I long for the coming change in the feel of the garden. I am not a gardener who obsessively tidies in the autumn. In fact, I make great efforts to leave hip, berry, seed and mess for overwintering birds and insects. I even delay composting what I do cut back, if there is a chance it may contain a snoozing ladybird, until spring. But, top tip, our garden does get its edges returned to it definitively in the autumn and that makes a huge difference.
As the sun dips ever lower, the quality of September light changes. It softens and takes on a golden hue. It also lends the garden longer and more interesting shadows. Shadows that tell a new story – the best shadows of the year.
This summer, I discovered that at low tide I could get right out onto the salt marsh from our little cottage in Blakeney, out further than I had previously dared. One finds oneself in a sort of natural amphitheatre sandwiched between land and sea; a place that isn’t convincingly either.
This sort of indistinct landscape was the place to be in the prehistoric, riven with warm, shallow salt-water gullies and the protein-rich, accessible shellfish they contained. It used to stretch from Norfolk to Scandinavia, with Doggerland half way between the two. Doggerland was a real place. People lived there. At the end of the last ice age it was swallowed by a rising North Sea. A ten-mile stretch on the North Norfolk coast is all that is left. That is a long shadow.
Walking back towards Blakeney from the sea, I was struck by how different the view would have been in the 16th century. Once upon a time, a huge Carmelite friary, built of flint and brick, would have glistened in the evening light, welcoming ships to harbour. Sadly, there is no more than a short stretch of wall left. Most of the vanished stone was presumably carried off to build peoples’ houses. Another long shadow.
Later in the summer, I visited both Thetford and Bury St Edmunds, both previously home to huge monasteries. We think the ruins are charming or romantic because they have always been there, but, reimagined, they are the sad evidence of a scorched earth policy, all that remains of once great structures. Recently, I was sitting with a dear friend (not a Catholic) who said his feeling, when he first saw what was left of one shattered monastery, was that it should be rebuilt. My friend is dangerously clever and his thinking is always free of the mouse-like narratives that seem to constrain mine, but of course he is right. It is the only remedy for those with the courage to imagine it.
The same friend and his very talented gardening wife had invited us with our five children (and an open invitation to our five dogs, though we wouldn’t have done that to them – we like them too much) for dinner in their fabulous garden. Lockdown, with the onerous demands of home schooling etc, meant I got even less done in my garden than usual. But our friends, with two adult sons, set to theirs with zeal.
Their garden was always lovely but it has become very noticeably more itself. With the exception of a new orchard, all their well-considered tweaks are relatively small when considered on their own (a new tree here, some adjusted planting there, some more evergreen), but when taken together have caused the garden as a whole to simply lift and arrive fully as itself. That, I think, is what gardening is. Like Plato’s world of ideas, our gardens exist already, we just need to let them fully arrive.
Inviting a family to dinner with five children (ages two to 14) involves a special type of kindness. Tolerating the screaming, and even the knocking down of carefully positioned garden statues, and meeting it all with luminous balloons, kindness and sincere jollity is deeply heartwarming for those of us still in the thick of it. This is not a veiled request for more dinner invitations, but I have to say that it reminded me directly, like an arrow to the heart, that in some way everything comes down to family, both human and divine, both blood and non-blood. If we keep that in mind, maybe even the rebuilding of the monasteries is possible.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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