from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 9 July 2011

the crucible of the garden/hortus conclusus

I'm noticing more and more that the courtyard between the house and the wider world is becoming a really important locus for me, both as an imaginative starting point for my experience of the world and as an actual starting point 'on the page' in much of my writing. It reflects and symbolises too my intense relationship with 'threshold' zones: cuspal places and times, borderlands and boundaries, 'nomanslands', and the 'interface' between what we understand as 'self' and 'other'.

In the photo above, neither the colours nor the sense of openness do it justice. I've taken this photo at dusk from halfway across the courtyard. It faces nor'nor'west, and at my back is our stone-oak-and-glass house, which The Man physically built himself (or rather converted from an old barn). The courtyard is bordered on the left (southwest) side by a quarryface, from which the original barn-builders took the stone; on the right is the valley and tiny stream with the hill rising beyond it, and ahead is the small vegetable plot with TM's toolshed topped by what I call tongue-in-cheek my 'garret' space behind it (one long loft-like room where I work, and that contains the furniture I brought from my old home that wouldn't fit in TM's already-furnished house). A large oak tree overhangs the courtyard, and yet it is still light; it's full of plants and birds.

I spend as much time as I can out here, taking my writing out when it's possible. Here, I feel myself secluded in a way that allows contemplation, but still in contact with the natural world in a way that is not possible inside a house (though a remote wooden thatched cottage facing south over Dartmoor, rented when my daughter was young, with its wild woodland garden and resident bee-swarm in the double-skinned wooden walls, was pretty close to feeling as comfortably permeable to wind and sun and the sound of rain as I like and need).

TM and I differ in preferences. TM likes rolling pastoral landscapes where humankind's touch is clearly visible; part of it; and a permanent home is a refuge. I need wild places – sea, granite edges, moorland and mountains, ancient woodland, rivers – places where I can look in all directions and not see human habitation (though of course the human hand is visible in the shaping of all British landscape, sadly) as accessible as possible to me. (I say this knowing that 'wild' in the UK is scarcely really so, though the Celtic fringes offer a meal, and the moors and coasts of the southwest, smaller reflections, offer a taste.) I'm more naturally nomadic; given the choice (not a lot lately for a number of reasons) I like to lose myself with a tent and a book and a small fire (and a horse or pony would be a lovely companion, as has been the case in the past for me) and not be stumbled-upon by anyone else and where 'home' is wherever I happen to be at the time.

It also seems to me that we cannot 'own' land, and stamping our mark on it too heavily can deface it; if, as I believe, everything is transient, our happiness surely depends on our allowing ourselves to roll with that fact, rather than hang on tightly to that which cannot be permanent or 'ours'. Nonetheless, I understand the impulse to make somewhere one's 'own'; and if Julian Pratt's stewardship model holds – if we have made something we are entitled to 'own' it – then to have built one's own house and made one's own garden surely goes a big way towards being able to call that place 'mine'.

So TM and I are gradually finding ways to accommodate differences, and to allow this place to be both refuge and place of fusion with wilder ways; and safe margin and corridor for the native inhabitants of the natural world away from industrial development, pesticides, herbicides, intensive farming practices in general and noise.

The area above the quarryface is also ours – well, TM's, as my income and house prices in my native and/but desirable-to-many-ex-city-dwellers Southwest of England do not make a good match (or any kind of match apart from renting) – and is a small north-facing very sloping meadow with a woodland margin, a big (luckily flat – old silage pit) organic veg plot (we are aiming towards more-or-less sustainability in food-growing; as one vegetarian and one vegan, the veg mostly go the distance) and apple trees. This is beautiful; we're so lucky, and, courtesy of TM's willingness to listen (though not without a great deal of initial resistance!) to my desire to not make it all neat and cultivated, we also offer shelter to a flourishing ecosystem, including foxes, badgers, bats. If I did not have other and significant ties here, I might well have migrated, before meeting TM, to a wilder and less inhabited Celtic fringe area; nonetheless Devon is very beautiful, and lush. The 'meadow' is a compromise for us both.

Interestingly this little hidden valley is now hosting maybe half a dozen individuals, couples and small groups who are all focused on the organic and sustainable model, and have sunk money into a few acres each to cultivate on a permaculture, agroforestry or small-smallholding basis. Food-bartering is becoming a possibility, and now the bees and butterflies have a wider range to forage on unsprayed plantlife.

The courtyard is something else again. It's a kind of omphalos. It somehow contains and intensifies experience, both imaginal and feeling-level. It feels like the crucible of alchemy, in which intense containment creates transformation (I'm speaking here of the subtle process of transformation of the human soul, spoken of by figures such as C G Jung; not the cruder supposed-form of physical lead-into-gold that the alchemists of the Middle Ages let the uninitiated believe was the purpose of the process). And it also brings a quality of deep peace and contemplation (and where I can be just a yard from a visiting woodpecker, the great tits and chaffinches, and where everywhere I look are bees – much rarer now than they should be, globally speaking). I spend quite a lot of solitary time in it; but also TM and I 'meet' here with our joint morning meditation when the weather allows it, or over a cup of tea.

In this way it's like the hortus conclusus of the 1400s in Europe; the enclosed garden with its magical and esoteric symbols of fountain/flowing water, roses, a central focus and paths, all containing a process of quiet reflection that allows transformation. This kind of garden (and it might simply be a tiny enclosed space out-of-doors anywhere that's reasonably secluded) of course mirrors mythical/symbolic gardens that represent a state of purity, such as the Garden of Eden; a return to some kind of essential clarity unmuddied by the rush and heave of the drive to acquire, 'better' oneself materially, do battle with time etc that characterises so much of our outer-directed struggle.

And of course this garden is actually an inner state; and I know how very fortunate I am that here at home is a small physical space that acts as midwife, over and over, to that state.

The Scottish poet-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay was in the process of creating a hortus conclusus at his Little Sparta when he died. If you're interested, there's a link here below; though it will tell you little of the spiritual processes associated with such a garden, it's nonetheless interesting.


  1. I've posted this comment on behalf of Beatrice from Switzerland (and I should say that in this like other parts of Europe renting one's home rather than owning it is common practice, unlike in the UK):

    The little great tit hesitating on a branch whether to attempt the flight in the rain to the sunflower seeds still hung up for it – creature so close in almost a garden.

    I don’t own this garden; and yet I do. I can leave whenever I want to and yet I stay.

    My idea of shelter and home: to seek it wherever and from whomever I need it, to be able to leave, walk out and on and come back to it; to risk being thrown out of it rather than not to feel free. The idea of owning a place that will have to be my home might make it look like a prison rather than a pride.

    To abandon the idea of owning for that of borrowing and lending – is not that, what our sojourn on this planet implies? I know, this, my attitude also shifts off responsibility to look after man made shelter to others, those who own the places. Let them care and I will take responsibility for other things.

    Getting familiar with a place is what makes it dear to me, makes it my home, and therefore there are many places I can think of where I feel at home. The word ‘familiar’ is translated by ‘vertraut’ in German, which has got to do with ‘trust’, a place you have come to trust. What more can home be!

  2. Beatrice I really like what you have to say, above.

    Like Beatrice, I don't own property, and never have. I've always rented. For me it's been partly because on a freelance income I can't afford to buy in my native Westcountry (where there's also a big problem with 2nd homes), but also because I have big political and philosophical reservations about property ownership; and contrary to many people's views I too share Beatrice's sense of being freer renting than I might feel owning. Anyway, each to their own.

    I love what Beatrice has to say above about 'vertraut' - trust/familiarity.


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