Posted by: leafvigurs | May 16, 2016

A Garden Companion

Wasp

Many years before I fell in love with plants I became enchanted by arthropods in general and insects in particular. As my friends played football or started to become interested in cars I was lifting stones to search for woodlice, or wading into the bed of nettles to watch the life cycle of the cabbage white butterflies that lived there. Walking to school I lifted stopcock covers to find ants’ nests, fascinated by their networks of tiny tunnels, and the patterns in their scurrying as they removed their eggs and carried them to safety deeper inside the nest. By the time I was ten, I knew my best friend’s favorite football team was Liverpool, while my favorite order of insects was Hymenoptera, containing bees, wasps and ants. (On reflection I’m not sure what we actually talked to each other about).

There are so many things about these fascinating creatures that amazed me then as they still do now. But I think what I loved most about them was their incredible design. I collected dead ones that I found so I could spend time looking at them in detail, but live ones I found truly magical. Structurally they are the opposite of us, with their skeleton on the outside protecting soft tissues on the inside. Wearing perfectly jointed suits of armour they enthralled me as a child and my affection for them has never left me.

Pruning back a large Juniper a few weeks ago I came across a common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, still sluggish as she slowly warmed her body in the sunlight. Holding on to the juniper with her back two pairs of legs she used her front pair to delicately clean her antennae. Despite the presence of such a large and seemingly clumsy creature she did not seem inclined to move, cold blooded as they are she may have simply been too cool to fly.

We humans are a discriminating species and the wasp does not come with a glowing reputation. They sting us, invade our picnics, homes and sheds, steal honey from our bees and, drunk on fermenting fruit, make picking fallen apples in autumn a far more interesting endeavour. Yet their stings are used only in defence, and without wasps our gardens would be overwhelmed by a whole host of pests that these flying hunters spend their days diligently killing and taking back to their nests for their young. The nests themselves are marvels of paper architecture, as a young teenager with remarkably accepting parents I contacted a pest control company who kindly provided me with three (very nearly) dead wasps’ nests. Inside them the hanging tiers of cells made me think of miniature gothic cathedrals, which in use would have been full of hundreds of individuals bustling around each other in chaotic harmony.

Pruning the juniper was going to be a considerable job, taller than the vegetable cage and longer than the swimming pool it took two days in the end. But I felt that the wasp was at least as justified as me in her place in the garden and it felt wrong to disturb her, so I climbed back down away from her and started on the other side. By the time I’d worked my way back to that area the sun was high in the sky and she was gone, the garden a better place for both of our actions.

 

Posted by: leafvigurs | February 8, 2016

A Gardeners Garden

Alice with carved hare

Standing in the back garden tonight it is already long since dark, and the patio and beds are illuminated by a single outside light. In the all too brief dry cold days I did as much of the winter pruning as I could, hard pruning the rose into a permanent frame work and further defining the characters of all the deciduous trees captured in their pots. Now, still damp from today’s rain, I am able to see the shape of the beds beginning to take form. Much of them are newly planted, not even a year yet, but I smile to see the Garryra eliptica has now reached the height of the fence and maybe next year we will see its first catkins. In my mind I am already rearranging pots, visualising next year’s growth and considering the next layer of planting. Standing in a cool breeze in the dark a sudden image of it on a sunny May day springs to me and I can feel its warmth. I am delighted at the old Butler sink Alice’s grandparents bought her, and I consider where it will sit within the garden, and what plants should frame it. Now she can have her own personal space to plant and grow and discover the joy of it all.

In the shed a hare waits, slowly emerging from a block of ash on those rainy days when it is too wet to step onto the garden. When finished he will sit on the ash stump in the main centre bed to mark William Harrison’s place in the house’s history, and I look forward to placing him so he can gaze towards the church and welcome all who visit. (William Harrison; rebus ‘Hare in Sun’ Rector of Radwinter between 1558 and 1593).

