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.

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