The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together...
When I was training to be a counsellor, a friend mentioned that a good psychotherapist needs also to be a gardener.
Something about that conjunction delighted me. At that time, though I was partly responsible for a large garden, my time spent tending it was more theoretical than actual, with a partner, a young family, a number of animals and a part-time training. Oh, and a full time business. This meant that the garden, its borders blurring into a wood on the edge of Dartmoor, was an untamed riot – which actually I have to admit to loving.
I’ve known forever that a major source of inspiration for me is being outside amongst plants, animals and birds in the particular alive silence of a garden.
When I moved, my garden was smaller, though still backing onto woods – in this case a little copse. As my situation changed and my responsibilities decreased, so the time I spent in the garden increased slightly. Both those gardens were home to a variety of creatures: flycatchers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, goldcrests, buzzards, an occasional roe deer. In the second one, I had a compost heap and a small vegetable patch; an apple and a cherry tree; herbs and a wonderful hand-made wooden chair under the willow tree where I could sit and read, write, dream, and watch the tits and warblers picking the buds and insects. Across the lane was a stream which tumbles into a pond; in summer I’d take a sleeping bag and fall asleep to the sound of water and owls.
I’ve moved again (and again since writing this); and now, though I’m surrounded by a large and lovely garden, it’s not mine. I like to think, then, of the whole world outside my door as being my garden; I step onto a bridlepath which takes me – again – through woodland, down to the estuary. And I have no responsibilities for maintaining the garden surrounding my cottage*; and I’m not silently reproached by weed-encroachment when my working life is too busy. My landlords are generous about my using their garden. All of the benefits and none of the work, you would think.
And I am struck by how much it affects me, this not having a garden that I can call my own. At the risk of sounding like a spoilt prima donna, I would be tempted to tell you the truth – my writing suffers because I no longer have one.
Writers need gardens, even if they’re only a square yard or two in size. For a start, there’s the need, prevalent amongst creative ‘space cadet’ types, to keep oneself in one’s body, bare hands in soil and dirt; a counterpoint to all that head stuff.
Secondly, a garden helps remind you of the cycle of things. All that digging and composting; then the planting of seeds and the waiting while nothing appears to be happening (although actually there’s a frenzy of activity underground, out of sight); then the joy when the first spikes of garlic appear, and the fragile shoots of new beans, turning so quickly into robust pod-bearing plants. Weeding and hoeing; harvesting; recycling of the nitrogen-rich haulms back into the soil. Leaf-fall. Then the fallow period: not dead, but resting, incubating.
One of the worst things for a writer is that period after finishing a creative project and before new ideas have started to seed themselves. There is that sense of panic: perhaps that was it; the wells have dried up forever. A garden reminds you that spring does return, and that the resting period is not in fact a sterile time, but a time of regeneration and renewal. (Was it Hemingway who said that a writer needs to allow the well to fill up again?) A garden’s a good lesson in trust; all you have to do is wait, though you can help things along by preparing the ground.
Gardens need a balance between containment and chaos, between borders and blurred edges, between weeding and leaving alone, between cutting back and letting nature do her thing.
Writing too is a balance between the wild excesses of the imagination and the taming instincts of the editor. Passion and restraint; engagement and objectivity. A lot of people start with thought; I prefer to start with imagination, which comes from a place other than the intellect. So in my own work and in my workshops, I emphasise giving the imagination its head at first; only reining it in after it’s starting to slow or go off-course. I think in writing as in gardening it helps to pile on the manure and be over-generous in the sowing. You need to allow for seeds that don’t germinate, and the tithe to the birds and animals of the unconscious. Weeding is a more satisfying occupation than trying to force plants out of barren, underfed or simply the wrong soil, and you can be selective in the thinning out process, as well as in what you choose to harvest.
Of course timing’s important. To return to my original metaphor, we all know how easy it is to kill a plant by digging it up before it’s grown strong roots. And I would rather have a garden that’s a riot of scent and colour and exuberance, complete with nettles and butterflies, than a poor caged municipal-straight creature. Clearly I concede, though, that it helps to be able to walk in the garden, see the plants and pick the fruits, and that choosing, shaping and pruning all have their season. Nonetheless in a culture that does not cultivate imagination, most writers will have come up against the squeezing tendencies of the critic and editor, internal or external. The best thing you can do for yourself is to close the gate, fortify the walls and get on with the growing process, only letting the critic in for serious pruning and weeding after the garden is well-established.
Gardens are sacred places. The walled garden is traditionally watched over by Hermes, the mercurial god of communication who is intrinsic to the alchemical process, and the guardian of contained spaces (remembered in a diminished form in our phrase ‘hermetically sealed’). Here imagination blooms. Let it flower freely!