We spent our Bank Holiday Monday in the garden like folks used to before the days of wrap around shopping.
When we had finished the compost bins were full and our bodies ached from tidying a tiny back yard no bigger than a picnic rug. The garden looked good, in an amateur, wild, make-do-and-mend kind of way and after we had closed the back door on our well watered plants I couldn’t help but creep back to survey my plot from the various window vantage points around the house.
Later we talked about the gardens we had made in our past and how much we had loved them: our first back yard with raised beds, our professionally laid hedge, an allotment with a friend, a much loved wisteria that died one spring, full to overflowing with new buds destined never to flower. I know all the names of my favourite plants from back then, when hostas were fashionable and my palette was all silver, blue and white; delphiniums, roses, hardy geraniums, pelargoniums with scented leaves, verbenas and sage.
What is a garden that it would be so treasured, aspired to, desired and laboured over? What is a garden that sometimes a saddened soul finds more solace there than in all the expanses of nature spread out under God’s big sky? We have the mountains and the moors, the seashore, expanses of rolling hills, meadows, wetlands and forests at our disposal, yet we take a piece of God’s great wild and contain it as best we can in lawns and borders, and curving walls of terracotta washed by the rain and warmed by the sun.
And it does us good.
When I was ill with depression and struggling every day to get out of bed, we took a holiday in Norfolk by the sea and my parents bought us an open ticket to the Wildflower Centre at Glandford. Moderate depressive illness is characterised by effort. The smallest attention, is an effort. Sharing a child’s delight at discovering a bug under a stone, raising a smile at little ones hurtling along footpaths or playing eye -spy amongst the flowers, all effort. But I made an effort. We took the children round the butterfly gardens and down to the river Glaven, where sleepy willows trailed their leaf tips across the cool dark water. We looked out over the wet meadows filled with swaying summer grass, then ascended the path back to the main gardens where we wandered amongst vegetables, in carefully laid out plots and admired houses for friendly insects and birds. All the effort of false enthusiasm and forced exclamations of delight, I felt extreme sad.
I did not like the person I was being and I did not know how to stop.
The children sat on a bench eating ice lollies, dusty feet clad in pumps swinging happily. I wandered alone to a small herb garden, elevated on a well drained spot, apart from the rest of the gardens. A hexagonal seat had been built around a little old woman of an apple tree, hard green fruit and browning leaves lay on the ground all around. The beds of herbs were laid out in something of a pattern like the formal gardens of an Elizabethan mansion but beautifully amateur in their materials and construction. I still remember the plants I came to know that summer in the herb garden: angelica and fennel, thyme, mint, wormwood, rue and hyssop, silver grey santolina, soapwort, blackcurrant sage and towering stems of yellow elecampane.
In literature and folklore their are doorways into new worlds. I found one. Bees busy amongst their flowers and the breeze moving craftily amongst the longer stems. The shape of a leaf, the texture of its surface, flower blooms gentle in colour and delicate in form. The crunch of gravel under foot and the warm, warm sun beating down on the path. The texture of a leaf between my fingers releasing scent of lemon or spices that followed me along the paths and back to that apple tree seat.
I returned to the garden every day of that week long holiday.
Depression and sadness dull the senses. Our thinking skills are disturbed and in disarray. Our emotions are shut down and any ability to receive comfort or encouragement is gone. A garden stirs the senses and draws the shut-down self through sight, sound, touch and smell. In the garden we start making memories, dreaming dreams and using other functioning ways of thinking. In a garden we can sit and simply be against a fading backdrop of demands and expectations, whilst all around us the life of our plants works a miracle that never fails to speak to the deeply needful soul.