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a year in a small urban garden (6): february grey

Posted Feb 20 2011 1:09pm

Cambridge can be very grey and dreary in February and many of us, Ma Yogini included, turn to daydreaming. Over to her….


February; and there are signs that winter is receding and that spring may soon roll in.

Chives are almost flourishing, tulips are showing their tips and pruning back of shrubs and climbers should be in full swing. Well, it is not! This gardener has been dreaming instead. Of colour initially. Well, the days have been so drab and energy seems to be leeched away, so I started looking at ways to brighten up the domestic environment – and myself.

Citrus fruit in a ceramic bowl did the trick for a while before all that orange goodness fulfilled its proper role. Having nourished the spirit, the oranges then nourished the body.

Our local veggie stall always provides a bright spot on a dull day as do the cheerful grins of the owner and his assistant. They know what I am up to. ‘Getting you colour fix, are you?’ they ask.

I am not alone either since I know that at least one professional photographer (his photos appeared all over town to promote business in the area) and several amateur artists have been inspired by the display. Now Himself is at it! Thank you.

But I dream in other ways as well – through poetry and stories. Do you remember The Secret Garden? Walled and locked, the garden reveals itself at night – but only to little girls led there by a robin. This garden is walled and the gate is often locked and we do have a robin…… Dream on! The garden has been secretive through the winter, wrapped in on itself, but life has continued beneath the soil ready, I hope, to reveal its glory quite soon. The robin is getting quite chirpy too.

The idea of the garden as a secret, enclosed space and a place of marvels and spiritual renewal is an old one. Muslim gardens were created as places of contemplation and before that there was a famous garden known as Eden in which God walked in the cool of the evening to refresh himself. Milton envisaged Eden as ‘enclosed by goodliest trees’ and guarded by angels so that Satan could penetrate only with difficulty and shrouded in mist. (Paradise Lost book 9).

Andrew Marvell is another poet who appreciates gardens and associated them with Paradise – his gardens are particularly verdant and fruitful:-

The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass

(The Garden – Andrew Marvell)

During the 19th century, poets became more interested in wild nature but Christina Rossetti wrote very movingly about a walled garden from which she was shut out, having previously been familiar with it. It was her lost paradise:-

From bough to bough the song-birds crossed’
From flower to flower the moths and bees,
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine and it was lost…

So now I sit here quite alone
Blinded with tears; nor grieve for that ,
For nought is left worth looking at
Since my delightful land is gone.

(Shut Out – Christina Rossetti)

There are plenty of prose descriptions of gardens in 19th century novels – see Dicken’s Bleak House for the description of the garden which is to be Esther’s, ‘such a lovely place, so tranquil and so beautiful …….all overhung with summer growth’ or any Jane Austen novel where the garden is an important adjunct to any house and is the site of romantic flirtation.

Finally, two poems about gardeners. In the first, Seamus Heaney looks at his father digging the garden and remembers the line of his forebears who have all been diggers of gardens and of peat. And likens his own work to digging:-

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When spade sinks into gravelly ground My father, digging . I look down

Till his straining rump among the flower beds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man………….

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

(Digging – Seamus Heaney)

The second is brief enough to quote in full (this isn’t me yet).

Three days to Christmas – a mild
Bright westerly morning.
He is on his spry old knees
Preparing a spring bed,

A kind of active prayer,
His manger for the child.
And time may give him warning
That soon he will not be there;

He will not heed.
Beliefs can coalesce
In star and seed to wake
The living and the dead;

My unbeliever’s eye
Beholds a practical reverence all can share
In face of a miracle.

(On seeing a Christian Gardener at Eighty – Patric Dickinson)

I have this afternoon given up dreaming and taken up digging!  More next time.

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