No doubt like many gardeners I struggle to find time for our garden, often spending just one day a week working in it while the majority of my time is dedicated to working in other people’s. It is a privilege to do so, and the opportunity to share in their gardens is an invaluable one. By doing so I tap into a vast resource of years of experience, and I have come to realize that all of my gardens feed each other. There is a growing relationship between them, and though all have their individual charms and personalities I feel less and less division between them. Certainly without them our own garden would be much impoverished and so I have a feeling of gratitude to all of my clients.

Despite the lack of time, and often a feeling of urgency to get important jobs done within their correct time frames, what I have discovered is that there is a gentleness to gardening. It cannot be forced or rushed, and the development of a garden is seen in years and decades. Recently I spoke to someone who had visited one of my client’s gardens in the summer. She said “it looked cared for”, a simple comment that beautifully captured all I could hope for.

We have been here three years now, such a tiny fragment of a gardens life, and that one day a week I have in it is precious. In that time I have done a lot that I wanted to and it has given, and continues to give me great pleasure. Naturally there is so much more I would like to do and there are no real shortcuts in gardening. Yet at every opportunity I am watching its progress and fine tuning its future, and even tonight, in the dark as the rain begins to fall again it is hard to tear myself away and come inside.

Posted by: leafvigurs | November 9, 2015

Call of the Mountains

Gonz and buzzards2

The sun has already set and the light is fading from the sky when I hear the call of the buzzard, and to me it is the sound of the mountains.

It has been a beautiful day in the garden, surrounded by mature trees resplendent in their autumn colours. Bright pools of leaves collect at their feet, mirroring the reds, yellows and gold’s that shimmer above them.

I know that buzzards are becoming more common now and can be found in many habitats, but as a child growing up in Birmingham it was only on holiday in Wales that I saw them, and it is in the mountains there that I have had the good fortune to observe them up close. Once while approaching the summit of Cadair Idris in low cloud, one suddenly appeared out of the surrounding swirling mists and glided overhead so close I could hear the wind rush through its feathers. They are magnificent creatures full of power and a savage beauty and wherever I hear their cries I am instantly transported back to the mountains.

A while ago I heard an interview with Dan Pearson, a gardener I greatly respect and whose beautifully simple planting schemes have always inspired me. He spoke of an epiphany he had had in the mountains of Spain; walking from the foothills up to the snowline he observed “… plants growing in the wild in natural combinations and suddenly everything made sense”. Cadair Idris is a mountain I know well, my own route up it takes me through woodland and then a bog, before it finds the stone ridge that rises from the earth and carries me to its summit. From the tiny lichens and mosses to the ragged carpets of coarse golden grasses and the heather encrusted rocks that litter the landscape, it is a perfect palette with not a leaf out of place. When asked what he thought gardens are for Dan Pearson answered “I think gardens are a place of escape, and a place of immersion. They are somewhere you can be yourself completely, and provide you with tremendous freedom. It is the place I am happiest”. For me all of this is true of the mountains themselves, and it is the place I return to again and again whenever there is opportunity.

However I find the garden is a bridge between the home and the mountain and it is a place that I can tell a story, with plants and wood and stone; a painting I can never finish. It is hard as a gardener to be still in any garden, there is always too much to do. Yet I have become aware, ‘unfinished’ as they are how often I find myself gazing at all of ‘my’ gardens, and how much pleasure they give me, lost as I am in their journeys. It is both a surprise and a joy that through no fault of my own I am able to spend all my days outside.

In the garden the cries of the buzzard come from far overhead, sometimes if I look up I can see them soaring gracefully high above; at other times they remain obscured by cloud or trees. It is a sound that never fails to uplift me, awed as I am by the natural beauty of this world. It is a good place to be a gardener

Posted by: leafvigurs | June 10, 2015

A New Pair of Eyes

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Thinking back, one of the first genuinely magical places I remember was my uncle’s garden. My uncle is a wonderful gardener and has always created beautiful gardens from which many of my happiest childhood memories were born. In long games of hide and seek I could explore them for hours on end and wait quietly entranced by my surroundings.

