Wednesday 1 April 2020

Gardens where we feel secure

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, 
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to love and beauty!

We have been temporarily exiled from national parks, hills and mountains, landmark landscapes and the wider countryside, National Trust gardens are closed and even time spent in local parks and open spaces is heavily prescribed. But, whilst few of us have gardens on the scale of a Kelmscott, Sissinghurst or Great Dixster to wander whilst the day wanes, our own modest plots can provide much solace (my impression, also, is that people around here are engaging anew with the green spaces within walking distance of their homes, as the option of jumping in the car to drive out to more celebrated landscapes - or indeed to engage in more consumerist pastimes - is off limits).

I've been to a minor place
and I can say I like its face,
If I am gone and with no trace
I will be in a minor place

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - 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.

In a recent article offering advice on growing your own in a time of enforced enclosure, with or without a garden to hand, author Richard King* affirms that 'people have always found solace in gardening and growing.' The coming weeks of protracted isolation at home are, of course, the perfect time of year to sow and nurture vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, without necessarily going full-on Cottage Economy. Time is the most important element in cultivating plants and vegetables, and time is something many of us have in abundance at the moment. Gardening is also compatible with another joy of home-steading, just sitting and watching or reading or day-dreaming.


As to those times when feelings of confinement and claustrophobia inevitably get the upper hand, a curve in a garden path, however minor the footway, can hint at physical getaway. With a squint of the eye and suspension of known reality, a new world or experience could always be just around the corner. Foot crunching on gravel, stone or stepping upon dew-wet grass can provoke muscle memory of wider open spaces, places and landscapes visited in times past or thoughts of future adventures; a trigger for mental escape beyond the house and garden walls. 

Such thoughts are also sparked by a small enclosure in the garden hosting pebbles and stone, water and sun-bleached pieces of wood picked up over many years on walks and trips and holidays. Tactile reminders transplanted from the uplands, coasts and rivers of Britain, from Iceland, Patagonia, the Alps and elsewhere. An inert hoard of place memories. (some may see this as a bad habit, such materials should not be pillaged from their natural settings; what once seemed innocent beach-combing is now rather more freighted with significance as environmentally unsound, but as bad habits go picking up the odd piece of rock or wood is, I think, still just about acceptable). Here, also, I can fancy to be amidst Derek Jarman's singular Prospect Cottage shingle-shore and driftwood garden at Dungerness, currently the subject of a fund-raising campaign to save it for the nation; that special place providing sanctuary and therapy during Jarman's own battle with a virus of his time.

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

Richard Mabey's Nature Cure remains a seminal rumination on our physical and mental relationship with the natural world and his words towards the end of the book seem to strike a chord with our current (albeit temporary) need to seek solace in our immediate surroundings rather than grander and 'wilder' landscapes:

'I began to wonder ... if wilderness was really what I wanted ...what I missed was some common ground between the wilderness and the thoroughly domesticated, some accessible country - real and metaphysical ... I realised that what touched me most was not wilderness as a special, defined place, but the quality of wildness.' 

Hopefully we can all find a little wildness in our own gardens and home surroundings, enough to sustain us through this most strange of springs. Stay safe everyone.  

* If you are looking for some appropriate and stimulating reading whilst sitting in your garden or outdoor space (or anywhere in fact), then Richard King's The Lark Ascending and Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young will take you away to a good place, and have you searching out new sounds.