Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Friday, 11 October 2013

apples, aconites and all things autumn

This morning, cool and still, I breathe deeply as I cross the glistening lawn, sucking in the autumny air, savouring - what? - a tang of damp smokiness and that slightly sour smell of newly turned earth, so that immediately I'm back on school playing fields and the misery of impossible lacrosse in a biting wind.  In Second Nature, Michael Pollan suggests that a garden always casts a 'backward glance' for us, and the pull seems particularly strong at this time of year.  At twelve, organised sports were for me a chilly endurance test, but I recall with something like affection the massy trees - chestnuts, perhaps? - that edged the pitch.  Trees are on my mind at the moment: the tree surgeons have started work on the clump of towering Caucasian wingnut, pterocarya fraxinifolia, which straddles the stream.  The original two trees, both now gone, have produced an awesome thicket of stems and branches, but some trunks are quite hollow in places and all have woodpecker holes, apparently, so there will be some thinning, some felling - some to be left as standing poles - and all to be trimmed by five or six metres at the crown.  I guess tree planting necessitates a long view; but how quickly the shape of a landscape or a skyline can change!

I'm easily distracted: by the Brookside gate and into the woodland garden, purple everywhere - aconites, I discover - and again in the systematic beds.  They're part of the ranunculaceae family - buttercups, I think - and yes when I check I find this is correct.  At last: one piece of new knowledge that has stuck!  The Latin ranunculus means 'little frog', apparently,  but I can't find an explanation of why this term has attached itself to the family.  Delphiniums belong to the same family, of course - I can see the similarities - and larkspur, although this part of the bed is empty apart from the label.  I have an idea that aconites are poisonous and yes, so poisonous I learn that aconitum is known as the 'queen of poisons'.  Other names are monkshood (the hood is clearly visible) and devil's helmet, wolf's bane (from the ancient use of toxins extracted from the plant to kill wolves) but also woman's bane (?!), leopard's bane and blue rocket.  Used widely if sparingly in medicine, especially Chinese medicine, from the mid-twentieth century it was replaced in the west by safer alternatives.  If taken in large doses, death is likely to be almost instantaneous.  It sounds perfect for the murder mystery - wasn't it Agatha Christie who said 'Give me a decent bottle of poison and I'll construct the perfect crime'?  Apparently she used aconite to dispatch several characters in 4.50 from Paddington.  Building on Christie's status as arguably the most famous resident of her native Torquay, Torre Abbey's head gardener Ali Marshall and her team have devoted part of their gardens to a display of poisons (including aconitum) and other plants which feature in her work.  Naive I know, but I feel that something so deadly (its poison can be absorbed through the skin if handled without gloves) ought to look in some way dangerous.  The bad that hides behind a fair face never ceases to surprise, though: remember Hamlet, so appalled by dissembling that he felt bound to make a note of his discovery that 'one may smile and smile and be a villain'.

As far as I know there is nothing sinister in the lovely Persian ironwood, a stone's throw from the systematic beds and, I learn from its sign, head of horticulture Sally Pettit's favourite. A member of the witch-hazel family Hamamelidaceae, its Latin name parrotia persica is nothing to do with birds but is derived rather from the German naturalist and traveller Dr Friedrich Parrot who discovered the tree in its native northern Iran on one of his expeditions.  An impressive all-rounder in that rather disturbing nineteenth century way, a mountaineer who make the first recorded ascent of Mount
 Ararat, he was also various kinds of scientist (professor of physiology and pathology and later of physics), a surgeon in the Russian army and an inventor of, amongst other things, a 'gasometer' and a baro-thermometer.  As for his tree, apparently in winter it's remarkable for its tiny scarlet flowers (see Judy Fox's description of them on 'snow-etched branches' at ).  Today its leaves are turning, shades of peach and raspberry, claret and damson, mustard and ochre.  I prowl around the glade beneath its many hanging branches, running my fingers across its scaly bark, trying to test the theory that the only way to see a plant for real is from below.  This does give an extra something, some trick of the light perhaps, but every way up it's a spectacle worth stopping for.

Another good place to loiter, I've discovered, is up towards the top of the limestone garden.  I perch on a lump of rock and watch.  A magpie flies through my field of vision - one for sorrow?  On the other side of the water, a crow wheels up the empty sky to the top of a pine.  Down on the lake, a mallard picks his clumsy way through the lilies, where the lily pads are now and again blown upright, ragged sails on slender stalks, plucky but precarious, holding up for a second or two before falling back like windsurfers new to the game.  Not so much purple here, although the spreading catalpa erubescens 'purpurea' to my left bears the colour in its name - I read that the leaves emerge deep purple before fading to their now delicate pale green.  Yellows and greens predominate, with a blaze of golden sternbergia lutea, lilies of the field and a small patch of what might be 'black-eyed Susans'.  There's a question of scale to contend with, too: like the tiny mauve aster (is it?) sprouting from the rock on which I'm balanced, many of the plants here are very small - a garden in miniature when viewed against the backdrop of the huge cedars on the other side of the lake.

Today when I arrive home, there's a fat little parcel on my desk.  I know exactly what's inside.  I tear at the tape and the layers of padded envelope until they're revealed, a pair of red devils unmarked by their journey.  They're from a tree that was assigned to me by my Cumbrian friends when they extended their organic veg garden to include an orchard, and these fruits are from their first harvest.  They're a deep crimson, fading to a warm salmony pink on the cheek and in the rays that radiate from the core, with roughened buff patches around the stalk.  When I bite into one, the flesh is white and juicy, with a pink blush beneath the skin, or staining, as if lipstick has transferred itself from a blood-red mouth.  It smells of summer and strawberries; the taste a hint of sour beneath a peppery sweetness.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


A very stretchy month, this, one foot lingering in summer, the other striding impatiently on towards autumn.  For the first few days (is it really only a few weeks ago?) we're blessed with fine weather and high temperatures, the sun so fierce even I have to look for shade, and the visitors keep on coming.  The air is heavy with mysterious lemony and peppery scents.  Near the Brookside gate, armies of Michaelmas daisies are still massing, looking a bit the worse for wear but they're not giving in yet.  Around them - camp followers or local colour? - tall nicotiana sylvestris loll insouciant: they're browning at the edges now but if they know they don't care.  And clumps of echinacea are hanging in there, the vivid pink of their petals fading to old linen, papery white.  As the colour drains out of the petals it seems to creep into the central cone which glows with a greenish intensity.

