Imaginary Gardens

nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’ –  above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore

(From ‘Poetry’)

When I tell people I am writing poems about flowers and gardens, they soon ask me about my own garden, naturally assuming that I am an ardent gardener with an impressive patch full of rare and beautiful specimens, tastefully created to respond to the site and the seasons. I hesitate to take a spade to their soft focus image of ‘the poet in her country garden’. But turn it over I must and happily list all the reasons why my garden is a failure – its setting over 700 feet above sea level that catches every breath of wind; the short (and getting shorter) summers; the incursions of creatures both wild and agricultural, all hungry, heavy-footed and pawed – sheep, cattle, moles and, most terrible of all, rabbits; my back, vulnerable after a riding accident, not up to all the digging and bending required of a good gardener; the shortage of funds to throw at help or plants or whatever might be needed to make my life easier and my garden more…what is the word I’m looking for? Respectable? Meant? Horticultural?

The last straw (Hordeum vulgare?) is that the garden where I live isn’t clear where it begins and where it ends. The house, a late 19th century gamekeeper’s cottage, faces an open fell to the south, used for grazing sheep and cows, while the back and sides are given over to woodland, planted with Scots pine, spruce, a few exotic cypresses and less exotic sycamore and elder. On the margins of what I think of as garden, there are rowans, laburnum, white lilac, bird cherry and birch.  Traditionally a garden aspires to be a boundaried space, a contained, controlled environment, a paradise.

But there is a wild, spare beauty about this place spilling beyond its edges that is almost all the garden I need. Every day I am refreshed by the ampitheatre of green I find myself at home in, the wide bowl of a moody Northumbrian sky. The impression is one of immense space and openness, with views stretching far across to the other side of the Tyne Valley, the aerial on Pontop Pike and the windmills at Tow Law on the horizon. Forgive this peasant’s folie de grandeur but every inch of it feels like ‘my garden’: as I write this, that’s from the leaves on the divided birch outside my window just starting to crumple and turn, the patches of Hockney blue between the clouds, right down to the berry bugs snaffling at all my tender places, yet more regular, unwelcome, visitors at this time of year.

It’s often said Tibet is a natural home for Buddhism, its wide terrain and mountainous spaces offering a mirror for the open, limitless mind cultivated through meditation. Do we, I wonder, become the spaces we live in? Adopt their characteristics in the same way people sometimes say we do with our partners or pets? Or is it the other way around? Does an innate narcissism result in our creating spaces that mirror our consciousness, as we often do in our homes and gardens? Messy kitchen, messy mind? Tidy borders, tidy mind? It’s not consistent or straightforward but I think some sort of exchange can occur. Since living in open rural settings, I’ve grown used to more expansive states of mind, a sense of freedom that can feel constrained if I’m pent-up too long in a city or built-up area, with no clear view of the sky.

This seems to suit my imagination, the place for me poems come from. Or at least it’s become my habit, what I’m used to. And it’s there that I do my best gardening, nurturing the seeds of ideas, experimenting with patterns and textures, while weeding out what isn’t necessary. I often find myself telling people that I write about flowers because I can’t grow them, to compensate for my limitations as a gardener. Isn’t that why we all do what we do? Because we can’t do anything else?

So for now, for the next few years, I’m going to take a break from fretting over my own garden – how I can’t make it do what I want it to. The truth is I’m more interested in getting a line break in the right place rather than perfectly positioning an iris or a peony.  I’ll be looking at how other gardens work – specifically botanic gardens, not belonging to anyone in particular, officially defined as ‘collections of plants grown for purposes other than purely aesthetic’, where the plants are usually arranged according to country of origin, botanical family and economic use. More important than they have ever been, they are our safeguards against the dangers of extinction as a result of increasing instances of deforestation, desertification and development. I’m drawn to these gardens because of that sense of common ownership, a universal stewardship in the interests of research, conservation and education. They’re like reference libraries with plants instead of books.

As much as a theatre for the senses, with ‘real toads in them’, I see these gardens as a state of mind, a place for learning, growth. They are man-made spaces, but at best collaborations between the human and the plant worlds, rather than a chance for man to express his dominance, centrality and control. Again, that word exchange – like the breath coming in and out of our bodies – that one simple unconscious act revealing how much we depend upon plants for the very oxygen we need to live.

If I were a better gardener, gifted with the conviction that anything is possible, I’d like to create a garden like Edward James did at Las Pozas in Mexico – over 80 acres of pools and waterfalls, stone balustrades and steps leading nowhere among orchids, lianas, Spanish moss and strangler figs. His structures had names like The House on Three Floors Which Will In Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof Like a Whale and The Temple of the Ducks. Like him, I’d have a bath set in the middle of it so I could lie back in the water, smoke a cigar and watch the stars gathering among the tangled nets of trees as I listened to birds and frogs call to each other from branch to branch, my favourite, unquestionably real, parrot perched on my shoulder.

You don’t have to garden to garden; gardening in the mind is a gentle vice with an impetus of its own.

Mirabel Osler

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