The solace of tame landscapes
When asked recently what I find helpful for mental good health, my first response was ‘gardening’… (I know not everyone feels the same).
My back is aching, my knees are stiff and my knuckles are grazed, bleeding and sore, but I feel so much better than I did before going outside about five hours ago to tackle a neglected bit of the front garden. This particular bed falls on the boundary line between the manse and next door and we have never ascertained whose responsibility it is. I last weeded it about four years ago and decided that (since no-one else has touched it since) today was the day to have another go… as you see, it is a very small bed but it had a lot of weeds in it, mainly couch grass. It also contains two Mahonia shrubs, which, whilst very beautiful, shed extremely prickly leaves, so my tattered and thin gardening gloves were really inadequate protection.
Never mind! It looks a lot better now than it did and therein lies the benefit. It may be that our neighbour notices and thanks me (but I think it extremely unlikely); I could have taken a ‘before’ photo and received massive acclaim from the (very small) readership of this blog… but in fact neither of those responses are relevant. Whilst my body may have received some wounds doing the job, my mind and soul have found balm in the task itself and now in surveying the result. Weeds can be stubborn and prickly, but they don’t answer back and they let you face them in your own time. The monotony of weeding can be extraordinarily soothing and the feeling of having done something worth doing (even if it’s not going to save the whole world and even if no-one notices) is a good feeling.
As you may have noticed, I have corrupted the title of a book by the theologian/wilderness backpacker Belden C. Lane for this blog; he writes of ‘The solace of fierce landscapes‘ which is a wonderful concept (and book), but in these days of lock-down fierce landscapes are beyond the reach of most of us (although I have known a few manse gardens which might qualify).
Solace is something many of us need in these strange days; maybe it can be found closer to home than we often realise, certainly for those of us lucky enough to have gardens. Just going outdoors can lift the spirits. When Andrew and I first moved to Glasgow from Slough we immediately set about creating an outdoor seating and eating area in our manse garden… it didn’t take too many months before we realised that a move of 400 miles north has a significant impact on the climate, so we haven’t used it as much as we had hoped… but these past few weeks we have! Having read today that one of the possible reasons for the lock-down-insomnia many folk (including Andrew) are suffering could be lack of natural light, we are eating outside whenever we can.
Fear of failure besets many of us much of the time, and gardening can be no different. I was so heartened to hear an interview with Sue Biggs, the Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society (no less) recently in which she said something like… ‘Really, the worst thing you can do in your garden is kill a plant, and I have killed hundreds in my time…’ So I try to see my garden as a safe space in which to take risks.
Some work out better than others; the slender Acer on the left was bought in a half-price sale about 8 years ago and has been affectionately referred to as our ‘special needs tree’ ever since… but it loves Scotland and is now doing well (and certainly receives the ‘most-improved’ award). That gives me joy! The Callicarpa on the right, however, has grown strongly over a similar length of time and also survived a dramatic move north, but the number of ‘lustrous purple berries’ it has borne in the past few years barely runs into double figures. I don’t give up! Watch this space (maybe).
Hope must be one of the main reasons why gardening is good for the soul (or some souls). Planting bulbs or seeds or tender little plants then watching and waiting is a theological exercise. Dying and rising is all part of the rhythm. Having been thrilled to grow the Himalayan Blue Poppy in my cool, damp garden here (which never happened in warm, dry Slough) I was devastated when the plants died after just two seasons… but I had kept some seedheads and amazingly the seeds germinated… this tray now lives by our bed so that I can tend to their needs night and day, nurture seems to have therapeutic qualities too.
If I’m honest, a little sense of competition might creep in from time to time too, and that might not be so good for the soul, but helps to keep the mind focussed… I love Agapanthus but have been totally out-done by my sister and my mother-in-law in recent years. Whilst my plants have produced 2 or 3 flowers in total they have had very impressive displays. This year, as the plants begin to come to life again I am feeding them every fortnight with a special formula to increase flowering (don’t tell my competitors!)
Finally, I am thankful to the gardening book I read over 30 years ago when first taking charge of a tiny plot of land in the Yorkshire Dales. The author extolled the many virtues of active gardening, but also reminded readers of the importance of sitting still in the garden, of looking and wondering and being thankful. Amen to that! Jill