The season demands you look up.  Trees that one day sport a streak of red and gold turn overnight to flame.  The sweet buckeye, aesculus flava, and its neighbouring acers lead the way.  Once I do look up, though, I find I'm seduced by those that keep their colour and their leaves.  One morning I deviate from my usual route, setting off along the West Walk as far as the old main gates on Trumpington Road, where the steps are bright with pots of purple verbena bonariensis (thanks to all who helped with identification) mixed with the reds and oranges of dahlias bobbing about in the breeze, poking their noses in to everybody's business.  Here I turn left along the Main Walk as far as the crossing with Henslow Walk.  The conifers that line the avenue reach a sort of climax at this crossroads, with four colossal specimens, one on each of the four corners.  I have the place to myself, apart from a woodpecker and a bunch of magpies chattering somewhere, and I want to get to know these trees a bit better.  I step off the path onto the impacted earth under one of these giants, cedrus atlantica, Atlas cedar, expecting a hard surface.  Instead, it's as if a woolly blanket has been spread beneath my feet, the long straw-coloured curves of dead needles creating a soft, springy carpet.  What would it feel like in bare feet?  In Four Hedges, Clare Leighton takes us to task for 'lazily' looking at things, missing out on the 'vast range of emotion' available to us through our other senses, so I run my fingers over its ridged bark and then move on to the Crimean pine, whose bark is softer and scalier.   I continue the touch test on the cedrus libani  and then on the giant redwood, at just over 30 metres the tallest tree in the garden and one of the oldest, grown from the first seed brought into this country by Cornishman William Lobb in 1851.

There's plenty to catch the eye on the ground, of course.  By accident I come upon the new perennial meadow planting just to the east of Cory Lodge.  Designed by James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University, it relies on drought-tolerant plants which will knit together to flower from April to October.  At present it's a surprisingly rich tapestry, predominantly purples and salmon pinks and yellows against the dark background of the yew hedge.  In the bee beds, the sherbet yellow of the snapdragons contrasts with the crushed raspberry of the sedums.  Springing
up everywhere in shady spots are tiny cyclamen, white, palest pink and every shade of purple, like stars or jewels in the dark ground.  And autumn crocus appear here and there, standing gamely, almost upright, on such slender stems.  They're easily floored by wind and rain, 'but how gently they lay their heads down flat on the grass to die, making of death a gracious thing': Clare Leighton again.

There's so much to read and so much fine writing I'd love to emulate, without simply repeating what's been done so well by others.  Hence my woeful vagueness when I'm asked - as I am more and more often now that I'm becoming a more familiar face around the Garden - 'So what exactly is it you're doing?'  'Um...' is usually the best I can come up with.  I suppose I'm interested first to explore what the garden - and this Garden - means to each of us, and how it fits into our experience of the natural world; and secondly, how best we might record our experiences.  In theory my focus is the journal, the kind of record that writers and gardeners over the ages have chosen to keep.  So I'm reading everything I can get my hands on, from Dorothy Wordsworth to Derek Jarman, Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Alice Oswald, Katherine Swift, Mrs Loudon...  Tomorrow it's Beth Chatto and Emily Lawless.  Also now on my list are the opening of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black (thanks, Paul) and, courtesy of friend and poet Clare Crossman, Jean Sprackland's Strands; also from my friend Tim a sequence of articles on Linnaeus and Tim's copy of Linnaeus's Lapland Journal, which I'm hoping he'll let me borrow.  In the last couple of days I've encountered three pieces which are so impressive that I've been tempted to put down the pen for good.  Sarah Hall's 'Mrs Fox' was the first of five stories short-listed for the BBC National Short Story Award broadcast on Radio 4 this week.  A fellow-Cumbrian, I've been following her career with interest and some envy.  She's really prolific and, as far as originality goes - well, you could listen on iPlayer.  Second was the opening page of Tim Dee's Four Fields - wonderful.  And then, yesterday evening, a Twitter feed sent me to Helen Mort's new poem 'Passing Places' - wow!

I'm not giving up, though, not yet.  I still have a headful of impressions that haven't made it onto paper - the smell of cut grass, the dead bird (head missing) that Laura found this afternoon, the high-tech world of the experimental glasshouses with their automated shade and temperature control and the mist machine, cafe mums, the sound of a penny whistle across the big lawn... This morning there's a nip in the air and - yes, definitely mist as I cycle across Parker's Piece, autumn 'showing the marks of its fingers' in the dew on the grass is how Clare Leighton puts it.  The sun, when it comes, has lost the ferocity of the start of the month - more like a warm caress than a hammer blow.  And I think the
echinacea may have had its day for this year: two gardeners are digging just behind it in the bed on the Lynch Walk.  Perhaps it's this sense of endings which makes this such a famously melancholy time of year?  It seems easy to slide into nostalgia: memories of meetings and re-meetings, and a kind of amorphous longing for woodland walks and tea and toast and log fires...

Monday, 2 September 2013

Answers on a postcard

Well I've been away but I haven't been idle - at least not all the time.  A curious effect of my new identity is that suddenly I'm expected to be much more knowledgeable about plants than I am - 'I wonder if you know what this is, Kate?' Usually the answer is no, although I think I'm learning.  One delicious favourite that seemed to be flourishing everywhere on my trip to Brittany and which we struggled to identify is out in force in Cambridge now I'm back and I'm still none the wiser.  Help, someone, please!

