A year in the unspoken garden
Twelve months ago, an undertaking was made to translate the insights gleaned from our garden and post them here in regular instalments. The benefits of being outdoors are well understood, and the uplift to be had from time spent in a garden is deep-rooted and pervasive, so there’s nothing new to be voiced in general terms, but I wanted to try to share the very personal insights gleaned from one garden. I committed to one post per month and stuck to that bar one month in the summer.
It was also a way of instilling a writing discipline. That has been the norm for decades, but with no major projects underway, this was a method of ensuring the ink kept flowing. The previous year I had done the same analysing albums by my favourite band, starting with Strawbs: Strawbs in January 2021. The beginning of the Unspoken Garden series overlapped with the end of the strawberry music crop and got underway in December of last year with Solstice.
The series title
Why ‘unspoken’? The garden speaks continuously, day and night. It has spoken since long before it was enclosed ninety years ago, and it will never stop unless it becomes concreted ground. Even then it will speak again; just give it time. It has always been heard, we hear it every day and read it continuously, but its messages are not conveyed. They remain within us. Furthermore, each message is uniquely understood. No two people make the same translation. This was an opportunity to share one strand. Much more went unseen, unscented, untasted, untouched, unheard; and much more still went unvoiced, unspoken.
The garden posts
What was uncovered? To begin with, the observations were just that, looking at what the garden did during the season when doing is very difficult. It was decided that dormancy is a myth. The garden does not hibernate. It is still busy beneath: plotting under cover. For creatives this is a timely reminder. We need time off. While at rest, things deeper down can develop.
By Plough Monday (January) the first buds of the year were peeping. By Imbolc (February) they were starting to open. The birds were shouting territorial claims. Meanwhile, desks were tidied more with intent than as displacement activities. Room had to be made for this year’s crop of consciousness. The garden seemed to be saying you must get ready; there’s more to come. While there is life, there is work to be done.
March was massive. The garden knows nothing of politics yet all of its familiar domestic glow appeared overshadowed. It is south-facing yet seemed oriented towards Eastern Europe. Our little English safe space had become a mirror of my empathetic horror. The sky was red. There was death in the flowerbeds. The Unbalanced Equinox presented its perspective like newspaper billboards. A thrush took its song away. A homeless hedgehog came to stay. A lone feather fell to the pond. The daffodils flew their sunflower yellow flags beneath a cobalt blue sky. All such things had nothing to do with foreign thuggery, but somehow the garden said we must not forget.
Beltane is celebrated on or about the 1st May and the account anticipating this was posted at the end of April. The fire was definitely back in the blood of the birds, butterflies, amphibians, fish and their prey. (How do butterflies flirt so balletically when they can’t even fly straight?) Insects were burrowing, hoverflies hunting, tadpoles torpedoing, pigeons wooing. Love and war were no longer far away but right here, right now. War is the norm, says the garden. I am a perpetual battlefield, it said. Look how lovely I am. The flowerheads exploded, pyrotechnic red.
Perhaps because of the anticipatory theme of the April post, May itself was overlooked, and the next telegram was delivered in June. Here the killing theme persisted in Midsummer Murthers. Summer is a slaughterhouse, there’s no covering it up. We smile at the loveliness of the birds, bats and min-beasts, but they’re all either on a killing spree or cocked ready to flee. The flowers provide such a delightful distraction, but their seduction can lead to some deadly backstabbing. Nature is not, as we were once told, red in tooth and claw, it’s scarlet all over.
It is the secret gardener who makes our private retreat so beautiful. I was fearful that the above focus had become a little too entangled in the violent for her liking, as she pointed out the glory of the floral life among the daily death. Hence Lughnassdh became a celebration of the blooms. I snapped the living with my camera; she took her secateurs to the dead heads. My cuts placed the blooms in cold storage, hers produced new life.
In August the garden seems to pause again. Growth continues but it is so lush that it no longer appears to be thickening so much as putting on weight and deciding what to do next. Augustine contemplated the garden’s contemplation, which may not be as far-fetched as we might once have thought. Plants and animals don’t think like us; and vice versa.
The garden was the deciding factor when we chose to buy the house. As gardens go it is bigger than most modern horticultural handkerchiefs, but not by so much as to require an estate agent to consult their hyperbole thesaurus. It’s some sixty yards long by eight wide and is criss-crossed by the twelve paths that we have re-laid. I love to walk them. I find them inspiring, but also therapeutic. They provide routes to rationalise problems, whether real or imaginary. September’s post Up the garden path is a guided tour.
In October we took a visitor on that tour. A person from the past turned up as is described, just coincidentally as we were returning from a day out. He had lived in our house as a child. We purchased it from his mother. It was one of life’s rare collisions of mutual delight.
Autumn was delayed this year and so I held back a post I had intended to use earlier and deposited it in November. Leaving is a celebration of my favourite benefactors of the garden experience: the trees within and around it. It also, as the title suggests, marked a departure from this excursion into our natural privacy.
What did I learn? That the garden is both a generator and a reflector. Yes, it inspires, but it also rebounds whatever the onlooker lays upon it. Fortunately, it is infinitely more creative than a human mind. It is also more productive, more efficient and more persistent. That, in itself, is a signal of empowerment. Continuous creativity requires constant activity but should be unstoppable.
My study of the creative impulses of the garden has been accompanied by research. A common theme emerged, which was that those things once thought fanciful, foolish or just plain false are actually factual – though perhaps not exactly as originally imagined. Trees do talk. They speak to each other via their root systems, and on the airwaves. They ward off raiders and even summon predators using chemical warfare. Flowers send similar signals, and have been using ultra-violet and infra-red transmitters for aeons. Invertebrates have known this for just as long as they spiralled and barrel-rolled to escape the sonar of bat mobiles. As for fungi – well don’t even go there – except that you will, unless you will the only alternative: cremation.
What is not yet fully understood is just how much of that multi-dimensional cacophony directly impacts on us. We relish the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures, but perhaps far more is imbibed than is detected? The garden belongs to us, but increasingly I think that thought might be completely the wrong way round. We belong in the garden – literally. The garden tends, nourishes – and harvests. The garden plants. We are merely mulch.
It is no accident that being among nature makes you feel better. There is no question either, that it makes you more creative.
So, what of next year? We’re staying here, and going somewhere else.
Watch this workspace.
All of these, and others, germinated in the unpsoken garden:
To dig deeper, start here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pete-Hartley/e/B007SMJU5O