My grandmother’s garden is probably the earliest one in my memory. It was well-tended and ordered. Which makes sense because the woman has magic in her fingers. When she stitches, the lines are perfect and neat. When she cooks, you know there is an innate mathematical accuracy to the ingredients used. She doesn’t need clocks and measuring devices, she just knows. I once watched her take a hot dish out of the oven with her bare hands before I could reach inside the oven myself with my great thick oven-mitts. She snapped her fingers and told me her calluses, developed over many years, are like a glove now. Her fingers have become tough over the years, and yet, more knowing. My grandmother and I are so different, I live more inside my head, she lives more inside her body.
So her garden was a reflection of her ability to know how things are made and grown, perfecting it into order. Her old front garden was quite large and narrow. On one side, there were roses that would get more colourful as you made your way on the path to the front door. As she would get older with each of our visits from Australia, her head would fall lower and lower beneath those lush roses. She would shrink and the roses would grow. In my head, I still have an image of her crowned by three pink roses with deep centres. I also have a photo of little me, swamped by a coordinated set she knitted for me of baby pink woollen leg-warmers, mini-skirt and jumper, standing next to a fuchsia rose nearly as large as my head. Coordinated pink and me with pink cheeks. When it snowed one year, she sent us photos of the snow sitting on top of her garden like an accent she had decided upon with nature. That house has since been sold, all that coordination was fleeting and illusionary.
My mother’s garden is quite different because she doesn’t have time to tend to it. I also think the logic of her Australian garden won’t really permit her a coordinated philosophy. Things bloom and die quickly here, you can’t plan ahead too much. You have to let things be and just trim away at the edges. You also have to enjoy a certain level of chaos, or perhaps a surrender to the elements. Today, I was looking at a bunch of leaves that had been burnt darkly on the top and bleached white on the bottom from the extreme heat we’ve been having here. The brittleness and hardness of it can be at once depressing and beautiful. So I captured it, hoping to remember what it’s like, this beauty and hardness, and also enjoying its stark contrast to the picture of me in pink, standing next to pink, in a temporarily tamed logic.
One of the most memorable gardens I’ve stood in was a ‘not-really’ garden. It was a landscape I transformed into a garden imaginatively, pictorially. It was the image of the heather on the moors in Yorkshire, which I was reminded of yesterday when I read this poem by Emily Brontë. The lines, “Shadows on shadows advancing and flying/ Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying/ Coming as swiftly and fading as soon” seemed to both confirm the pleasure of, and defy my attempts at, capturing the sea of heather I tried to frame as a garden through a photograph. If you would have looked to the side of the image, you would have seen the landscape extending beyond the limited view of my frame and the illusion would have been revealed. But as it stands, the photo I have maintains the illusion for as long as I want it. I like having the illusion as well as knowing it is one. I like the contradiction of permanency and change all together. Even if it’s not always comforting and even if it is a surrender of something I often don’t want to surrender.
Gardens can be wonderfully comforting and nostalgic places, but I wonder how much of their appeal is really dependent upon comfort alone. This was described rather beautifully by Emma Crichton Miller in her essay about gardens for Aeon magazine:
“Gardens are at their most delicious at sunset, just as the light turns fiery and fades. Peonies reach globed perfection just before they fall apart. As we lie in a flower-bordered dell, the midges come to bite. It is no wonder that it is so hard to find the garden that matches our imagination. As soon as you think you have it, reality — often dark, sometimes predatory — kicks in.”
Isn’t this why images of decaying roses are so wonderful? The predatory bite that comes from watching those petals fall, one by one. It’s like smelling ripe fruit; appealing, but not necessarily reassuring because there is a whiff of sweet decay present. This is why I like watching the sky turn pink in the evenings here. It happens like a too-ripe fruit, like a predatory kick. It is beautiful, but I’m not so sure it’s about comfort; yet what exactly it is about, I can’t really say or name. Just like my grandmother’s greying head under her roses and the bleached brittleness of Australian leaves, it’s a nameless surrender I both love and hate.