This was my first visit this year to Nick and Di's lovely Landroannec home and it was great to see how their garden is coming on.  The wonderfully blowsy blue hydrangeas so popular in northern France rub shoulders with fuchsia and camellia and wisteria (building up to a second flowering, as here) and walnut trees that seem to grow like weeds. The air is scented with roses and the last of the stocks, and Nick sent me up the drive to soak up the smell of the pines in the heat of the day - gorgeous.  I managed a tiny bit of weeding on my last day.  Mostly, though, I had the tough job of deciding between sun or shade, the grassy knoll under the apple tree or at the table just outside the house where we dawdled over breakfasts (wild blackberries and whitecurrants and windfall plums) that slid into coffee and, on the hottest, laziest days into lunch.  On other days our pre-breakfast swim was augmented by a bike ride along the track into Mur for coffee and croissants in the local 'Rockwell' bar, and maybe a glass of wine before we wobbled home.  The house martins nesting in the garage seem pretty comfortable there too, although Nick's bald head became a target of some rather frenzied ducking and diving if he strayed too close - why didn't Di and I suffer the same treatment?  The babies were busy with flying lessons - we came upon our first, a velvety rabbit's paw of stripes and fluff on the path at our feet as we walked down to the lake early one morning. And oh that lake..!

A couple of kilometres along the road towards St Brieuc we found the delightful Jardins du Botrain, tucked away down a tiny back road.  It's one of those gardens that's full of surprises - a modest little Japanese garden leads into mixed beds of mallows and daisies, roses and cosmos and loads of those fabulous purple things, hydrangeas of course, wonderful old trees and shady grassy bits, a pergola, a roseraie (a shame we don't have such a pretty English term for a rose garden), a wood and, just when you think you must have reached the boundary, a lake, bordered by gunnera, a tree fern, even a banana tree. It's rather overgrown in places, and full of quirks.   Walking round felt more akin to sharing a private pleasure than sampling a public space.  My favourite flight of fancy? - A woven willow frame for a view, at eye level in a thick hedge, a perfect circle, looking out from the darkness of the wood over open fields and farmland.  We didn't investigate the history of the garden although it seems to be the product of a husband-and-wife team, who were very excited by the comment in the visitors' book from their latest English visitors, that Botrain was 'better than Sissinghurst'.  And guess what we bought to take home to Landroannec? - an ajuga reptans.  Sorry, Nancy.

On one of the sunniest days we drove to Etel, a small town on the south coast: coffee at the bar, a picnic lunch on the beach, many swims in the silky sea, a cold beer on the harbour.  Then we joined 500 or so other customers at the long rows of trestle tables in the huge hangar of the criée, the fish market, to sample the grilled sardines that this area is famous for.  It's an annual charity event, apparently, a week-long celebration, where the fishermen grill the fish outside in racks of about 100 I guess and their wives (!) serve at table.  Very traditional, very noisy, very Breton - and very tasty.  I cleared my plate, tails and all, unlike my neighbour who had more bones than fish by the end of her meal.  There was far - a heavy Breton custard-type cake, sweetened with prunes - for pudding.  I emerged, of course, with my new frock covered in grease spots.  Thanks to Nick's internet research, a thick layer of cornflour left on for a few hours before washing did the trick.

This was my fifth visit, we reckon, though the details of the various stays proved impossible to recall clearly.  We agonised at length over dates and times and possibilities.   I'm not sure quite why it seemed so important to get the record straight, except that an absolutely crystal clear memory I have of an earlier visit to La Trinité-sur-Mer simply could not have happened.  So I'm left wondering: did I dream this?  Or are we capable of believing elaborate inventions of our own making?  It's relevant partly because Di and I, as artist and writer, are engaged in what is, to us, a fascinating exploration of our own overlapping memories and how we might represent these.  Does it matter if what we 'remember' simply isn't true..?

Whilst I was away I also spent a bit of time most days in Argentina - not literally, of course, not this time. But I'd gone away determined to finish editing a novel I began over four years ago and have been fiddling with off and on ever since.  It's set entirely in Argentina, and deals with the 'Dirty War' of the 1970s and those who were 'disappeared' by the authorities.  It hinges on memory, on the importance for a healthy society of being open about what is past.  It was inspired I suppose by the various groups in Argentina today who are working to reclaim the memory of those terrible times in the search for truth and justice.  When I was in Córdoba three years ago, I visited one of the secret detention centres which had recently been turned into a memorial.  At the entrance, a huge thumbprint, a proof of identity, is made up of hundreds of names of the disappeared.  So in Brittany, each morning before the rest of the house was awake, I returned to the other side of the world, in the hope that the novel will eventually be able to make some sort of contribution to restoring what was lost.

In any case, of course it isn't possible, or even desirable, to escape completely.  I'm not sure how much any of us can do to change things in Syria or the Congo, but I've promised myself that at least I'll keep myself better informed now that I'm back.  I'm feeling energised by progress with the novel, and full of that back-to-school verve that typifies September.  I plan to eat lots of vegetables, work regular hours, make space for rest.  Now that I've cleared a bit of space (and have new bookshelves!) I'm excited rather than daunted by the prospect of the garden residency and keen to explore the possibilities of the journal. And I'll be swimming regularly, of course, though sadly there's no lake here to cross before breakfast.  Thank you Landroannec - already looking forward to next time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013


It’s that time of year. ‘Still,’ Helen says when I meet her in the queue for coffee this morning.  ‘Nothing is happening – things just turning brown.’  At mid-day it feels like summer, vivid skies dotted with cloud, sun hot on my arms.  Mornings and evenings are suddenly cool, though.  ‘A bit back-endish,’ Jack’s dad used to say.  His favourite joke, delivered always on June 22nd, as soon as the longest day was over: ‘The nights are drawing in, then’.  That wry northern humour.  I’ve dug up my northern roots but, five years after my last days in a Carlisle classroom, I remain tangled in the patterns of the school year, so that the second half of August takes on an ominous quality: results looming, unfinished paperwork piled up, planning not done; my nights disturbed by bad dreams.  Stop.  Listen.  Never mind the echoes of the past or worries about time passing.  Here and now.

