Prison Landscapes

I know about real gardens in prisons, but it was only when I was browsing in a second-hand art book shop in London that I found out about the scenes of gardens and natural spaces that are painted in prisons throughout America for prisoners – often with their families – to be photographed against.

The book of these photographs, Prison Landscapes is made even more fascinating by the story behind it. The author, Alyse Emdur was inspired to write it after she found a photograph of herself, aged five, standing in front of a tropical beach scene which had been taken during a visit to her brother in prison. As she says: “since discovering this first portrait in my own family album in 2005, I have invited hundreds of prisoners to send me photographs for inclusion in this collection.” There are also many of the letters she received, nearly all of them making clear how much the family visits, and the photographs, meant to them.

I’m not ashamed to say that this book has made me cry several times already. Not just because there’s something so moving about how the personalities of these prisoners comes across through one simple photograph and the choice of background they pick. The backgrounds that represented a freedom that maybe would never belong to them again. (The book rightly doesn’t give the sentences or crimes.)

But more for the families for whom this one flimsy photograph would have to stand-in for the presence of their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, friend. I couldn’t help but imagine how often they might try to pretend it was taken in a real setting and place.

Or indeed time. Time is such a multi-layered word in prison – after all prisoners ‘do’ time and in fact time – and what they can, or can’t, do with it – becomes their punishment. One of my students at LSE wrote a fascinating thesis about how each individual in prison has a different way of counting the passing of each day. So it was fascinating to see how many of the backgrounds seemed to represent a particular passing moment, as if, when it’s over, the people photographed could step straight into an alternative life.

So although not a garden, I think this book – and the concept behind it – perfectly sums up how public gardens provide a ‘time out of time’ and a space that we can return to in our minds whenever we want.

Here’s my poem, but first the photograph that inspired it (although as you will spot there’s no father here, it’s actually a montage of several which allowed me a HUGE dollop of artistic licence. I hope the people involved will forgive me):

Forget the parrots,
waterfalls, sunsets –
he wants to stand
with his father here,
at the foot
of stone steps
leading to a lake,
the path narrowed
by branches sprung
open by blossom,
and after the picture
is taken, photographer gone,
just the two of them
turning their backs
to walk into the garden,
brushing past the painted wall
as their shoulders
heavy now with pollen,
grow lighter from words
they pick like
out of season fruit
and offer to each other
in a way they’ve never managed.
And later he dreams
of his father telling strangers
that yes, this is my son,
and how he’ll hang
on his father’s wall
in a house he might never
get to visit in time.

Dungeness – but is it a garden?

I didn’t have any hesitation in putting Dungeness on my list of Kent gardens to visit, although when I walked around I began wondering whether this was because of my love of Derek Jarman’s garden. Because apart from certain notable exceptions, I think that the good folk of Dungeness have more on their minds than working for a Britain in Bloom status.

But of course Dungeness isn’t about normal cultivation. It’s brutal and wild and beautiful and surprising and humane and uplifting. It’s as far away from consumerism as you can get (apart from the irony that you now need a fortune to live there apparently!) It fitted perfectly into my secondary theme of the tension between public and private spaces.

Of course, every time I told anyone I was heading for Dungeness, they presumed I was writing about Prospect Cottage, but too many people have got there before me.

So instead I wandered around with my camera and notepad turning my gaze from horizon to details on the ground…

…and back to the horizon …

… until I noticed that what I was noticing were paths…

Even broken ones…

Up and down the garden path? I couldn’t resist.

So here’s my piece:

1. I want to build a path running up and down and around my body
2. I want to put down grass, and sand, and tiny pebbles, and sheepskin, and smooth oak, and cashmere
3. I want to tempt you to walk up and down my path in your bare feet
4. I want to keep my eyes closed to feel more, my ears shut to hear less
5. I want to feel your sole, the spring in your heel as you take off for the next step
6. I want the materials to keep switching around so neither of us knows what’s coming next
7. I want to spend hours thinking of new materials for my path
8. I want to add a line of feathers
9. I want those feathers to be so thick it’ll feel like floating
10. I want another line to feel as if I’m walking over your back
11. I want it to feel warm and giving under my toes, so I’m not sure if it’s your back or my back, you walking or me walking
12. I want to know it will hold us up, however heavy with sadness we are, it will hold us up
13. I want to walk up and down my path until I feel dizzy
14. I want that dizziness to turn into something grounded
15. I want us to admit we’re heading nowhere.

