Garden Notes number 20 “wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time”


It’s the contrast between the lush strings and his ordinary Ulster voice; it’s the way the music stops dead at the last line and the utopian dream of ‘all the time’ becomes a moment in time that’s lost.  Ignore the swan.

That picture of grasses at Lamledra, the violet light, peering into that I remembered again the idea that by assembling the world’s plants, each with its little piece of God, the early botanical gardens would recreate paradise and by implication return the observer to a state of innocence

this is still Garden Notes….

If, as Christians believed, God reveals something of himself in each of his creations, the macro in the micro, then somehow, if you got together all the plants in the world then the garden of Eden, the world before the Fall in all its magical innocence, would be recreated. A new golden age. This notion, which lay behind the establishment of the first botanical gardens, arose in the 16th century at a time of fantastic discovery when European botanists were intoxicated by a rush of American imports. The discovery of America meant that that there were now four continents, Australia still being unsuspected, and these four continents corresponded to the division into four parts of the garden of Eden, with four rivers flowing out from a central fountain….
But it was shocking to see that when gathered together plants spontaneously developed new varieties, as if, contrary to the Bible, the process of creation did not end with the sixth day. Worse, botanists soon began to deliberately hybridise, taking pollen from the stamen of one plant and with it sacrilegiously dusting the stigma of another. And this at a time when it was thought, because people didn’t want to know, that flowers were innocent of sex. (See ‘The Fairchild Mule’ in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners.)

They strove to make out details in the grand blur of Genesis. They tried to fit the newly discovered continents into the narrow frame of their theology, about which there was in any case no firm agreement: had the Garden of Eden survived the Flood? Was it hidden away in South America? Or was it scattered in pieces around the world? Did the animals have their places inside the Garden? And how hard was Adam expected to work when he was told ‘to dress it and to keep it’? – a crucial question.

So, belief in the six day once and for all creation – which tied adventurous minds in absurd knots as they struggled to believe, and was quite contrary to rational observation and enquiry into nature – that belief being long abandoned, Kew Gardens make their huge new seed bank, which, while it won’t contain the seeds of every plant, maybe barely a quarter, will still get much closer to the idea of a complete collection than the botanical gardens of Padua and Leyden and Oxford in the 16th and 17th centuries.
At Kew, they’re getting together a picture, more than a picture, an embryo for the world as it is now, not as it was in the first days of creation. The world as it is now is the best there is, it’s not going to get any better than this. The Golden Age is no longer situated in the past, it’s here now, but vanishing as we look at it.
Well, not this exact moment, but just yesterday when westerners began to discover and colonise the world, when the dodos stood around waiting to be shot and eaten, when passenger pigeons filled the American skies, when the abundance of creation was so huge and generous that men could kill, kill all day long and still there seemed no end of prey. Just yesterday when sparrows in their inextinguishable millions were a pest. This yesterday would be the beginning of the ‘anthropocene’, the new geological age in which human beings finally achieve the mastery over life of which they dreamt and which they considered their due, in which we can actually watch ourselves poison, pollute, exterminate. This historical moment lends great power to our nostalgia for Eden.

The Burren is a celebrated area of limestone pavement in County Sligo with a unique flora. In The Flowering of Britain Richard Mabey enjoys a magical moment there:
‘We lay on the ledge nearest the pool, and watched the burnet rose flowers opening in the sun. As their pure soft scent blew over us in the breeze, over the shining pool and white rock, we understood why this foreign place was so familiar. It was, in its balance of wildness and order, colour and form, the perfect garden (perhaps the Garden!)’
He says ‘you should begin your exploration of the Burren in late May.’ To experience a moment out of time you must start from a precise moment in time.

Graham visited a few months ago and stayed the night, sharp as ever in his rambling, rolling way. I tried to speak to him about Eden, and Mabey on the Burren – he seemed astonished that I could mistake the Burren for paradise because when he went there it was cold, stony, thorny and grey. He kept getting his feet stuck in the grykes (clints and grykes: slabs of limestone pavement and the fissures between them). Like romantic love, Eden always comes with its opposite, the Fall.
And when they went to Crete Jane suggested they walk back from a beach they’d taken a boat to, up over the hills. It took hours, Graham kept falling over, (he didn’t have a stick), he cut himself on the sharp rocks, was scratched by thorns. He was bloody and exhausted. (I imagine him looking a little like Christ after flagellation and before crucifixion.) He was rather vague about the time of year, but I’m sure it wasn’t spring. Again he missed the botanical paradise.

I’ve been writing a contribution for a proposed book about Laurieston Hall, a commune in South West Scotland where I lived in the 70’s. I imagined a connection between the apprehension of Eden in gardens and in nature and those glimpses of utopia that the commune afforded at special times. Daily life could be a bitter disappointment; the communal ideal only glimpsed on special occasions. Precision of time and place is crucial. Graham in the Burren – he was like a visitor happening upon the billiard room at Laurieston on a cold, damp morning after, after a celebration or a dance; silent, ash in the air, a plate encrusted with lentils, the sour smell of dregs, lost clothing underfoot, sticky stains on floor and walls, and then to be told that it had been amazing, amazing….

Last year I walked on Falakro in north eastern Greece at the end of May. At that time erythroniums, androsaces, irises, primulae, crocuses, vanilla orchids, alyssums, scillas, flax, three kinds of saxifrage, star of Bethlehem and stitchwort were all perfect and I was not too late for the last of the fritillaries or, on the very top, at the edge of the cliffs, the first of the mountain avens. And lower down, in their shady, wooded valley, Haberlea rhodopensis – see Garden notes number ten, the itch to intervene, a few lines from John Clare, Adam in Eden and DH Lawrence   and  Garden notes number two, communities and bare earth .  A combination of luck and judgement. No before or after, just the one moment, which I keep in iconic photographs.

Here are androsace (white) and saxifrage. Of course the moment is not so pure after all. I didn’t intervene so you can see a few dead stalks which John Clare would have liked to rake away, and last year’s grass, not yet recovered from several months of snow.

Here we are now in late spring, moment after perfect moment in the garden, wave upon wave; it goes on and on until the music stops.



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1 Response to Garden Notes number 20 “wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time”

  1. Joel says:

    Lovely post this Jonny. Thanks for illuminating thoughts on matters Biblical! Joel x

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