Which since yesterday evening is not Cambridge at all, but central Brittany: late morning, warm sun, cloudless sky.  Not a breath of wind, the lake like glass when we swam first thing, the poplars that rustled as we arrived yesterday evening are silent, barely moving now.  There is a white buddleia in front of the house which is busy with butterflies, and a young hollyhock on the end of the trellis which reminds me of home.  I haven’t found hollyhocks in the Botanics yet though I’m
sure there must be some but they were there as I cycled to the library yesterday, palest lemon, peachy pink, with that deliciously seductive floppiness.  In the Botanics, clumps of michaelmas daisies have been clamouring for my attention, their lovely violet-blue faces turning I imagine towards the sun.  My friend Nancy grumbles about my inclination towards the commonplace: ‘all those wonderful hellebores,’ she said, ‘and your first pick is a bloody ajuga reptans’.  She won’t think much of my current favourites. 

I wonder if part of the attraction is familiarity.  I am at present feeling rather overawed by the size of the thing: not just the physical spread of the garden’s 40 acres but the huge range of plants that I don’t know, the complexity of the various taxonomies, the weight of all the accumulated knowledge; and not least by the enormity of my project.  How can I put all this into words in a few months?   ‘A garden is people first and plants second.’  So says Katherine Swift.  I think of all the people who have shaped or tended or visited Cambridge’s botanic garden over its almost 200 years of history.  Sometimes I think I can hear the voices of the long-dead chattering at me from the edge of the lake or the systematic beds: like Caliban, for me this isle is ‘full of noises’.  My own childhood memories of gardens and gardening are not happy ones; still, I recognise the snapdragons now arrived in the bee beds – and those lovely purple daisies – as old friends.
I suppose this is something to do with points of reference, of knowing my way around my world.   I have laughed in the past at my rather neurotic insistence on knowing the names of things – but perhaps this is no laughing matter.  I’ve recently read Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s Naming Nature, a fascinating and accessible review of science’s 200-year quest to ‘order and name the entire living world’.  Yoon raises the key notion of umwelt, our perception of the world around us, and suggests that most of us ‘have forgotten that a natural order even exists’.  The words we have for our
environment have been replaced by product names and logos so that we have become ’mute in the language of life’.  She suggests that we need to reclaim, not just our relationship with nature but with the names we have for it, whether we opt for Linnaeus’s Latin binomials or the rich resource of folk names: the pansy, for example, viola tricolor, is variously called love-in-idleness, heartsease, johnny jump up, jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, herb trinity, three faces under a hood, kiss behind the garden gate, pink of my john, call me to you, pensée, tickle my fancy...

In The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift also sees naming as an integral part of our relationship with nature.  Lamenting the loss of names for individual fields, she suggests that ‘without our fields and hedgerows the landscape is, literally, meaningless – robbed of its stories’.  It’s a lovely book, in part her account of creating a garden at Morville’s Dower House in Shropshire, and part an exploration of history – the house, the area, her own family’s story.  The book follows the medieval tradition of the Book of Hours, where the orders of the monastic day overlap with the months and seasons – the activities for November and December were ‘Slaughtering Beasts, Roasting Meat, and Baking Pies’.  To be aware of the rhythm of the seasons teaches us attentiveness, to ‘listen with the heart’ as St Benedict advised.  In the garden, Swift finds ‘a silence that allows you to listen’, a place where you can become ‘rooted, gaining a purpose...
gaining a sense of self’.

Nick is crouched over the buddleia with a butterfly book.  ‘A painted lady,’ he says.  Di reminds me of her project, as yet unrealised, of a year getting up and going to bed with the light; something about tuning in to the rhythms of a place.  Here, now, time for lunch: bread, cheese, maybe a glass of wine and savouring the delicious prospect of two weeks holiday.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

On the Inside

High summer, astonishing heat – days of record temperatures which make being indoors a welcome relief even for sun-lovers like me.  There’s also a sense in which part of the life of a botanic garden goes on behind closed doors – or perhaps one propped half-open in the hope of a cool breeze – planning, running, development and outreach, learning – and of course the science which underpins the whole enterprise.  I find myself thinking of the garden’s creators, trying to imagine what they saw as they designed and planted, how far a vision of the beautiful space which today’s visitors enjoy encroached on the need to establish a centre for study and research, and a living plant record.

Nelson Street, Derby
Record-keeping holds little interest for most of us.  As a student, I worked a couple of summers in the ‘Shopping Bureau’ of the London Midland region’s offices next to Derby Station.  Less fun than it sounds: for ‘shopping’ read ‘send to the workshop for repairs’, though of course I was only responsible for paperwork, not the engines themselves; fortunately, since I made a name for myself by ‘losing’ a loco, a great joke as the boss’s daughter.  Both my dad and the ‘British Railways’ he loved are long gone, and the Nelson Street offices demolished, I think.  Now I recall only the cream cakes on birthdays, long hours tickled by hay fever, and the fusty smell of piles and piles of foolscap manila folders – though sometimes I wondered if it was the smell of all those men...

So I’m surprised by how fascinating non-live plant records can be.  I spent yesterday morning in the university’s herbarium, chatting to Christine Bartram and looking through folders of plant pressings.  Until recently I had never heard the word ‘herbarium’ so that my first encounter, in the Botanics’ own smaller version in Cory Lodge, reduced me to incoherent amazement: ‘Wow!’ I said, and ‘Wow!’ as door after door in the tall metal cabinets opened to reveal an extraordinary record: not living, of course, but ‘real’ specimens as opposed to a paper description.  There are
Lindley sheet with type specimen
comparisons: trays of minerals, for example – still being added to? – and butterflies, moths –perhaps not.  You couldn’t do this with railway engines, though – imagine the size of the folder!  And a museum of transport is only obliquely comparable: here you get the ‘original’ specimen, carefully pressed and mounted, either by the collector or perhaps sent back to England in a glass case by the plant hunter and pressed and labelled by the botanical expert here, with a note on when and where the specimen was found, and by whom.  And on the same sheet (I think originally samples were mounted on linen), later observers will have their say: perhaps a challenge to the initial identification, or some clarification of provenance.  It’s like opening a magic door to the past; not a dialogue, exactly – the first ‘speaker’ doesn’t have a chance to reply – but a kind of layering of voices.  As I hold in my hands a sheet which John Lindley has labelled, touch the stem of a plant gathered on the other side of the world over 150 years ago, I feel a bustle of stories clamouring to be told.