The first one I truly have memories of was a long and narrow one that fell away from the rear of the house. Evolving from a beautifully tended lawn it grew into a series of miniature landscapes, a meandering path gently leading away into mystery. When young the viewpoint is naturally closer to the ground and much was hidden by beds filled with carefully layered planting schemes. The path flowed through it all like a babbling brook and around each twist and turn a new vista would suddenly reveal itself. At points the path would throw off smaller less urgent rivulets that followed different journeys. Following one of these led to a gentle mound planted with grasses and carefully placed rocks and I remember sitting there enthralled by the intricate patterns in the rock surface and the softly swaying grasses.

There is a marvellous Japanese word, yugen, that sadly we lack any equivalent term for but I have heard elegantly described as ‘going nowhere into pregnant space’. Yugen suggests as to the profound natural beauty of things or the feeling of wandering without thought of return. This sense of yugen seems to reflect the natural state of childhood, yet as an adult we are so often preoccupied with where we are going that we miss where we are. I have discovered that as a gardener it is easy to also fall into the trap of forever thinking of the future. Always thinking ahead, planning, visualizing and conceptualising what it will look like next year… Yet I wonder if in doing so I forget the most fundamental of facts, that surely a garden can only ever be enjoyed for what it is, and not what it may be. As lives become busier and often more frantic it is a place to stop, and to be fully present; a state of being that seemed so natural as a child.

Alice already loves the garden. Whether soil, stone or flower, all hold an equal fascination and she examines each in turn intently and without prejudice. She understands that plants can be hurt, and that they need caring for. Watching your one year old trying to lift a two gallon watering can with a determined look on her face is enough to bring a lump to any gardener’s throat. Now she has her own appropriately sized one which she mindfully takes round each of the many pots and diligently waters each one. Suddenly I have been reminded to look at the garden again as though with her eyes and through that I have rediscovered my own sense of yugen.

My own experience is that there will never be enough time to do all that needs doing in a garden. It can never be finished or perfect because each of these things would also signify an ending. The joy I find is in its continual flowing, and now of course the slightly unpredictable watering of my pot plants.

Posted by: leafvigurs | March 27, 2015

The Orchard

OrchardWP

Winter has finally given me the opportunity to tackle the overgrown orchard. It is a wonderful place with its raggle-taggle of fruit trees encrusted with mosses and lichens, and its community of chickens and white doves. The chickens run enthusiastically towards you when you approach in the expectation of food, while on a sunny day the doves seem almost iridescent as they wheel in great sweeps above the garden. However in its neglected state suckers and nettles bustle around the base of the trees, and congested crowns intermingle with each other blocking out light and impeding pathways, snatching at faces and hair.

Discovering harmony in this glorious mess I find akin to the process of quietening the mind in meditation. Like a head full of darting scattered thoughts it is difficult to see any sign of order, yet gradually as I remove the dead, damaged and diseased branches the true personality of the tree begins to reveal itself. Next I look for crossing branches, pausing to consider which one to take out. Similarly I try to reduce branches growing inwards to produce a crown that spreads from the centre outwards. Both trees and minds function much better when not congested, ten thousand tangled shoots like ten thousand tangled thoughts slowly suffocate the ability to produce fruit.

It is a gradual process renovating trees, and as with many things, taking time to stand back and just look is invaluable. It takes a while for me to get to know the tree and see its inherent form, and this greatly helps me to prune sympathetically. From a strictly productive viewpoint it is often quicker and simpler to remove an old tree and replace it with a new one. However to do so is to ignore a deeper side of gardening, and very few gardens are ultimately tended for commercial reasons.

These trees make for a disparate collection, some young, some old, some twist and lean acutely as though frozen in dance, while others remain straight and true like young inexperienced soldiers on parade ground. Yet individually and collectively they tell a story, in which I am but a minor character appearing for but a few intermediate chapters.

It is a large job, and one that will slowly settle into a gentle rhythm over the following years. In summer I will need to deal with the profusion of water shoots that is the natural and inevitable reaction to such an extensive pruning, as well as further removal of dead material not always apparent in dormancy.

Over the succeeding winters and summers I will continue to fine tune my work here, and maybe in years to come I will be able to take a quiet satisfaction in the movement of light and air I have been able to bring back into the orchard. Now as spring gathers pace it is time to step back again and just watch, as daffodils speckle the ground and buds begin to swell and break.

