THE SPIRIT OF GARDENS

Once, I remember well, when I was hungering for a breath of country air,
a woman, brown with the caresses of the wind and sun, brought the Spring
to my door and sold it to me for a penny. The husky rough scent of those
Primroses gave me news of England that I longed to hear. When I had
placed my flowers in a bowl and put them on the table where I worked,
they told me stories of the lanes and woods, how thrushes sang, and the
wild Cherry Blossom flared delicately across the purpling trees.

A flower often will reclaim a mood when nothing else will bring it back.

To garden, to garner up the seasons in a little space, is part of every
wise man’s philosophy. To sow the seeds, to watch the tender shoots come
out and brave the light and rain, to see the buds lift up their heads,
and then to catch one’s breath as the flowers open and display their
precious colours, living, breathing jewels, is enough to live for. But
there is more than that. A man may choose the feast to spread before his
eyes, may sow old memories and see them grow, and feel the answering
colours in his heart. This Rose he used to pass on his way to school; it
nodded to him over the high red wall, while next to it a Purple Clematis
clung, arching over, so that, by standing on his pile of school-books,
he could reach the flowers. This patch of Golden Marigolds reminds him
of a long border in the garden where he spent his boyhood (they used to
grow behind the bee skeps, had a little place to themselves next to the
Horseradish and the early Lettuces). There’s a hedge of Lavender full of
association, he may remember how he was allowed (or was it set him for a
task?) to cut great sheaves of it and take them to the Apple-room, and
hang them up to dry over old newspapers. To look at Lavender brings back
the curious musty smell of that store-room, where Apples wintered on
long shelves; where the lawn-mower stood, and the brooms, and the scythe
(to cut the orchard grass), and untidy bundles of bass hung with string
and coils of wire. What a wonderful place that store-room was, with the
broken door and the rusty lock that creaked as the big key turned to let
him in: to reach the latch he had to stand on tip-toe, and to turn the
key seemed quite a grown-up task. There was all a garden needs stored in
that room. It had been a dining-room once, a hundred years ago, a room
where the members of a bowling club convivially met and fought old
games; bias, twist, jack, all the terms ring in his ears, even the click
of the bowls, sharp on the summer air, comes back; and the plastered
ornamental ceiling had sagged and dropped away here and there, showing
the laths. There was a big dusty window, across which the twisted arms
of a Wisteria stretched, and a broken window seat in it that opened like
a box to hold the bowls. Just the hedge of Lavender brings back the
picture of the boy whose cherished dreams hung about those four walls;
who, having strung his bunches, neatly tied, on wooden pegs along the
walls, and spread his papers underneath to catch the falling seeds, sat,
book in hand, and travelled into foreign lands with Mungo Park. There,
on his left, and facing him as well, shelves lined the walls, and Pears,
Apples and Medlars were arranged in rows, while by his side, placed on
the window ledge to catch the sun, were fallen Nectarines, Peaches and
big yellow Plums set to ripen.

What curious things a garden store-room holds! The tins, slopped over,
of weed-killer, of patent plant foods, of fine white sand. The twisted
string, criss-crossed upon a peg of wood, covered with whitewash, the
string that serves to guide the marker for the tennis-court. Then an
array of nets to cover Currant bushes, and bid birds beware of
Gooseberries, Cherries and ripe Strawberries. A barrow, full of odds and
ends, baskets, queer little bags of seeds, a heap of Groundsel gathered
for a bird and lying there forgotten. Like a Dutch picture, half in
gloom with bright lights on the shears, and along the edge of the
scythe, and on the curved wire mesh made to guard young seedlings. Empty
seed packets on the floor, bright coloured pictures of the flowers on
the outsides, a little soiled by the earth and the gardener’s thumb.

Plant memories, indeed! A man may plant a host of them and never then
recapture all his joys. There’s his first love garnishing a rustic arch,
a deep yellow Rose, beautiful in the bud—William Allen Richardson: she
wore them in her sash. He can laugh now and see the long yellow hair
floating in a cloud behind her as she ran, and the twinkling black legs,
and the merry pretty face looking down on him from between the leaves of
the Apple-tree she climbed. He grows that Apple in his orchard now, and
toasts her memory when the first ripe fruit of it shines on the dish
before him at dessert.

The Clove Carnation with its spice-like scent he bought from a barrow in
a London slum, brought with care—wrapped in paper on the rack of the
railway carriage—and planted it here. This Picotee he hailed with joy in
the flower-market at Saint Malo and carried it across the sea, each
bloom tied up to a friendly length of cane. His neighbours marvel at his
pains, but it recalls many a happy day to him.




There, in a corner under a nut-tree, is a grass bank thick with Primrose
plants—another memory. A picture comes to him from the Primroses very
clear, very distinct, a picture of the world gone black, of a day when a
boy thought heaven and earth purposeless, cruel; when he ran from a
garden to the woods and threw himself on a bank, covered with Primroses,
sobbing and weeping till the world was blotted out with his tears,
because his dog had died. It had been the first thing he had learnt to
love, the first thing he had had to care for, to look after. All his
childish ideas were whispered into the big retriever’s silky coat. They
had secret understandings, a different language, ideas in common, and
the dog’s death was his first hint of death in the world. Years after,
when he planted this garden, he gave a place to Don, and planted the
Primroses himself. The earth was kindly and the flowers flourished. The
earth is kindly, even your cynic knows that and marks the spot where he
hopes to lie, and thinks, not sourly, of the Daisies over his head.

