A weighty title to warn you – this one aint goin’ to be easy!
Problem no. 1: finding a first pic to introduce this theme; and then the pics to follow… Right. I think I have it.
Sissinghurst, from my scanned slides of my 1995 trip. Reading Jane Brown’s Vita’s Other World in our beautiful suburban garden as Francois lay dying in late 1993 was a turning point in my view of myself as a gardener and today I often think of Brown’s evocative writing, and of Vita’s cry of “Never Never Never”. And of the subsequent debates about how Sissinghurst has changed (for the worse?) under National Trust curatorship, right through to Adam Nicholson’s Sissinghurst – An unfinished history. You see: I, down in the lower parts of Africa, I too feel a bond with, even a kind of ownership of this garden, perhaps because I’ve read every word Harold and Vita (and quite a few others) wrote about it, partly because I’ve wondered through it in three seasons and in different years. And in my memories the crowds aren’t there.
And more than partly because my own garden seems to me to share with it a rather random rightness, an intellectual and romantic reasoning. I’ve written passionately about it, and dreamt intensely of it. I am, of course, talking of the garden in my head as much as of the one visitors see. Yes, there is hubris in the comparison. If you cannot accept that, please forgive me.
Five years before becoming more than vaguely aware of Sissinghurst, or of Great Dixter, I determined that my cottage (today called ‘The House that Jack Built’) would stand in a meadow amongst grasses and wild flowers. I would garden elsewhere, but not around my house. So you can imagine the impact my first visit to Great Dixter in ‘95 had on me, when I took the above photo.
In the years since ‘95 my garden has developed, and I’ve written widely about it at Mooseyscountrygarden.com and on my blog. Wandering through all those English gardens, it was the motivation for a formal structure in my wild valley I was seeking. And eventually the obvious dawned on me: to develop the axis from the big house’s front door, already established by the first set of brick steps. Below, a chronological series of shots taken along that main axis with various garden areas branching off it to either side.
Twenty years on what started as a vague dream has grown into a maturing reality. Sequoia Gardens consists of 6ha of gardens, some intensely formal although little is cultivated to a precise degree. Some is no more than paths cut through the natural growth with possibly a few shrubs or trees added. The arboretum across the valley visible in the above photo is growing into a delightful space full of secret paths and unexpected plants. It is my father’s greatest contribution. He was always a tree-man rather than a gardener.
And now Sequoia Gardens is in the market. I have overruled my cries of ‘Never Never Never’. I can not indefinitely maintain the garden, let alone develop it to the next level. Thus my pondering on this ponderous topic. And here endeth the introduction.
ROOTS OF BEAUTY
I have had, all my life, a deep fascination with the business of aesthetics. Not just with beauty, but with the context and cause – and cost – of beauty. Living in Africa brings an added frisson to my preoccupation with the glories of human civilization. Africa is beautiful. There is possibly more beauty undiluted by human involvement than anywhere else in the world; often my esoteric obsession has seemed pure decadence in this context.
The foreground ‘belongs’ to my cousins and we holiday here, leaving as slight a footprint as possible. For the first 60 years the farm was in the family nothing that could be termed a permanent structure was built. Beyond the river lies Zimbabwe and the heart of Africa. Click to enlarge and see the context in which I must judge beauty.
Even in my own garden I constantly vie with nature for attention. In fact I embrace this tension and find in it one of the strengths of my gardening. The above grove I have often shared: nothing other than the light pruning out of dead branches every few years is the work of man, but it is one of the most beautiful spots in the garden. Wholly indigenous, nay: wholly endemic and unplanted.
Why then the obsession with the conscious manipulation of nature, the arrangement of the parts to create an effect? What primal force is at work in me? The Ellensgate Garden is the most formal and cerebral of my gardens. I search it for a justification. As best I recall, these were my motivations:
1) I knew from my extensive visits to mainly UK gardens in 1995 that I loved the juxtaposition of formality set in a wider natural context. Also a lifetime of interest in domestic architecture had early on spilled over into the manipulation of garden spaces.
2) At a time when the valley was much more open, I wanted an enclosed introspective space. Friends on The Mountain had years before built a garden of small scale in vast space which had struck a chord.