“The orchard looks happy now”, my client reflected as we chatted, and in some indefinable way this observation is as important to me as the continued productivity of the trees. In my experience gardening is not always a tangible thing, and more often it is guided by a half sensed feeling than by hard knowledge.

Posted by: leafvigurs | March 27, 2015

Monty.

Monty

My brother and I recently saw Monty Don talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London. He has been a gardening hero to us both for years and someone who’s gentle nature, approach to gardening and ability with words has long inspired me. Because we have no television at home  I have come to know him through his books, articles and work on radio 4, though I have seen and enjoyed a few of his ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ programmes.
Seeing him talk live was a joy, and if I could have asked him any question it would have been ‘What is it that makes you at heart a gardener’? But even before a chance to ask questions was reached, he had already told us. From the age of seven to seventeen he was, he said, ‘a reluctant gardener’. Then one day as he was planting carrot seed he suddenly realised that at that moment he was content. That night he dreamt as he pushed his hands into the ground his fingers grew like roots down into the soil.
It is a wonderful grounding thing, to push your hands into the earth each day. I am a keen radio listener and have heard countless people from all backgrounds talk of how it has helped and in some cases even saved them. To garden is to care for something other than self, not to rush but to find the flow of nature, guide seed and root and in return the grass grows green, flowers bloom and produce swells and ripens.
Sometimes the slugs find those young tender shoots and vine weevil larvae the roots. There are many things that superficially frustrate me as a gardener; disease, pests, adverse weather conditions, weeds and heavy clay could all be added to the list. The things that delight me outnumber these many times over. The sun, those first buds bursting, all manner of beautiful plants and animals, compost, clouds, growth, fragrance, autumn colours, seed dispersal, wind, tracks in the snow, frost patterns, even contentment…
Today the warm weather continued and the soil was moist from last night’s rain but still workable, crumbling nicely as daylilies and crocosmia were thinned and ornamental grasses planted to punctuate the bed. By midday however the rain had set in, and even before the increasingly short daylight faded I was forced to leave this work as the soil became sticky and I risked compaction. There was no glorious sunset like the previous two nights, just a heavy grey cloud in a quickly darkening sky. However the sound of the rainfall was gentle and meditative, in the gloom this soundscape was accompanied by the falling of leaves and the evening cries of pheasants.
I do not have Monty’s gift for language and though I have long thought about it I still cannot find the words to explain what it is I get from gardening. It could be thought that happiness is not found but practised, so perhaps all I can say is that I practise happiness in gardening. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote far more eloquently ;
Sitting quietly.

Doing nothing.
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

Posted by: leafvigurs | March 27, 2015

A New Story

alice birthdaywordpress

Time…..is an elusive thing. Three years full of long moments vanish in the blink of an eye. As I grow older I grow interested in fewer and fewer things, but those that remain become deeper and richer and more marvellous. Time becomes more precious. “This day will not come again. Each minute is worth a priceless gem”. (Takuan Soho)

I like the idea of a blog, an opportunity to reflect and to share. But in truth my head has always been more full of pictures than words and I reflect far more easily with pencil strokes and colour than with a keyboard.

Then our daughter was born and my world was full of her.

Days and nights full of wondrous tiredness and new eyes watch it all. She watches me too and I wonder what she sees, and my reflections also grow deeper and richer and more marvellous.

After three years absence I still like the idea of a blog though I suspect I will always draw more than I write. However I realise that her story will outlast my own and if for no other reason it will be nice to leave words as well as pictures, though neither will be enough to express my love for her.

Posted by: leafvigurs | April 12, 2012

The House of Stone. Part 2

I have always found mountains to be magical places. They are spaces like no other, and they change with the weather and the time. Today the sky was painted with a thick curtain of cloud that hung overhead, and the air was cool in the breeze. Following the path behind the cottage takes you through the last strip of pinewood, before the land begins to rise through the thinning treeline. The dark green evergreens give way to birch and hawthorn scattered in an increasingly rocky panorama, as lichen encrusted stone begins to push through the now boggy ground. Life clings to every surface and also to itself, and a sudden change of focus reveals a landscape in miniature. A Lilliputian forest of mosses and lichens carpets the ground so thickly whole worlds are hidden. If not another step was taken there would still not be time to fully explore here.

