São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.
I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.
When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.
We didn’t stay long.
There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.
From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms. Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.
Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.
(I found her photo in an old scrap book)
In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.
On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.
To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.
The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.
No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.