There is something more than memory in a garden. There is that urgent
need man has to be part of growing life. He must have open spaces, he
takes health from the sight of a tree in bud, from the sight of a newly
ploughed field, from a plant or so in a window-box, a flower in his
button-hole. Men, who by a thousand ties are held at desks in cities,
look up and hear a caged thrush sing, and their thoughts fly out to
fields and the common wayside flowers, and, for a moment, the offices
are filled with the perfume—indescribable—of the open road.

[Illustration: A PRIMROSE BANK NEAR DORKING.]

There is that in the hum and business of a garden that makes for peace;
the senses are softly stirred even as the heart finds wings. No greeting
is as sweet as the drowsy murmur of bees, in garden, lane or open heath.
No day so good as that which breaks to song of birds. No sight so happy
as the elegant confusion of flower-border still wet and glistening with
the morning dew.

I heard a man once deliver a learned lecture on the Persian character,
full of history, romance and thoughtful ideas. Towards the end of his
discourse I began to feel that he, indeed, knew the Persian inside out,
but that I could catch but a fleeting and momentary glimpse of his
knowledge. Then, by way of background to an anecdote, he mirrored, with
loving care and wealth of detail, Oriental in its imagery and
elaboration, the gardens in a palace. There was a stream of clear water
running through the garden, and the owner had paved the bed of the
stream with exquisite old tiles; white Irises bloomed along the banks,
white Roses, growing thickly, dropped scented petals in the stream. I
have as good as lived in that garden; I saw it so well, and what little
I know of the Persian I know from that description. Omar is more than a
dead poet to me now; I can smell the Roses blooming over his grave.

There should be a sundial in every garden to mark the true beginning and
the end of day; some noise of water somewhere; bees; good trees to give
shade to us and shelter to the birds; a garden-house with proper amount
of flower-lore on shelves within; a walk for scent alone, flowers grown
perfume-wise; a solitary place, if possible, where should be a nest of
owls; a spread of lawn to rest the eyes, no cut beds in it to spoil the
symmetry, and at least one border for herbaceous plants. If this is
greedy of good things leave out the owls—that’s but a fanciful thought.
Do you know what a small space this requires? Those who might be free
and yet choose to live in towns might have it all for the price of the
rent of the ground their kitchen covers.

[Illustration: SIR WALTER’S SUNDIAL, ABBOTSFORD.]

There are those aching spirits to whom no land is home, whose feet go
wandering over the world; gipsy-spirits searching one must suppose for
peace of mind in constant new sights. For them the well-ordered garden
with its high walls, its neat lawn, its fair carriage-drive, is but a
dull prison-house, and even if in the course of their wanderings they
stray into such a place their talk is all of other lands; of scarlet
twisted flowers in Cashmere; of fields of Arum Lilies near Table
Mountain; of the sad-grey Olives and the gorgeous Orange groves of
Spain; the Poppy fields of China, or the brightly painted Tulips growing
orderly in Holland. We with our ancestral rookery near by, our talk of
last year’s nests, or overweening pride in the soft snows of Mrs.
Simpkin’s Pinks, seem to these folk like prisoners, who having tamed a
mouse proclaim it chief of all the animal world. But ask of the Garden
of England and the flowers it affords and see their eyes take on a
far-away look as the road calls to them, and hear them at their own lore
of roadside flowers, praising and loving Traveller’s Joy, the gilt array
of Buttercups, the dusty pink of Ragged Robin, and the like sweet joys
the vagabond holds dear. This one can whistle like a blackbird; that one
has boiled the roots of Dandelions (Dent de Lion, a charming name) and
has been cured by their juices. He knows that if he sees the delicate
parachutes of Dandelion, Coltsfoot, or of Thistle-fly when there is not
a breath of wind, then there will be rain. They read the skies, hear
voices in the wind, take courses from the stars, and know the time of
day from flowers. These men, having none of the spirit that inspires
your gardener, see the results of the work and smile pleasantly, ask,
perhaps, the name of some flower, to please you, know something of
soils, praise your Mulberries, and admire your collection of Violas, but
soon they are off and away, breathing more freely for leaving the
sheltered peace of your well-kept place, and vanish to Spitzbergen or
the Chinese desert in search of what their souls crave. We are
different; we sit in the cool of the evening, overlooking our
sweet-scented borders, gaining joy from the gathering night that paints
out the detail of our world, and hope quietly for a soft, gentle rain in
the night to stiffen the flowers’ drooping heads. We English are
gardeners by nature: perhaps the greyness of our skies accounts for our
desire to make our gardens blaze with colours.

We have our memories, our desire for peace, our love of colour, and, at
the back of all, something infinitely more grand.

“No lily muffled hum of a summer bee
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
… Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who knows takes off his shoes.”

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