Bloody cranesbill: I.H.F.
Another term for herbarium is, I learn, hortus siccus, literally ‘dry garden’.  The phrase is also good for the book I hold in my hand.  It has a faded (or discoloured?) marbled cover.  On the frontispiece, carefully written in black italic pen, ‘HORTUS SICCUS’ and in smaller capitals ‘I.H.F’; underneath, ‘Edinburgh.  May 22nd.  1834’.   At first I think this is the only clue to the author.  Later, I discover in faded sloping writing on the inside cover, ‘I.H. Freeman’.  A quick internet search provides no clue.  For no good reason, I feel this is the work of a woman – and then I’m not so sure.   There are upwards of 150 pressings, organised mainly two or four to a page.  The samples are glued rather than taped.  Each is headed with Latin and common names and family: here 'Geranium sanguineum Bloody Cranesbill Monadelphia Decandria (Geraniacea)'.     Beneath all but the last few, there is a number, with a source and date (this is No. 16 ‘Salisbury Craigs May 26th’).  For the last twenty or so, annotations are sketchier, and one or two final specimens at the end are unlabelled.  Did this collector run out of time, or energy? At the end, I.F. has included an alphabetical index, although the system falters with later additions – No. 149, for example, Parnassia palustris, squeezes in out of order at the end of the Ps.  I hold the book up to my face and breathe in a sharp peppery scent, ancient, exotic, dusty.  And the pages carry their own ghosts, pale imprints of the sample on the opposite page, like a dream of a flower long forgotten.

'Miss Sarah Anne Drake
Our morning in fact was peopled with women.  Marion Seward, daughter of a Hartlepool shipbuilder and wife of (!) Sir Albert Charles Seward, Professor of Botany for 30 years and master of Downing College, was in her own right an accomplished botanical artist, illustrating her husband’s books and papers as well as bringing up four daughters and engaging in various projects for refugees and war widows.   Much loved in Cambridge, she apparently died in 1924 of ‘overwork’.  Miss Sarah Anne (‘Ducky’) Drake is again known in relation to a man.  Family friend and nanny to the three children of John Lindley, Professor of Botany at University College London and ‘father of orchidology’, she lived in the family home and was his principal botanical illustrator, averaging 75 paintings a year.  She died supposedly of diabetes, then incurable, though one source suggests the toxic effects of a 15-year intensive painting career may have contributed.  Georgiana Molloy was a plant hunter and, whilst she is named on some of Lindley’s specimens, from Swan River in Australia, for example, often her contributions are attributed to Captain James Mangles, an impossibility as Mangles never left the UK.  In one of those weirdly unsettling but satisfying moments of serendipity, I discover that Georgiana was born to the Kennedy family of Crosby Lodge near Carlisle, a stone’s throw from our family home (albeit much more modest) in the Cumbrian-Scottish borders.  

I suppose the painting, or much of it, was done indoors, but none of these women fit the bill of little women working quietly away behind the scenes, while their men were out and about
Marion Seward: Centaurea Cyanus (detail)
getting on with the important stuff.  Marion Seward managed to fit at least one trip to Australia into her busy schedule and her beautiful paintings, presumably used as illustrative material for Professor Seward's classes, are startlingly vibrant.  Even 'Ducky' Drake flew the Lindley nest eventually to enjoy, I hope, five years of married bliss back in her native Norfolk.  The admirable Georgiana Molloy battled a family fall-out over religion and then endured the struggles of being a new settler in a strange land.  Apparently her diaries reveal her unhappiness.  By the end of her life she had taught herself botany, had gained a quiet reputation amongst a few for the high standard of her plant specimens, and had a school named after  her, in addition to bearing seven children.   Of all the ghosts I  have met so far in my new home, Georgiana is the one I most want to get to know, from the inside out.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Hard Stuff

Not that I’ve been turning to the bottle (though there have been moments in the last week or so when that welcome glass of Malbec at the end of a day just hasn’t been robust enough).  More that I’ve found myself (of my own choosing, of course) on several occasions recently in situations that seemed – just too difficult. 

The Barn Garden
Last weekend ought to have been one hundred per cent pleasure: two days in heavenly weather in one of the loveliest gardens (Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith’s Barn Garden near Kings Langley) I’ve ever encountered, in the company of experts in their field.   Organised by The Garden Museum, this was their first festival of garden writing.  I was charmed by Cleve West’s tales of life on his London allotment and entranced by Piet Oudolf’s emphasis on the narrative of the garden and the emotional response of those who visit.  Sunday began with a compelling address from Sue Stuart-Smith on ‘Gardens and the Mind’.  Drawing on her work as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, she explored ways in which the garden can be a source of renewal and regeneration, replacing the impotence which often accompanies depression with a sense of agency although, ‘like the good enough mother, Nature never fails to remind us of the limits to our powers’.  Most exciting, though, in my book were readings from the three finalists in the garden memoir competition, sponsored by Granta.  All three had turned to childhood memories to explore the significance of the garden and all packed an emotional punch – interesting as, according to a publisher I met at the event, our interest in the affective aspect of gardens is rarely reflected in the literature.  Despite all this, at the end of the second day I couldn’t wait to leave.  Partly this was simply physical fatigue after two days on my feet (there was only a handful of chairs outside of the actual venues, and I’m always afraid that, if I succumb to the temptation to flop down on a grassy slope, I’ll never get up again.)  I was wearied also, though, by a kind of loneliness: the event promised ‘a friend’ and there were plenty of people who knew each other, but what is it about the English upper middle classes en masse which feels like a rather exclusive club?  It’s not one I belong to, for sure.
John & Ellie

I’m not really one for clubs anyway, but the day before I’d been with John and Ellie from Camtango to give a talk and demo on our experience of Argentine tango and Parkinson’s to the local Parkinson’s society.  This felt like quite an ordeal: for years I kept my ‘condition’ (better than ‘disease’, though not much) as quiet as possible and until now I’ve avoided situations where I might be defined by Parkinson’s.  So it was a surprise to find I enjoyed the morning.  We were warmly welcomed and what we said and did seemed to go down well.  In the car on the way home, I remember thinking what I thought I already knew: accepting that I have Parkinson’s is not the same as letting the illness define who I am.  A hard lesson, but one worth learning.  Maybe I’ll go along to another meeting sometime.