The first time I walked up Cadair Idris it was a beautiful mystery. The path fades out somewhere between the bog and the first ridge and the landscape disappears into the distance. Endless never quite repeating  patterns  of twisted trees and rocks seem to offer no bearings. It took a few more visits before I started to recognize identifiable features. A bank of broken trees to the right of the bog leads to the first folds of stone to emerge from the earth. They grow to form the backbone of the mountain. Stone walls crisscross in all directions,  yet once  familiar they pinpoint you in space.

A line of a fenced wall leads upwards, while the coarse grass conceals patches of almost black marsh that suck at your feet. Here and there clumps of heather punctuate the hillside, their purples and lilacs perfectly complementing the pale turf.

Though the ground rises it also obscures a deep crack. Carved into the soft earth by a thin stream of tumbling water, a fissure forms its own micro-climate. Climbing down into this secret space I am abruptly aware of its silence, no wind penetrates here. Permanently damp walls are daubed with yet more species of mosses and lichens, somehow finding enough light in the shadow to survive. The crack continues to descend into the depths of a pool of crystal clear water, before vanishing into a rich terracotta sediment.

Emerging from this subterranean world it is the wind that I notice first. Although not strong  it is pervasive, and full of a playful energy that dances in invisible eddies. It murmurs through grass and over rock, and whispers through trees. I am reminded that though unseen the air is as much a part of the landscape as the mountain. We place so much importance in that which is substantial, visible and quantifiable, yet solidity itself is defined by emptiness.

I love the mountain. I feel small here. In its great lifetime it will not even notice me, while I am in awe at its beauty. I have been here under brilliant blue skies and baking sun, and I have come back in the rain and walked in the swirling clouds. Sometimes I have slid over frozen bog, and I have clung to boulders buffeted by winds as they race over the summit. There is no bad weather, it is always perfect.

Today the cloud remained low and a brooding Payne’s grey. Its shadow desaturated the land of colour, so when the sun began to break through its cover the sudden brightness was startling. Where sunlight hits the adjacent hillside the grass is a bright ochre.

I am reminded of a book I once read by a scientist who studied both consciousness and zen. Gazing on some yellow winter jasmine, she asked herself, where in fact did the colour yellow actually exist? It cannot be said to exist in the flower petals, which will appear to be a different colour when viewed with a different kind of eye, for instance that of the bee. Yet it cannot be found in the head either. Different wavelengths of light hit the back of the eye, and ultimately cause some nerve cells to fire more than others. This means yellow, but where is that yellow? My not knowing makes me smile.

Here and now it does not matter. The mountain is beautiful and we are happy to be here. There is no rush, and there is nothing to achieve. As the sun begins to dip we turn and start to head back to the cottage. We follow the water as it percolates downhill, and I become absorbed in the sensation of walking. The rhythm of footfall changes with the terrain, as rock becomes heath, becomes marsh, becomes woodland. Breath, heart-rate, balance, stride, speed… All are constantly changing, adjusting and fine tuning. In fact walking is an infinitely complicated action which we can do without thinking about. Yet consciously enjoyed it is amazing.

Returning to the Dref Gerrig is like coming home.  I have always felt a great feeling of freedom and peace on the mountain. Sharing this experience with others is a great pleasure and I feel tremendously fortunate to be able to do so. Each time is different, and there is still mystery here.  Dref Gerrig is my bridge to that place, and my home while I am there.

Posted by: leafvigurs | March 6, 2012

The House of Stone. Part 1

‘Dref Gerrig’ (House of Stone) has for nearly fifteen years now been a place of refuge.  It is over a five hour drive from where we currently live in Essex, traveling west across the country up motorways and monotonous grey A roads, till eventually the fields and plains begin to blossom into hillside somewhere between Shrewsbury and the Welsh border. The A483 forgets its long straight past and carelessly wriggles its way through woods, over bridges, and past the sheep and tiny houses that cling to the rocky landscape. The land either side rises majestically and the colours change from browns and greys into greens and oranges. Hills slowly mature into mountains.

