Ernest Wilson – keeping one eye open

There’s a little gate off the main street in Chipping Camden. You might not even notice it, but step inside, and you’re … not in Wonderland, but almost in China!

It’s a memorial garden to the plant hunter, Ernest Wilson who was born in the town in 1876. Here’s his house, just further up the street…

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It’s hard to imagine how different this stone and brick must have been to the paradises – and horrors – he found himself in during his time as a plant hunter around the world, but so famously in China that he became known as Chinese Wilson.

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The garden is a cabinet of curiosities of some of the plants he brought back, some so common now that it feels odd to imagine how exciting it would have been to have seen them flower for the first time. Ernest Wilson is certainly one of the great collectors, he’s thought to have been responsible for introducing about 2000 Asian plant species to Britain.

And of course the names give a clue…

My personal passion for garden history follows my heart more than my mind. Back when I used to hang around my mother’s garden library, it was always the books about plant collectors I’d choose. (And Ernest Wilson was one of my favourites. Perhaps I knew I’d have a much loved Chinese sister-in-law and nephew one day?)

And indeed, this garden is rather like a book you can read, although instead of illustrations we have samples of the plants he brought back, 60 of which were named after him.

His adventures weren’t without trouble. In 1910, his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders. Apparently he set it himself with the tripod of his camera, but walked afterwards with what he called his ‘lily limp’. However, he was responsible for introducing the regal lily to the west.

He ended his life in the US, where he was keeper of the Arnold Arboretum, and died with his wife in a car accident in 1930.

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In the garden there’s a tree planted by his granddaughter. This poem came from one of the information boards, which says that in later trips to Japan when staying with headhunters, ‘it is a good idea to sleep with one eye open.’

Sleeping with one eye open

So as not to miss a moment
of the world’s beauty –
bark peeling like sunbaked skin,
petals as fresh as parchment,
the uptwist of a lily,
and a lion’s tongue of an iris,
and at night to dream of birdsong
like the skylark from home,
daisies in the churchyard,
a glimmer of silver on the river,
the honey-stoned Silk Street,
before waking to a fresh morning
on the silk route, searching
every day for one more miracle.

Five Woodland Walks

1.

Every Sunday afternoon the family goes to the woods. ‘But doesn’t Mum want to come?’ It seems not. Besides she’d spoil the fun by getting nervous as you balance like an underage drunk, a tightrope walker tottering along fallen tree trunks to collect that coin Dad puts out to tempt you on to the end. The higher the drop the tree rests over, the bigger, the better, the coin. Often you fall, but more usually you fear the falling and jump first. Decades later, you wonder if this is the lesson your father wanted you to learn. That all you have to do to win is to keep your nerves steady. Because even if you nearly reach the end, even if you fall and hurt yourself, even if you’re pushed off by your brother, he won’t relent. He just smiles as he puts the treasure back in his pocket. And you walk on to the next tree. Because there always was another fallen tree. Just as there always was another Sunday.

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2.

Seventeen, and the boy you’re not yet allowed to call your boyfriend takes you to the woods as it gets dark. You pretend to be spooked by the birds so you can take the hand he gives up to you when no one else can see. He even smiles as you trace the spider’s web with your finger on his palm, and then up his arm. His beautiful arm you have a sudden frightening desire to bite until he starts to tell you a story about a couple whose car broke down in the woods. The boy went to find help and the girl dozed until she heard a banging on the roof and then when she opened her eyes, she found herself looking at the upside down eyes of her boyfriend on the other side of the car window. But it was hard to see because the window was smeared with what. Blood. And then she saw another head looking in at her. But this was attached to a body. And that body was trying to get in the car now. And no one knew she was there. No one was going to come to help. You’ve heard this story before. Who hasn’t. But never in the woods. Never at night told by a boy who won’t call himself your boyfriend yet. And who knows you are there? No one. You open your mouth to scream but then he kisses you. Takes your fingertips that have only seconds ago been etching out an imaginary trail of blood on the window and he sucks them gently. And suddenly you’d open any door then and there just so long as he keeps holding out his hand to you. This boy, who you’ll call husband before too long.

woods ice

3.

You’re in Africa, on an island that was once the holiday paradise of Zanzibar spice dealers. A paradise where they kept their slaves. And once you know this, it’s hard to stop noticing the particular facial charactistics of everyone you meet. That narrowness of forehead. That hook of a nose. And then once you hear a certain story, it’s hard to stop looking up at the tall trees that fringe the beach. It seems the young wife of a slave owner wanted to know if a monkey would fall from a tree in the same way as a coconut does. And because she asked and asked, the husband sent a slave up to the top of the tallest tree and then shot him dead, just so the wife would stop asking. But history doesn’t record whether the man – I presume the slave was a man – curled up like a ball or fell arms and legs outstretched taking up more space than he had ever been allowed alive. History doesn’t record whether anyone cared. Whether the wife was ashamed. Whether she stopped asking questions. Or whether she was even watching. Because it’s such a paradise, this island with all the tall trees that fringe the beach.