Um...a not very scientific arrangement of some of
the leguminosae (pea) family
‘Flowering Plant Families’, a five-day full-time course at the Botanics last week, was the hardest stuff by a mile.  I expected it to be difficult.  It’s almost 50 years since I day-dreamed my way through compulsory science lessons, longer since I’ve handled a microscope.  For the first hour or so I concentrated on the pronunciation of the Latin family names, marking the main stress on each in case I was called on to say it out loud.  In fact I quickly came to love examining plant parts through the microscope or even the hand lens although dexterity, one of the first casualties of Parkinson’s for me, made working with such fine detail a struggle, and every visit to the systematic beds a juggling act of lens, camera, secateurs, pencil.  I learnt a whole new vocabulary – don’t say flower, say inflorescence.  These aren’t petals, they’re sepals or even tepals – honestly!  I’m distracted by a fleeting memory of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’.  ‘Are we allowed to call it a – pod?’ Rose asks archly.  I make notes, determine to stay focused.  Just as I feel I am beginning to make some progress, the afternoon session begins with an emphasis on how the old categories (sorry, families) can no longer be taken for granted; DNA has changed all that.  Still, I was thrilled to be learning – glad to be part of such a varied and friendly group, and the buzz of being encouraged to pick the flowers (well, examples) never quite left me.  The first day ended with dinner – good food, nice wine, a chance to get to know the other 16 – and I left full of optimism.  

The next morning I woke feeling that I’d climbed a small mountain – no, a large one.  Everything ached; I felt exhausted even before I dragged my good old Hudson onto the road and pedalled off.  I thought I knew neurological fatigue.  I do now.  It got worse as the week progressed, until I began to wonder if I’d make it to Friday.  Don’t get me wrong: I loved, really loved, almost every tough minute.  Fortunately, too, I met a friend also familiar with chronic illness, so we grumbled quietly to each other and that felt like a big support – I hope it was mutual.  But I’m glad I pushed myself, far beyond what normally feels like the limit. Apart from anything else, all that sex going on under my nose and I’d never noticed!

Sunday evening now and after two days recovering I’m feeling more like myself, trying to sort what I’ve learnt into some sort of order and work out how my new knowledge, such as it is, will inform the writing I hope to do during the residency.  Rose sent me back to Alice Oswald’s extraordinary ‘Dart’, where the voices of all she met along its course emerge as the ‘mutterings’ of the river.  Stephanie reminded me of The Morville Hours, in which Katherine Swift uses the
Hours of the Divine Office as a format for her garden story.  And I recall our visit to the university herbarium in the wonderful Sainsbury building on our last evening.  Amongst all that was astonishing – over a million specimens preserved over hundreds of years, treasures from Darwin’s Beagle voyage – the story of Mrs Meredith, a collector whose samples sent back to England from Australia went largely uncredited.  Some of her illustrations are there.  I find out she was also a published poet.  I’m excited by possibilities but rather overfaced by the size of the task.  I check my latest email from my mentor: ‘My first thing to say is I’m going to pressurise you about the journal form...’  Maybe the hard stuff is just beginning.  Where’s the Malbec?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Garden Notes: May-June


The end of the month and I’m feeling every sort of weary this morning – My head aches and a heavy numbness somethings/My something as if of hemlock I had drunk – Keats?  I think so – anyway you get the idea.  Cycling through Cambridge on my way here, everywhere I look there are variations on a theme of grey.  On Midsummer Common, the set-up for this year’s strawberry fair looks unsurprisingly desultory in the persistent drizzle, the paths slippery with mud.  Walking in to the Botanics through the Brookside gate, though, the prevailing impression shifts instantly, infinite subtleties of shade and intensity which have the air around me glowing green.  This has a knock-on effect on other colours, I notice: the tissue paper yellow and orange of the poppies (Welsh poppies, we used to call them in Cumbria – I wonder if this is accurate?) back-lit now, the delicate mauve of bluebells and early iris similarly heightened, whilst the strongest colours – the purple of my new friend ajuga reptans (thanks to Tim for the inspired tip: try sounding out their name in a Glaswegian accent for maximum effect)and the vibrant pink of the peonies – are deepened.  This injection of colour doesn’t lift my spirits exactly, but it does soothe.  It’s OK to be sad on days like this, the dripping leaves reassure; stick with it; let the dampness seep through the pores of your skin so that you become part of it.

Photo courtesy of Galen Burrell
New plant for today: paeonia ludlowii Ludlow’s Tree Peony, its cupped flowers ‘bright golden-yellow’ according to the RHS.

JUNE (1)