Dref Gerrig itself is located on the lower slopes of Cadair Idris, a mountain 892 metres high to the south of the Snowdonia National Park. It is the first mountain I ever knew, having been taken there by my dad a good many years ago. It is also a place I feel a little closer to my grandad, a keen cyclist who once cycled there and carried his bike up Foxes Path, a 300 metre scree run, to the summit. Though by no means a big mountain, only the 19th tallest in Wales, it is a beautiful place, and the sight of it on the final approach to Dolgellau always fills me with a deep contentment.

The road from Dolgellau to the cottage is a slightly nerve wracking affair, as the road narrows and rises steeply alongside a sudden drop to the river. Fortunately Dref has its own meandering drive, off the road and away from local drivers with more carefree attitudes to blind corners. Pulling up behind the cottage feels like coming home, and the familiar clank and squeak of the gate welcomes us.

Dref is a seventeenth century dry stone cottage. Heated by two wood burning stoves, its thick walls soon warm and keep out all moods of weather. It has everything that matters (kettle, kitchen, bath and shower, comfy chairs), and a strange collection of things that don’t (dart board, electric piano, gorilla, and various pictures including Constable’s The Haywain’). Perhaps as importantly, it has no television or internet, and I have never used the radio there. I was a little disappointed to discover that mobile coverage now creeps intermittently inside the house, but there is a reason mobile phones have an off button.

To the front of the cottage is low wall, a place to sit and drink tea, while gazing out to the mountains across the sheep speckled fields. Behind lies a stretch of mixed woodland, the dark pines and conifers give it a brooding appearance, and hide the rocks and boulders that have tumbled down the mountain. The surrounding dry stone walls gently subside into shapeless mounds carpeted in moss, and lichens of all shapes drip from the trees. In the day buzzards patrol the sky and lizards scuttle in shadows, and at night bats perform their acrobatics while owls call out to each other.

It is a beautiful place to be and a beautiful place to share with people. I was introduced by good friends, and have since shared it with other good friends including my brother. Life can seem to speed past so quickly, so this time a five hour drive was a small price to pay to be here for the first time with my wife.

I began to wonder if she would love the mountain as much as me…

Posted by: leafvigurs | February 23, 2012

A Portrait

The moment he came in the door I wanted to draw him. He was as yet unstooped by age, with white shoulder length unruly hair and a meandering beard creeping across a lined face. He was chuckling to himself, and his eyes twinkled behind spectacles. He weaved slightly as he walked in…and as he walked out too. The tutor looked round to see where he’d gone, then got on with setting up chairs and a table.

There were in fact two models at the portrait class. The other, a proud black woman,  sat quickly and held her pose. As we began the old man bumbled back into the room, and was herded towards a chair encircled by our easels. A pose was set and I started to draw.  He sat still for about a minute then turned round, to talk to  the other model behind him. Somehow she  fended off his attempts at conversation without moving. He turned his attention back to us. He rocked back and forth, talked, joked, laughed and gesticulated. He was Scottish, and held strong opinions on philosophy, celebrity and George Galloway.  He did not support Scottish independence. He asked a girl in the class why there were  so many zips on her jeans. She didn’t seem to know. As his attention moved around the room so did his posture. It was like trying to hit a moving target. I stopped trying to measure, and take proportions. I stopped worrying about accuracy. Throwing charcoal at my board I tried to somehow capture his spirit. I started to wish I’d used a bigger piece of paper.

During the tea break he sung an old folk tune. And he was good. The talking stopped and we stood and listened, then some nervously joined in. When he stopped singing there was silence, then applause to hide our sudden emotion.

After the break he was quieter, although he never quite stopped moving. Though his face seemed defined by old laughter lines, I thought I saw sadness too. Lost in his own thoughts, at the centre of our focus, he seemed very alone. It is a strange experience, intently studying a person in an attempt to draw them. Sometimes you almost forget they are there. I think at times he forgot we were there too.

In the last session I ground four sticks of charcoal into the paper trying to fix him to it. I did not succeed.  His spirit was too elusive and it escaped me. I hope to one day have another chance.

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