And then I went to artist Paddy Hamilton’s studio (who does have a beautiful garden – so much so it’s been featured on Gardener’s World), and what did I see but his path …

Here is Paddy with Toby Buckland, talking about the challenges and good things about gardening ‘on the edge’.

No paths, as far as I could see, but to finish here’s a short clip from Derek Jarman’s film, The Garden:

St John’s Jerusalem, Sutton-at-Hone

No wonder Sir Stephen Tallents and his wife loved St John’s Jerusalem so much they gave it to the National Trust, it is a real sanctuary of peace and loveliness. Walking round, it is hard not to feel its history as home to the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem since 1199.

Although obviously both the house and the garden have been transformed over time, the garden remains surrounded by a square moat, fed by the River Darent, and where ‘The Hospitallers’ would fish. There’s something healing about the garden, and it’s perhaps not surprising to find out that the Order, after decades of violent battles and defeats, was revived with the remit of caring for the sick, becoming eventually the St John’s Ambulance Association.

But of course, I’m being romantic. Because way before that time, the house had moved into private ownership. Or am I? How hard is it NOT to imagine other worlds when you see trees like this:

And I loved the story told to me by artist and gardener, Will Gould about the little drop of blood to be found in every head of Queen Anne’s Lace – apparently it’s from her finger when she was spinning. Can you see the little dot of red:

I had to look closely because, do you know, I have never noticed that before. And then, suddenly everywhere I looked I saw new and beautiful things:

..that made me wonder if time had stopped still.

Ridiculous? Maybe. But it’s afternoons like the one I spent at St John’s Jerusalem that make me feel very lucky we have so many beautiful gardens to visit. We need to be taken out of ourselves and our busyness sometimes.

Here’s my poem:

Green Thoughts*

Maybe better to fight than to be corseted
into bedding displays, bruised
for a passing scent, deadheaded;
is this why thorns protect tender buds,

an uprooted mandrake screams, and Eve
took her chance, leaving paradise before Adam
discovered pruning? But then you come here,
St Johns Jerusalem, and that door in the tree

takes you to another world, everywhere you look
time is gentled, a butterfly stays long enough
to fold its wings, a petal to fall, and even a drop
of blood is kissed safe in its nest of Lace.

*Green Thoughts is the title of Sir Stephen Tallent’s autobiography which begins with St John’s Jerusalem, which, he says, would never have been built “if on a July day 850 years ago, the survivors of the First Crusade had not captured Jerusalem”.

And here’s Will reading a piece from the book about the moat and sitting near the moat, clever eh?

The Franciscan Gardens, Canterbury

It’s always surprising to me to find these ‘hidden’ gardens right in the middle of the city, and the gardens behind Franciscan Friary off the High Street, and behind these gates is just one such gem…

To be honest, when I visited – last February – there wasn’t much to see (certainly compared with when I got to visit during October’s festival), but this is what gave me the inspiration for the eventual poem. The garden felt paired back to what really mattered. This feeling was brought out by the paths…

… and how closely allied the garden and the river were…

… not just as a source for easy watering…

… but for contemplation too. The second photograph here is a close up of the plaque on a bench looking over the river. I love the idea of ‘Brothers Rest’…

Here’s my poem for the garden:


Like the pilgrim divests himself of worldly goods,
the garden’s stripped back to a skeleton,

trees keeping blossom close, buds aching,
and it’s still the cutting back that matters most,

only the vertebrae of paths hold a true form
while through it all the river’s artery rolls,

a trust in what lies beneath, snowdrops
rising like lanterns to light the way.

And do play this video to come and walk with me round the gardens…