Twelve days later, I look back at the last notes.  I had forgotten the gloom though not the peony, its name recurring this weekend when we visited Cambridge Garden Plants.  The name of the nursery belies its nature, I think –accurate up to a point (location, merchandise) but nothing about its title prepares me for the real thing, even though I’ve been half a dozen times.  You turn off the road into a field of long grass; this is the car park.  Through a gap in the trees you are absorbed into a kind of alternative reality, a world away from the scented candles and frocks and shoes (why?) of the now ubiquitous ‘garden centre’, and also from the manicured lawns and neat beds so prized when I was a suburban child.  I’ve just enjoyed Episode Three of Twigs Way’s marvellous sequence of talks on the Tudor garden, which we learn was essentially a display of nature regulated and improved by man; here in Horningsea Nature reigns, or seems to.  Look left towards the house, where wisteria and roses sprawl and clamber up and over the walls and each other.  In the bed opposite the front of the house, a hybrid musk rose ‘Buff Beauty’ towers above us.  The man who is CGP (why have we never learnt his name?) talks about the nature of such roses before striking off round the corner into his own garden, still explaining, linking, elucidating as we scamper along behind, towards another beauty, a rugosa rose ‘Roseriae de L’Hay’.  Its blowsy deep pink flowers and heady fragrance are familiar to me from the bushes which line a small stretch of the Norfolk Coast Path near Brancaster.  It’s easy enough to find an internet record of its origins: created in 1901 by Jules Gravereaux, the cultivar was named for his garden in L’Hay, which now contains more than 13.000 rose bushes and over 3000 species and
Photo courtesy of Paul Barden Roses
varieties – imagine!
  Here, on a Sunday afternoon just outside Cambridge, we find one example of this lovely rose for sale, in a pot amongst the weeds by one of the sheds.  Miranda snaps it up.  During our visit (getting on for two hours, I should think) we retrace our steps along walkways between stands of aquilegia and rue and geranium, past overgrown beds and perennials originally for sale, presumably, now long grown through their Styrofoam trays into the ground beneath, in and out of the poly-tunnel and repeatedly round the garden in his wake.  It seems to grow in size with each circuit – here’s a pond new to all of us – and this feels like an apt reflection of The Man’s encyclopaedic knowledge.  I wonder if he has somewhere a written record – I wish I’d asked.  Because this double treasury – in his memory and in the earth – is of course ephemeral.  I’m wondering how and why this matters.

Our final trek takes us to a yellow tree peony – yes ludlowii, I echo, pleased to demonstrate something other than my usual ignorance.  In the car on the way home, Andy tells me what he knows about Ludlow and I beef this up later: Frank Ludlow was born in 1885, an officer, traveller, naturalist and educator.  He was the first English man to enter Bhutan, collected almost 7000 bird specimens and gave his name to (amongst others) a bird, a butterfly and a subspecies of hedgehog as well as this sturdy peony.  He has a daunting list of publications and I think must be responsible for a significant contribution to existing taxonomies; a record-maker, then, as well as a record-keeper.  He died in 1972 when I was 21.  Three years later, one HR Fletcher published A Quest for Flowers: the plant explorations of Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff told from their diaries and other occasional writings.  I add it to my list.

Eventually, more or less exhausted, we settle up: ‘call that £4’, The Man says of my modest box of three.  He disappears into an outhouse for a plastic label and a pencil and writes the name of the delicately-veined geranium I’ve found – Laurence Flatman – ‘Flatman’ he repeats and goes over his pencil lettering, evidently no confidence in my ability to remember – ‘cin. sub – that’s for cinereum,’ he explains.  It’s a cranesbill, I discover later.  He’s pleased that I can name the valerian I have spent ten minutes digging out of its Styrofoam nest, though.  My third is a foxglove, maybe pink but I have my doubts.

JUNE (2)

Warm sunshine at last and suddenly there are foxgloves everywhere, springing up beneath the magnolias, in amongst the aliums and geraniums and delicate miniature iris in the bee beds.  My favourites are papery white with a deep crimson splash inside their cups, thinning to a splatter
Photo courtesy of  Sarah Raven
at the edge.  I love the way their straight backs stretch into a quietly dipped neck, self-contained, unassuming, though their Latin name relates them to fingers rather than spines.  The etymology of the common name is both complex and fascinating, as is the foxglove’s history as medicine and poison, sometimes both at once: its ‘oculotoxic’ effects, for example (blurred vision and a ‘halo’ effect round each point of light) point apparently to the artist’s use of digitalis therapy in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. 
I’m no painter and I shy away from taking my own photos: although my tremor is so slight it often goes unnoticed, most pictures I take are frustratingly blurred, but I’m not sure the words by themselves are enough.  I think about Ludlow and his diaries, and about Darwin’s notebooks and papers so compellingly translated into poems by his descendant Ruth Padel.  I don’t know yet what shape or form the record of my garden journey is going to take, but here’s food for thought: this morning a thick envelope lands on my mat; inside, a soft paperback entitled ‘Garden Museum Journal Summer 2013’.  Wrapped around the outside is a paper band about three inches in depth, with coloured numbers and the outlines of shapes which might be rocks.  Inside the cover is a key: they are rocks; in fact, this is the planting plan which Dan Pearson made for a rockery when he was thirteen.  The Summer Journal accompanies the Garden Museum’s exhibition of Pearson’s work, and is a transcript of an interview where Pearson describes how and why he became a garden designer, intercut with extracts from his unpublished diaries and letters.  The museum’s introduction to the journal ends with its vision for the future, namely ‘to set up the country’s first archive of garden design: to rescue existing records on paper and film, yes, but also to capture memories which are precious, ephemeral and revealing’.  It’s a lovely little booklet, and I’m excited to receive something which seems to chime so soundly with what I’m about.   

I go back to Keats (it was Keats, of course) and find the original which I’d remembered so inaccurately:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk...
Photo courtesy of Amberley House Cottages

It’s from Ode to a Nightingale, as I’m sure most will know.  And there’s another memory I might have been in danger of losing: a magical evening early last summer when Andy led five of us through the woods by Grafham Water in search of the bird and its astonishing repertoire, apparently in the region of 150 phrases before a repeat.  We wandered, trudged, backtracked, tiptoed, lost all hope; and then we heard it ‘pouring forth’ its ‘soul’; magic indeed.  Thanks, then, to all those whose pictures, and words, I’ve borrowed in the interests of keeping the memories safe.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Testing the water

