A visit to The Library of the Birds of London

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The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.

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My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

Gardens. Matters of life and love. And other trivia

As soon as I knew there was a Beguinage at Antwerp, I had to visit it. I’ve been obsessed with them since I first visited one in Bruges. These are communities for women, originally Roman Catholic but not a nunnery, normally wrapped around a garden.

These photographs above from my visit have been rather shamefully kept in a file on my desktop labelled ‘All the Single Ladies’, and every time I think I must do something with them, I end up singing Beyonce.

As you do.

And because I am always amazed at the synchronicity that sprinkles itself around this website, I expected… what … Beyonce may start singing about gardens. Wouldn’t that be fab!

But instead, a much more beautiful synchronicity. Like nearly everyone else in the UK, it seems, I have just finished reading Bernard MacLaverty‘s excellent novel Midwinter Break. Glorious. Go and buy.   In it, Stella and Gerry visit Amsterdam. It’s supposed to be just a holiday, but Stella has an agenda. She wants to visit the Beguinage there. Which made me whoop with delight (see where I got the better title from – although I must admit I do have Beyonce in my head right now. Beyonce and MacLaverty – now there’s a heavenly coupling).

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Look, he’s talking about Amsterdam but doesn’t he capture the Antwerp one perfectly too?

I thought I was slightly on my own with my love of Beguinages (also called begijnhofs). Situated in the middle of cities, such as Amsterdam, Bruges and of course, Antwerp, but with their backs slightly turned to the world. An enclave of protection, support and peace – an atmosphere which still exists today. There’s a waiting list, but oh my, you can still apply to live there.

From the very beginning, the women living in the Beguinages were not nuns, they could leave at any stage and marry (although they couldn’t return after), and each community had its own rules. As this piece in the New York Times says, they were looking ‘for holiness outside monastic norms.’ And perhaps not surprisingly – women wanting to live without men, whatever next – they risked persecution as ‘free spirits’.

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I imagine, as Bernard MacLaverty captures so perfectly in his novel, there are still many women who long for somewhere to live like this. The Antwerp one does allow couples, but there’s something about the atmosphere left behind – all those women making an active choice to live a different way and being welcomed to do so – that makes them a special place to visit, although perhaps a little too claustrophobic for men?

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Oh oh oh but just imagine this as your front door….

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… and, as I saw a woman do, walking just a couple of yards to the garden with your thermos of coffee and a good book…

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Peace indeed.

The last tree…

One of the highlights of the last summer was a trip to the Gothenburg Botanical Garden. There was so much to see that we decided to spread our visit out over two days, which was lucky because on our first trip, we’d completely overlooked the Sophora Toromiro…

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And why should that matter? It looks like a little, not to be rude, insignificant?

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Well, as the label above suggests, this little gem is actually one of the last remaining trees of its species. I couldn’t stop thinking about that line – that it was thought to be in danger of extinction ‘mainly due to human endeavours.’

Endeavour = to try hard to do or achieve something.

Makes you proud, doesn’t it? Maybe if the tree had been put in a special cage, or viewing room, it would be less affecting. It was also so moving to see how normal the tree was. I’d built it up in my mind. THE LAST TREE OF ITS KIND….

In my defence, it’s not often you get to see an almost extinct species, and because of that – especially in the middle of all the other green fertile bounty of the botanical garden – there was a certain thrill to it. Rather like funerals can sometimes make you think about life.

And how ordinary and insignificant – and therefore beautiful – that can be.

Here’s the poem that came up…

If this was our last night
Sarah Salway

Please let us still
watch television, let me
get angry at how you
never bother to ask
if you can change channels,
let the shepherds pie
be burnt, the tomato ketchup
finished, another bottle
of wine gone. Let the wind
catch our garden gate,
the apples lie where they fall.
Let’s not bother to call
our mothers, children, friends,
but moan as usual
about meetings and to do lists,
plan Christmas and work
on the allotment, let us finish
our books later in bed,
let me be wearing those glasses
you hate, let us turn off
our lights in unison, and for you
to whisper, I love you,
and turn it into a song,
IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.
Let me drift off to that.

Doing better in 2018

While this has mostly been a happy year for me full of garden visits, gardens and weddings, it has also been a year when all the blog posts, journal jottings and photographs of things I had wanted to share here began queuing up and arguing with each other in the dark rather than coming dancing on to the stage.

I have SO MUCH I had wanted to write about – rare trees, special benches, sea shanties, garden jewels, history gems – but maybe they are just taking their time, rummaging around in the compost heap so they can shine later!

So as Christmas comes, and 2017 closes its curtains, here’s perhaps my favourite gardeny-related photos for you… a converted ambulance selling plants and Christmas trees. An emergency relief vehicle if there ever was one.

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And while we’re on lost … posts, thoughts, opportunities to share… here’s a poem on lost gardens. I’m grateful for the poetry magazine, The Rialto, for publishing it.

Reading a book on lost gardens
Sarah Salway

Endlessly sunny, with trees a line of dots
like small boys’ knees in an old school photo

so I read it in the same way, a fascination
in the butterfly-pinned moment.

I stroke black and white grass, pick fruit
with my finger and thumb from walled gardens,

trace the serpentine walks I’d take, my full skirt
brushing at the knots until the scent of box

releases, each path could be a wish or a regret.
Can photographs be capable of happiness?

Because as I turn the page I see an open gate
beckoning to the future, and I bend with jealousy

at how they’ll never watch each other grow old
or laugh at all that time left for flourishing.

I hope to see more of you in 2018! Thank you for staying around, and also for those of you who keep a blog for all your beautiful words. I do enjoy reading everyone else!

The moon in our pocket – or why we need Lia Leendertz’s Almanac today

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Lia Leendertz is one of my favourite writers – and her latest project is so important right now as nature seems to feel more and more distant from us, and yet we appear to have a real hunger to learn more about it! The Almanac, crowdfounded via Unbound, revives the tradition of the rural almanac. As soon as I got my copy, I checked the time the sun rose and set that day, but also the moon which just filled me with joy.

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I checked the constellation of the month (Andromeda) and what I needed to do in the garden according to where the moon will be. I made a note to make an apple brandy hot toddy (there’s a handy recipe) and even noted that not all spiders are spiders… although I’m not looking forward to spotting the zebra jumping spider…

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It’s glorious. A throw back to the almanacs of the past which were used for ‘predictions about shipwrecks, floods and harvest failure’, not to mention war, hate and treason. Here’s one from a recent visit to the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp.

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Or there’s this one (below) from 1576, which predicts ‘flying locusts. They will cause the eclipse of the sun and the decay of all fruits. The locusts blow fire and smoke, their breath stinks and they are as poisonous as scorpions.’

Woah. It felt like that the other day, didn’t it? With that red sky in the afternoon and strange heavy sky.

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Funnily enough, Lia’s Almanac doesn’t predict locusts, or not that I read anyway, but it’s such a beautiful thing, and you really can keep it in your pocket. AND for under a fiver. So I wrote a poem for it…

Lia’s Almanac

Sometimes to feel the ground under your feet
you need to look up to the sky,

watch for the moon to rise as well as the sun,
let your heart burst at Andromeda’s trillion stars,

and it’s never just a bird but a redwing flying
home at the same time a housemartin travels south,

a circle, like when an honest harvest’s offered freely
from the same open hands that seed the soil,

your mouth open to drink each month’s rainfall
and your body turning too in tune with the tides,

because yes, the year will carry on without you
but how much beauty may you miss?

Sometimes to feel part of the world,
you need to carry her in your pocket.

 

ps the photograph from the top is when I took the Almanac into a meeting at the Blackthorn Trust, where I’m a trustee. This is a Steiner-based charity which works with a garden, cafe, crafts studio and therapies to help people at a point of crisis in their lives. Come and visit us – or at least our website here. We’re currently planning our own physic garden at the moment, under the care of Marian Boswall. It’s going to be extraordinary, a chance to take time for the spiritual as well as the physical.

Not just a tree – John Evelyn’s Mulberry in Deptford

We spent the day in Deptford recently, taking photographs of various street names for a family project, but I also wanted to explore a little of John Evelyn’s history, and his lost garden, Sayes Court. We didn’t find the garden exactly but…

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I love street names for the quirky glimpses of history they give into a place. Here’s Czar’s Street, named to commemorate a famous visit by Peter the Great to Deptford in 1698 to learn about shipbuilding. (Ps, don’t I have lovely models?!)

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By all accounts it was a memorable visit. Peter the Great joined in Deptford living with verve – not least carrying out important ‘research’ into ALL the pubs. One report I read even suggested that St Petersburg was based on the layout of Deptford. Wonderful.  I didn’t investigate that much further because I so don’t want it to be wrong. And then there’s this tree we stumbled on…

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This is known as John Evelyn’s Mulberry because it stands on the original plot of Sayes Court and it is known that John Evelyn had mulberry trees – both black and white.  So it’s not just an ordinary tree. It is also under consideration for the title of Tree of the Year. There are many rumours surrounding this tree – and some tremendous research carried out here  as part of Morus Londinium (Mulberries in London).

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this particular rumour that Peter the Great planted it for John Evelyn to make up for the damage he caused to the Sayes Court garden one night after a drunken rampage in a wheelbarrow was true?

After all, here’s a contemporary account of Peter’s stay at Sayes Court (taken from Sarah J Young’s facinating website on Russians in London) :

No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined. (Grey, p. 229)

In some ways though, it doesn’t matter how it got there because this tree is one of the most beautiful reminders I’ve seen of what London would have been like when all its glorious parks and gardens were blooming. There’s something poignant about this tree still (almost) standing proud in the middle of Deptford’s industrial and housing estates. It feels so friendly and it’s clear that it’s rightly very much loved by locals.

John Evelyn’s tree is shortlisted for the award organised by the Woodlands Trust – you can read about the other notable trees here.