3) My parents were turning 70 and I wanted to gift them a garden on the axis from their living room, as the first of the formal areas along the main axis. The above photo was taken from the centre of the living room bay window and shows the axial nature of the relationship.
4) My dad had recently acquired the gate from Ellensgate, his parental home in Pretoria (today a guest house by that name), which had been made by his father in the early 1930s.
5) Quite organically the decision came to pay tribute to the building materials associated with family homes: the black slate of Ellensgate; the sandstone of the family farmstead built four generations ago by early settlers in the Eastern Freestate; sequoia wood off the farm (after which we named it) and red brick to tie in with the existing garden walls, and (shhh) as a tribute to Sissinghurst. As I thought of this tiny square space, the exact proportions of my father’s dream room in his dream house, I knew that a symmetrical crucifix plan paying homage to the gardens of Islam was the only possible way to go. The plaque on the gate lived in my father’s bedside drawer throughout my youth. We ceremoniously reunited it with the gate on their 40th wedding anniversary. The gate will move with me, and replacing it is one of the 2014 projects.
So, to get back to our current topic, the roots of beauty: I can justify my reason for making this particular space on many levels. I guess I could analyse and justify my other spaces and not dismiss them as pastiche, imitation or pretence, or – worst of all – as pretty. I could justify having created ‘beautiful spaces’. But why the pressing need to create them? That is the stuff of serious philosophy. Enough that it is there.
FROM CREATE TO CURATE
Francois was an actor and theatre director. I remember him lamenting that as the curtain dropped on the final night, nothing tangible was left of the act of creation. Which of course often led to discussions on the intangible remains… On the opposite end of the scale, the oldest known human ‘creations of beauty’ date back 77 000 years and come ironically from a cave called Blombos (Flower Bush) at the very southernmost tip of Africa – well, on the coast, 120km and less than half a degree away from the tip, which is pretty close!
Moments in the garden might be ephemeral – like this shot of the light beginning to break through the mist – but the garden itself is somewhat more substantial. Which doesn’t mean it will last 77 000 years. On the contrary: three years of neglect will destroy much of it, and I don’t expect a visitor at the turn of the next century to even realise joyfully: here once was a thing of beauty…
You don’t have to be a gardener yourself to instinctively understand: gardens take more curating than most other things that might be called art. And much of the joy of gardening lies in that curating – especially when managed by the creator or an heir, spiritual or otherwise. The Sissinghurst debates mentioned in my first paragraph (and others on famous gardens) have criticised the curation process from many, often opposite, angles. Some say the preserving in aspic of someone else’s vision leads to twee fakeness. Others say Sissinghurst has changed too much to accommodate the huge crowds and to extend the seasons. One can imagine Harold and Vita returning to their beloved garden and being in turn delighted and mortified. Fact of the matter is – sooner or later the creator of any garden moves on. A new owner steers the garden on a new course, or the garden ceases to be, or, very occasionally, an artificial curating process starts.
How does all of this affect me? Much (but not all) of my gardening has after 30 plus years become curating rather than creating. I would love to up the standards of curation – but can’t afford it. I would love to complete a few more acts of creation – but can’t afford it. And I’m not talking money only. I’m looking at cash available, but also at financial investment, and particularly time and energy invested. I am looking at the fact that selling Sequoia Gardens improves the chance that it will continue to grow – if I manage to sell to the right person.
Above all I cannot and will not dictate a preserved in aspic future. I have done what I needed to do. Or rather as much of it as I can manage to do. I have created beauty. But the future of that beauty, and its future development, I must throw to the universe. My garden is open to the public because I believe it a moral imperative to not keep it to myself. In the same way I must now open up the ownership, just as I have the enjoyment. And I must trust that in that way the beauty I created will last for longer than if I cling desperately to it.
I DREAM A DREAM
Somewhere in the world there is someone to whom 15 acres of garden and an excellent team to look after it – as important to me that they are retained as that the garden is loved – will be a dream come true. Most people see such a large garden as a liability, not an asset. But sooner rather than later I dream I will find a buyer who will love the garden and appreciate the fact that every year enough timber is harvested on the farm to substantially reduce the cost of maintaining it…
(Play music, and zoom in over distance and time)