Ten days into a year as Writer in Residence* at the ‘Botanics’ and I’ve dipped in a toe or two: a few pencil notes in the pretty ‘journal’ I bought along with a small plant in the garden shop on Day One, a couple of talks on the Tudor garden by Twigs Way (really), and some hours spent recording stories for the Voicing the Garden project on Saturday.  Time now for a real dip – or a good paddle at least.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines residence as ‘a person’s home, especially a large and impressive one’ and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden is certainly that, so that I’m feeling overawed rather by the expanses of lawn and bed and woodland as well as by the size of the task: what have I taken on?!  I suppose there is an echo of the official residence, too, in the fact that I am here in some sort of professional capacity.  I think of the phrase ‘taken up residence’ as I creep rather self-consciously in through the Station Road gate this morning – will those who ‘really’ work here think I don’t have a home to go to?  The dictionary gives the origin of the word as late Middle English (denoting the fact of living in a place) from Old French, or from medieval Latin residentia, from Latin residere 'remain'.  I like this: for now, for the next eleven and a half months in fact, I’m staying here, doing my best to make myself at home.
The weather’s not very welcoming, cold and grey and not quite raining but a robin fluffed up against the mean wind shouts out my arrival.  I am excited that I am able to guess the bird from the song.  For years I have loved the sound of birdsong, often waking at first light to the rich pleasures of the dawn chorus.  But I have never managed to identify more than the obvious pigeons and gulls from the way they sing.  I have a similar block when it comes to tango music, years of pleasurable listening leaving me not much further forward when it comes to recognising a particular orchestra.  I think being resident here will help me learn to observe, to tune in to the sights and sounds around me, to practise new ways of listening.

I have been reading Derek Jarman’s Smiling in Slow Motion, immersed in his writing each morning on the bus to and from Addenbrookes as I approach the end of a course of radio therapy.  I think of a recent tango lesson, the teacher describing the final stage of the ocho, the figure of eight, as the beginning of the next figure.  Jarman’s journal is an extraordinary record of, almost a meditiation on, his garden, his art and film work, his social and sex lives, his relatonship with his partner and his struggle with AIDS.  I find it funny, touching, shocking and tender by turns, but always absorbing.  I love the characters that move through the pages, the luvvies and the fluffers, Gingerbits and Sister Latex of the Immaculate Protection rubbing shoulders with Mrs Jekyll and John Gerard, his passion for colour, his fearless openness.  He has no time for our ‘national inability to describe our sex lives’, pronouncing it ‘pathetic’, and is equally scathing towards the way the National Trust ‘tarts up’ its properties and the way Gay Times (‘on the fringes of intelligence’) settles for the ‘false hope’ of the positive image: life was ‘not The Sound of Music; if you climbed a mountain it was a sweaty affair and you might not reach the summit'.   His fury at the way society has marginalised ‘queers’ such as himself is matched by his many passions: for colour, for the strange landscapes of Dungeness and above all for his garden.  In March, he describes it ‘putting on the colours of spring, the inky purple Crambe maritime uncurl like medieval capitals, sap-green elder, pale-blue rosemary flowers, garlic racing with the iris, crocus punctuate purple and yellow’; in June, he watches cabbage whites ‘dance’ in the magenta valerian and watches a poppy open: ‘Opium poppies  shed their petals as you blink, their dusty colours almost a little sad, dreamy, contrasted with their scarlet cousins and the harlequinade of their Californian relatives’. 

I am in equal parts excited by the world of lovely plants which I am about to discover and embarrassed by my ignorance: but I remind myself that the expertise on which this garden has been created has come in part from learning by observation and enquiry; ‘that was how Darwin learnt, after all,’ Hilary Sutton said speaking about her work as a volunteer with school visits here.  And the garden now welcomes everyone, so it seems fitting that at least for some of my time here I’m happy to sit in the cafe with my laptop and let the human aspect ebb and flow around me.  The notion of expertise is a strange one.   Chatting to Sarah last night over cocktails (Caipirinha a delicious first for me) in a belated birthday celebration, she spoke about a book she was reading which identified three stages in the art of photography: the first where you are faced with an array of techniques and information and simply try to keep up; the second where confidence arrives suddenly, and you accumulate skills and expertise with apparent ease; the third, when you throw out the lot and start again from scratch.  The model certainly holds good for the process – it is a process – of Argentine tango; I have a feeling it might apply equally to this residency, and more generally to the whole life thing where, as for tango, I am clearly at that starting again stage.  As for being – becoming – a botanic gardens writer in residence, the beginning of the beginning...

‘So what does it actually entail?’ almost everyone asks when they hear about this latest venture.  The question reduces me to an extreme version of my usual incoherent vagueness.  The honest answer is I don’t know.  It’s an exploration and for once I’m going to try and be brave enough to manage without maps.  In any case, this has never been done before.   Of course there have been other residencies; there may even have been a writer, or writers, in residence at the Cambridge gardens previously; but not me.  This combination – the Botanics and me – is a new and unique enterprise which I am hoping might help me to join up some of the dots: my interest in memory, in routes to health and well-being, in the natural world.  Fact or fiction?  Um – somewhere between the two?  How best to document what is unfolding in the world around me, to capture the rhythms of the seasons?  As well as learning to look and listen, I find myself reading voraciously, growing a list of garden notes and writer’s diaries and logs of personal journeys.  Who knows where my journey will lead?

Planting myself in this corner of the café has already attracted some welcome attention.  Helen stops by, yellow plastic bucket in hand, on her way to – I think she is in charge of alpines – and we compare notes about Saturday’s recordings.  Then I am spotted by Anna the yoga teacher who introduces me to her friend Kat and we trade stories.  Anna is immensely excited by my new role and wants to put her name down for the first workshop!   I remind her I am still a new cutting: I need a bit of time to ‘take’.  Later a young man with an impressive array of notebooks joins me at the other end of the table.  Today there is a noisy influx of visitors – one group or several? – and the table I have claimed acquires a ‘reserved’ sign for later.  For now, though, I sit tight.  I have a fantasy that, if I sit here for long enough, some of the job might come to me, a bit like an MP’s surgery – I’m here for questions, referrals, advice, support. Perhaps the café staff will gather to create a series of cake haiku?  Or a bunch of beleaguered mums dump their noisy offspring for a quick injection of word play?

At the weekend I planted my new acquisition, ajuga reptans, under the small apple tree in my garden.  Its common name is bugle:           1. noun any of a genus (Ajuga) of plants of the mint family; especially : a European annual (A. reptans) that has spikes of blue flowers      2. noun a valveless brass instrument resembling a trumpet.  I remember the robin’s fanfare for my arrival this morning, and hope that bodes well.  

*with grateful thanks to Arts Council England