies. As a result, I missed Raffi. Whoring after ceramics (and that’s another story), I walked right past his booth several times without noticing. But C and our four children—ages 16, 14 (twins) and 9—had the presence of mind to perceive that the quiet, 70ish, olive-skinned man resembling Raffi, surrounded by posters about Raffi, and promoting the most recent Raffi album (“Dog on the Floor”), was, in fact, Raffi. So they marched right up and told him which of his songs had always been our favourite, when the kids were small.

C and I had last visited Salt Spring when our oldest was four months old. We stayed in a Ganges hotel and delightedly strollered our little boy around. There’s a picture of him jolly-jumpering in our hotel room. Another, in a local restaurant, where he’s planting a kiss on my cheek — the first I ever got from him! Baby technique is slobbery, but man, you don’t mind.

Since then, our family has grown, per southern B.C. tradition, through the rythm of a summer visit to the Islands.

The year after that first trip, our peaceable little boy suddenly entered the Terrible Twos while we were staying in a cabin on Mayne. He screamed if we stayed in, screamed if we went out, and double screamed if we wouldn’t let him run off cliffs. On that same trip, we learned that my wife was pregnant again—although we wouldn’t learn just how pregnant until her 20-week ultrasound.

Two years later, our much bigger and somewhat calmer boy, accompanied by two curly-haired toddlers, rode a blow-up whale on the lawn outside the old Surf Lodge on Gabriola. Galiano (close, but not the same) became our go-to island in 2007. C and the girls discovered a secluded beach that has been “ours” ever since (ok, you can see it from the ferry, but you have to know where to look). In 2008, our soon-to-be-youngest defeated an IUD rated at 99% effectiveness after my wife, for reasons best known to herself, went oyster-hunting, with her feet, in chest-deep and very cold water, to the point of hypothermia, and then took a hot bath. Etc. That was on Pender. 

In 2010, we camped with four other families, long-time friends of ours, on Galiano. Between us, we had enough kids that I have to do the math every time to believe it. They took over the campground. The evening we arrived, after putting up our tent, I made my way down to the beach to rinse off the sweat. I remember laughing, with sheer relaxation, at the ochre sun on the origami shapes of the massive, elegant Arbutus trees. We and our friends were all fortyish, solvent, healthy. Cocktails on the beach as the sun went down. Later that evening, we dined together—we families—shuttling hot dogs and casseroles via children and parents amongst our fires and stoves and picnic tables.

What happened? 

Well; what happens. 

Marriages fail. Politics intervene. Addictions, hidden for years, suddenly and disastrously burst out. And kids—they’re not so slobbery anymore. That camping trip can never be repeated.

But back to Raffi.

Our favourite song of his was never “C-A-N-A-D-A” or “Shake a Toe” or even “Baby Beluga.” Those were all good, and we were always grateful for the bright engagement his music provided. But the song we waited for, when the Raffi CDs went on, was: “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell.” 

“Now you’re talking,” he said, when my wife told him that.

Raffi didn’t write this song. It’s by a pair of American kid’s entertainers, Janice Hubbard and Michael Silversher. Raffi’s version appears on his 1994 album Bananaphone (“it’s a phone with appeal”), released when he was at the height of his fame. “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell” comes just after “Slow Day,” and just before “Naturally.” But Mr. Bell is something else.

Here’s Raffi singing it.

And here are the words. 

Mr. Bell’s from a foreign place; His family all were farmers.
He arrived from across the sea, and came to be next door!
And he works his land with a knowing hand;
Though it’s very small, he makes it grow so well,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

These are astors and edelweiss, and rows and rows of roses.
Those are hives in the dogwood trees for bees to come and go!
It’s a wondrous sight, in the morning light,
And the earth is full —every color every smell,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

For some reason, American writers notwithstanding, I’ve always thought of this as a very Toronto song. In my mind, Mr. Bell and the child-narrator are neighbours in one of that city’s endless, gritty, faceless suburbs. Nondescript houses, crummy yards. But the old man, through his effort and wisdom, has turned his modest space into a walled garden; which, etymologically, is the meaning of “paradise.”

And that’s all before we get to the bridge.

I once saw a photograph, upon his mantle shelf
Of a beautiful lady, a child in her arms–and a young Mr. Bell himself.
I wondered out loud about them, and he answered in the strangest way —
He just said look: see how the garden grows!
It’s always changing every day.

Mr. “Bell”? Actually, it’s Belzug, or Bel-amin, or “Bel, may be hard for you to pronounce.” The “foreign place”? Could be Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine. But it could just as easily be Colombia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, or any of the crimson and piquant and  tantalizing locations from which people have urgently sought refuge for generations in little Canadian back yards. These, for them, have been the promised land. The old man’s arms, working in his garden, spell out Holocaust.

The last verse goes like this:

Mr. Bell has his morning tea, and I will bring his paper.
See the sun through the curtain lace dapple his face and hands!
Every day is new; There is much to do.
Life’s a mystery, full of secrets that might tell —
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

A song like this has to tiptoe dangerously between the touching and the trite. The last couple of lines, it seems to me, lose their balance a bit. But not this one:

“Every day is new; there is much to do.” 

If it works for Mr. Bell.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in the intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). Philosophically, for me, these issues are subsumed in hermeneutics.

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