How to be Capable (ity Brown)

I’ve been thinking about Lancelot (Capability) Brown for probably far too long. Here’s a post I wrote about visiting his birthplace, Kirkharle in Northumberland. So it’s lovely to join in the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of his birth, with a series of poems coming out in the commemorative copy of the magazine for the Follies Fellowship.

The visit to the Church above, the path he would have walked to school every day, and the countryside he grew up in (not his house, that’s now a car park!) all informed writing an imagined view of how he became the ‘Shakespeare of English gardening’.

How You Learn To Be Capable by Sarah Salway

Never be told you can’t.

Walk to church every Sunday, sometimes more, past stories that thrill even when they should be scaring you, and although you know you shouldn’t speak about the past, let the land whisper it with just a sideways glance at a mound or an old bent tree.

On your daily trek to school, surprise yourself by glimpsing future stories hiding in clumps of trees, behind a hill, swimming down stream to a lake where they are lost before you fish them out.

Lancelot, your teacher smiles, now do you know where that name comes from? And although you’re only five, you do. So you tell him of ancestors, of the land, of the trees, of woodsmen and the earth, of the pride of being a servant to a good man, of what it means to be a Brown.

There is another story, he says, and that’s how honour, and gallantry, and most of all, maybeoneday, enter your world.

Now when you walk to school, you place the rises and falls, the trees and the rivers in different places in order to catch the future better.

One day when you are in the kitchen, you tell your mother that you’d like to move the hill in front of the house. And she doesn’t laugh, but looks out of the window as if she can see over the horizon now too.

You walk to school through rain, walk to church through rain. You get so tired of rain rain rain every day.

We need the rain to keep our lands green, the preacher says that Sunday, and because you listen hard every time he mentions land, you start to think again about water.

Because what if we could control it, you ask your teacher, what if we could turn the weather on and off when we need it. Not just for the land but for beauty too.

 Shhh. It’s by scaring your teacher that you learn another story. That Control is something you have but pretend you don’t. Power exists when it’s not questioned. And Stories don’t have to be spoken aloud to be heard.

Control and Power and Stories are like you and your brothers. You may fight, but you can’t be separated, and in some people’s eyes and shakes of their heads, you are one and the same. Those Brown boys. The ideas in them.

 But God, your teacher says, is the one who holds the Order.

You say, Like my Lord Loraine, but now your teacher, your mother, even your brothers, tell you not to think so much.

You’re still thinking when your father comes to say he’s got you a job, working on the land, working so hard that your mind will stop worrying at itself like a dog with a bone, and although you agree, of course you do, if you hold your head a certain way, if you were to move the hills, rearrange the trees, let the rivers flow in a new way, you know you can rewrite Order’s story. Because you are a Brown, but you’re a Lancelot too, so the Story you keep inside, and don’t even have to say out loud for people to listen, is for Beauty too.


The rest of the poems will be in the magazine, due out in May!

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