Glass half-full, the Covid-19 restrictions on movement coinciding with the first burst of spring present an opportunity to inhabit the topography of your own garden more profoundly than in normal times, if you are lucky enough to have outdoor space. This is always the favoured season to tidy up, prepare, potter and observe my own modest though ample plot. The fact that the family cats now have a wider right to roam than us human residents means that the garden's function as the micro-landscape of daily life is amplified as never before, its role as play area and nature haven in an urban setting intensified by the prohibition of regular wandering beyond its borders; not quite perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge's elegiac incarceration (This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison) but a welcome and welcoming open prison of greenery. As Coleridge had it,
If I am gone and with no trace
I will be in a minor place
Bounded ranging around this relatively small space, this minor place, allows close and regular looking with an intensity not normally available as busy lives carry us away to work and obligations and pleasure elsewhere. Rudyard Kipling was correct: 'the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.' In a previous post (The last field in England), I mused on the reward that can be gained from deep concentration on a small area of topography:
'There is something both inviting and slightly daunting in the thought of studying the micro-landscape of a single field. A small matter for a master such as Richard Jefferies who can devote a whole chapter to dwelling on the minutiae of the topography, flora and fauna of the 'homefield' in Wild Life in a Southern County, but more of a challenge to most of us, lacking the innate knowledge of the Victorian country-dwelling naturalist. Nevertheless, it is an approach that retains its appeal, witness Tim Dee's recent Four Fields, an expansive study of the geography, history, literature and ecology of varying, and admittedly atypical, areas of fields in the Fenland of Cambridgeshire, Zambia, Ukraine and Montana, USA; or The Plot by Madeleine Bunting, 'a biography of an English acre, rooting a story of family history in a very particular place' (not to be confused with Andrew Michael Hurley's novel Starve Acre, also Yorkshire-sited though a tale of obsession with a more unhallowed patch of ground). Such an approach can also be applied to a garden: a place to work, rest and observe, to tend and derive wonder.
In this garden, just beyond the confined technology and 'civilisation' of the house, everyday encounters with wildness can and do take place. The pond now teems with tiny tadpoles released from the frogspawn which appeared at the end of February (a little earlier than normal?) as it has for six or seven years now; dragon-flies to come as the water iris and marsh marigold grow. Blackbirds, blue tits, robins, great tits, goldfinches, wrens, sparrows, swifts, crows and magpies coexist in the air, on surrounding eaves and roofs, in trees and bushes; and compete with a squirrel for feeding station rations. A pair of plump pigeons nest on a meagre-looking pile of twigs in the boughs of a large pittosporum outside the landing window. Bugs, spiders and woodlice abound among the rocky and woody, damp and shady places. Ants excavate their underground citadels. Most indelibly fixed in my mind, three years ago I watched - from a social distance of two metres - a badger emerge from the wild, dark undergrowth behind the pond, lumber across the grass and cover under the silver birch and cherry tree and mosey on down the steps and across the road to an area thick with laurels edging the plot on which once stood a grand house, 'The Lawns', after which our street is named. The day before this encounter a dead hedgehog had been found on the lawn, a wound to its side: had it fallen prey to the badger, our garden a hunting haunt for 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts'? All the while a healthily-pelted fox roams at night: 'nature's own prince of the dance'. All this life in one small plot of ground in suburban Bristol.
As springtime progresses into summer, one piece of music that I return to is From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a beguiling piece of classical ambient English pastoral by Virginia Astley. An album containing music which, in Rob Young's words, has a 'timeless, hovering sensation'.*
In fact, the track-listing and sleeve notes alone, reproduced below, deftly prefigure the sounds and ambiance that the record harvests; bringing to mind the elegiac yet beatific Just Another Diamond Day by Vashti Bunyan or John Martyn's Small Hours, the perfect accompaniment to a dreamy spring or summer's day gloaming time in the garden before night falls.
From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
With My Eyes Wide Open In Dreaming
A Summer Long Since Past
From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Hiding in the Ha-Ha
Out On The Lawn I Lie In Bed
Too Bright For Peacocks
Summer Of Their Dreams
When The Fields Were On Fire
Its Too Hot To Sleep