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4.

A perfect Christmas, and now you’re watching your son and daughter run through the woods in front of you, their new woolen hats like bobbing festive baubles amongst the trees. You breathe in and smell the tang of pine, the crack of a twig under your boots, the frosting of cold air on your cheeks, and your fingers brushing over the chocolate coins you’ve kept hidden in your pocket for a surprise later. And all is good until you see the children stop dead. Your heart flutters – a dead body, an accident – until you see it. One small tree deep in the wood, festooned with coloured ribbons and handwritten wishes. And suddenly it’s enough. Your children might not believe in Father Christmas any more, you’ll soon have to bribe them to play cards with Granny, diets will kick in and moods explode, but you – and they – will always have this. Their faces turning to you, that look of wonder, a gift given with no expectation, a light in the woods.

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5.

It’s a dream you often have. Of walking through a wood and picking sleep straight from a tree. Sleep is green, slightly underripe, and its skin has a bloom that clears like mist from a window as your thumb rubs backwards and forwards over the surface. When you cup it in one hand it gives slightly under the squeeze of your fingers. Sometimes you have to pull a branch down to reach the sweetest deepest longest fruit. Sometimes it will be protected by thorns but always, when you put it close up to your face, you’ll smell your grandmother’s room – the musty softness of crocheted cushions, endless cups of tea, pie crust and that special potion she’d make herself to keep her brass ornaments shining. And just as you never questioned her how she kept going, so you never question how sleep keeps making itself itself so freely, so abundantly, available. You just keep picking it. As if it will always be there for you.

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Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, London

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I was taking a short cut to Borough Market when I came across these gates above in Redcross Way. I’d thought they might be an art installation at first, but then read some of the inscriptions, and knew I wanted to research further.

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The Crossbones Cemetery was originally an unconsecrated burial site for prostitutes (aka ‘single women’) and then later paupers from late medieval times until its closure in the nineteenth century.

In his 1598 Survey of London, the historian John Stow writes: “I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single WOman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”

It could have stayed forgotten – just as many of the women buried there – had, but evacuations by the Museum of London prior to work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s uncovered 148 skeletons, an estimate of less than 1% of the bodies buried there. Then, under the guidance of the poet, author and urban shaman, John Constable, a group was formed to protect the Graveyard from development and also to establish a memorial garden for who the gates declare as: ‘RIP THE OUTCAST DEAD’.

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It’s a very moving place, not least because the spot still feels derelict apart from the visible touches of care.

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As another sign says, it is ‘a place of healing where the wild feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is – whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer.’

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And this, I think, it’s the secret of power for me. It’s not a place where you can visit and feel ‘poor women’, although that’s obviously a part of it. It’s also, perhaps strangely given the circumstances, a place of hope – that things might be different, that everybody – whatever their gender or profession – is worth something, and also that every man or woman has the right to be treated the same.

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I really hope that the Friends of Crossbones Graveyard manage to create their garden of remembrance and that this hidden London spot is protected and given the respect it deserves, but in the meantime, here’s a poem I wrote inspired by the ‘Geese’ of Southwark (the women were apparently called ‘geese’ because of the white aprons they wore, or their white breasts bared to river visitors). There are also two videos I’ve found – one of a piece by John Constable (or Crow) and the other from a TV documentary which reconstructed one of a ‘young woman’s syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions’ found at the graveyard.

GOOSE

Catherine, Lisa, Louise, Angela,
Gabriella, Susan, Constance, Faith

It starts with the tapping of a toe,
a rush of blood, hips that swing

Anne, Jane, Mariella, Clare,
Lucy, Lucinda, Karen, May

one sassy look too far,
a dish upturned, locked door,

Sarah, Annabel, Estelle, Kay,
Alison, Christine, Jeanetta, June,

who always preferred the open road,
didn’t she? Liberty, morality,

Caroline, Sandra, Sally, Sue,
Maria, Moira, Elizabeth, Lou,

equality, justice. Two sets of law
making the same set of bones,

Geraldine, Jess, Samantha, Rose,
light, generosity, kindness, hope.

**

Here’s a clip from the BBC documentary, Cold Case, about one of the girls:

And here’s John Constable (aka Crow) performing at Halloween, 2008: