The power of a list – a creative writing exercise for gardeners

I don’t know about you but I’ve been loving the trees at the moment. I’m hungry for them – for their blossom, their growing leaves, and most of all how they stand so strong. I need that right now.

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But there’s something else I’ve noticed during lockdown which is how I’m watching time move through how the trees change. I’m not sure I’ve been so aware of this before.

So this is the inspiration behind today’s writing prompt. Take a tree, or a plant, or even the larger more abstract, ‘garden’, and write about it at five different times. It could be at separate times of the day showing how the light changes or how busy or quiet it is, or in contrasting weathers, or through the years.

Here’s a story of mine as inspiration. Remember you can always make it up!

ps That tree above is in my local park. I was told recently it was planted in 1600 – just imagine what it’s seen. I find it so comforting to think that what we’re going through right now is just a blip to it.

 

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.

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.

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 characteristics 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.

4.

A perfect Christmas, and now you’re watching your son and daughter run through the woods in front of you, their new woollen 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.

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.

Stepping insideThe Yellowhammer’s Nest

It’s National Poetry Day today – and for this, I wanted to take at least one of our words about nature and its beauty back to where it belongs. I was dismayed recently to search for ‘Yellowhammer’ only to wade through a full page of political jargon before I got to the bird.

Really?

So for today let’s move away from spin and lies and commercial gain.

And what better than a poem by John Clare to do that?

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So here, for the poets, and observers, and gardeners, and birdwatchers, and planet savers…

STOP! I’m in danger of sounding a bit like a building society ad already, and spinning this out of control….

Because as June Jordan said, ‘

“Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.”

Let’s just go straight to the poem….

 

The Yellowhammer’s Nest

by John Clare
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
‘Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed
—Ay here it is, stuck close beside the bank
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk seeds tall and high—’tis rudely planned
Of bleachèd stubbles and the withered fare
That last year’s harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse’s sable hair.
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells—
They are the yellowhammer’s and she dwells
Most poet-like where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly to fancy seems
And that old molehill like as Parnass’ hill
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O’er all her joys of song—so leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers and streams.
Yet in the sweetest places cometh ill,
A noisome weed that burthens every soil;
For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil
To watch such nests and seize the helpless young,
And like as though the plague became a guest,
Leaving a houseless home, a ruined nest—
And mournful hath the little warblers sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.
PS… If you haven’t seen it already, you may enjoy my TEDx talk about the importance of the words we use here

The risk of blossoming, and a little nyctinasty

I’ve been obsessed with plants that open and close recently (or more properly, nyctinasty).  My new baby passion flower for example seems shy about its own beauty.

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Until ta-da, when I’m not looking…

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Ridiculously splendid! And on a writing residency in Suffolk, I even began saying good night and good morning to the plants in my little cowslip filled garden…

It reminds me of a lovely family holiday in Carcassonne two years ago for my niece’s wedding, and watching the sunflowers turn their heads towards the sun. How hard it is not to give them all personalities.

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And also also not to see some significance to the current joyful spread of the little purple plant, self-heal. With its blue and purple colour and connection to the throat chakra (helping us to all to speak up)  surely  it’s what we all need more than ever at the moment. Here’s my friend, Marian, a true friend to the earth, picking some in her garden. She’s the one who told me to look out for it, and now I see it everywhere:

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There’s no poem about this today. I am actually working on it but after flowing for a couple of lines, it’s ended up being more of a battle than usual. I’ve shut myself up! Perhaps I need more self-heal to strengthen my throat, but in the meantime here are the names (from the RHS website) for this little powerful ‘weed’, surely a poem in themselves:

heal-all  all-heal  blue curls  blue Lucy  brownwort  brunel  caravaun bog  carpenter grass  carpenter’s herb  carpenter’s square  heart of the earth  herb carpenter  Hercules’ all-heal  hook-heal  hookweed  panay  proud carpenter  sickle-heal  sicklewort  slough-heal  square stem  thimble flower

Heart of the earth – how beautiful is that?

It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from the writer, Anais Nin:

      “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

 

Lastly, a reminder, if you are interested in writing in the garden, that I put up my first creative writing prompt on Wednesday. Hopefully it’ll become a regular thing. Do make yourself a tea, get a snack, find a bit of space and join in over the weekend!

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A Trip to Tropical Tresco

See whatttttt I did there?

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We’ve just come back from the Isles of Scilly, it was the perfect holiday but interesting how loads of people have heard of them but aren’t quite sure what – and where – they are. And those who have, say ‘ah Tresco,’ as if that’s the key one. Although yes, let’s be honest, there is a particularly splendid garden there.

We stayed on two islands, Bryher, and St Mary’s. To get between all the islands you have to – obviously – rely on boats. We soon found out that the boat to Tresco got very crowded, very early. Competitive island hopping? Luckily we had an excellent captain.

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Also, let’s be honest, we legged it inelegantly from the harbour up to the garden so we could be there before the crowds. Absolutely worth it. As well as the amazing diversity of plants from all over the world, this seems to be a garden about views, and catching surprising glimpses. Perhaps appropriate given I read this in Augustus Smith’s wikipedia entry:

In 1866 Lord Brownlow tried to enclose Berkhamsted Common with 5′ steel fences built by Woods of Berkhamsted and therefore, claim it as part of his estate. Augustus Smith MP brought out a gang of navvies on a specially chartered train to roll up the fence and leave it within sight of Brownlow’s house, demonstrating his will to protect Berkhamsted Common for the people of Berkhamsted. 

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You can find out about the history of the garden on the website here, but there’s something about certain gardens staying in one family, having that one thread running through them that gives a certain quality to the place. There were spots were you certainly could feel the spirit of Augustus Smith. And not just in his collection of figureheads, many from local shipwrecks.

 

And talking of glimpses, we JUST caught a red squirrel… look again, look a bit harder…

 

But luckily the benches were sleepier. I’ve being doing a #365haikuchallenge over on Instagram – here’s my one of the day from Tresco…

lie down for a while
my cobwebs on your eyes, 
what will you dream about? 

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Ready for your close up?

God but flowers are amazing. How are we not worshipping them daily? All these were taken today at Great Dixter Gardens – and I would have walked past them all without really noticing if I hadn’t stopped at the first one and then started looking properly. And for more awe and a writing exercise, see here...

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The News From the Garden

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is earthshattering,
a blackbird’s made its nest
in the hawthorn tree,

and breaking as I write,
seedlings planted a month ago
are bursting forth, teasing

us with their rainbow hints,
but if you rub 
a leaf
between finger and thumb

you can smell summer
already; a baby is kicking 
its legs
in response at the clouds

rolling over her like a news tape
filled with sun-bites,
while over by the swings,

a camellia 
leads an uprising
of blood red against the privet,
tulips and bluebells form a late coalition,

and even the grass strengthens its position
near where this morning, at five past eleven
dizzy with dandelion flowers

the cat let a pigeon fly free.
Only the plane tree, obedient
to the season follows the prompts

while propped up against the wall
already warming itself for glory,
the first rosebud waits for her cue.

A garden poem for meditation – walking in Stand Wood above Chatsworth House


We were too early to get into Chatsworth House so walked up to the Hunting Tower in Stand Wood while we waited. It was as if we’d wandered into a magic kingdom, and I suddenly realised how many times I’d walked here before in my imagination during meditation visualisations. Here’s the poem that came from it – and a video to enjoy at the end…

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And then Imagine a safe space

Even when they say beach, I’m here:
a messy set of steps, rocks,
the sound of water, and always trees,
their roots clambering
to hug the landscape, the touch
of moss on bark, branches entwining
and above, light filtering through leaves.

I’ve been here when I can barely listen
for crying, when I want to punch
that calm voice telling me to breathe,
and even those times feeling so helpless
that pressing play has been impossible
but still within minutes, I’m there,
this place I dreamt up in my imagination

and yet today, I walked inside it,
you’re here, you’re safe, and best of all
I could walk out of it knowing next time
I shut my eyes, it’ll be waiting,
this grove deep inside me, my body shifting
to make room for it, heart growing.

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And now I’m interested – where do YOU go when you meditate?

What do you do with all your garden guides?

We went on a ‘grand tour’ of the Peak District and Yorkshire last week – only one garden a day but even so I’ve ended up with an armful of guides.

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But what to do with them now I’m back? Write a poem about them of course…

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You need to have a plan

They sit on the bottom shelf
entwined with travel books
as if Chatsworth may take up wild swimming,
Castle Howard plan a weekend break
to Finland, and just maybe Hardwick Hall
could manage the night train to Russia,

and in the same way, on winter afternoons,
I’ll pick one out to remember
the cascades, curse how I didn’t find
that fountain, reassuring myself
with how next I’ll be armed with knowledge
of every Duke in England’s family tree.

It seems the lighter the garden’s spirit
the heavier must be the plan,
but at least now I can always trace
that moment we paused,
hit by the smell of rose petals
and how the rainbow entered the lake.

 

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Snowdrops rising like lanterns

 

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Winter Garden
by Sarah Salway

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

only the vertebrae of paths holds its truest form
and even as trees hold blossom close, buds aching,

it’s still the cutting back that matters most,
while through it all the river’s artery rolls,

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

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Remembering Capability Brown – Lady Nature’s Second Husband – and a little bit of Compton Verney

 

The English landscape gardener, Lancelot (Capability) Brown died 236 years ago today, 6th February 1783 – and fittingly is remembered on Twitter, via @BrownCapability:

“Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday” wrote Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory on 7th February 1783.
Above is a photograph of that very front door – next to a branch of Prezzo. Would Lancelot have been on Twitter, would he have popped out for a pizza?
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It’s lovely today then to think of where he might have felt at home, one of those places being beautiful Compton Verney where he designed the landscape and I was lucky enough to have a residency last year. Here are some photos from that time, and below them a poem to remember him. The form of the poem is a specular or mirror, which feels appropriate given the constantly changing reflections on the lake at Compton Verney.

 

Views Reflected
by Sarah Salway

Brown’s contemporary, Richard Owen Cambridge, longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it.

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.