ONCE A CATHOLIC... by Clare Boylan
NOTHING shortens the winter so much as a garden. This morning I went to put some washing on the line and suddenly got a surge of pleasure, just as if a large, unexpected cheque had arrived in the post.
I ran around the garden like a lunatic looking for other large cheques: and there they were better than cheques! I went back indoors feeling quite mad with optimism.
The actual sighting was a cluster of strong, green spears thrusting up through the rather scabby winter grass. It was the outcome of a clutch of bulbs I had shoved into some holes in the lawn one dismal week shortly before Christmas.
I bought the bulbs too late, then left them in the porch where they sprouted palely and miserably, and then in the middle of the Christmas rush I guiltily flung them here and there in the garden to get them out of sight If there was a society to protect against cruelty to plants I would be up in court and my garden would be in council care. Instead, I have, outside my door, a vigorous assertion of spring and in a few weeks, I will have a lawn full of Wordsworth's best.
We didn't have much of a garden, growing up. Before I was born there had been roses growing in the back, but my sister hurt herself on the thorns and my cautious and overprotective father avenged her by carving up the lot. Thereafter the neat borders were liberally sprinkled with those white limestone chips that used to be employed to keep the weeds down on neglected graves.
The first real garden I remember belonged to my grandfather. I used to think it was big but in fact it was a very small walled patch embroidered like a tapestry with every kind of fruit and flowers. A cobbled path was studded with glass cats' eyes and there were plums and pears espaliered on the walls, There were trellises of roses and sweetpeas and a bank which was a crimson waterfall of nasturtiums.
At the rough end of the garden, where weeds were burnt, robust raspberries and fat, hairy gooseberries basked in the sun. In the gloom under the apple trees blazed a brilliant grove of lilies and gladioli. It was there I learnt that gardens were a contact point.
When you were bored or had been dispatched by busy adults or ditched by big sisters, there was always something to do in the garden, and a sense of acceptance. I caught rainwater in the umbrellas of nasturtium leaves, ate the peas of sweetpea or the big, sweet, squelchy raspberries, ran caterpillar races.
I spent many secret hours concealed beneath the apples trees, eating the thick, crisp, fleshy petals of the gladioli (they don't taste of anything much by the way. I tried one recently; or perhaps, like
everything else, they just don't taste the way the used to).
I'm not a real gardener. I don't know the names of things and I never mulch or prune. It doesn't matter. Plants are forgiving even if you put them down too late or in the wrong place or forget to feed them or thin them.
Although ours is quite a big unruly garden (bounded by medieval woods from which giant yellow slugs sally forth by night and dine royally on horticultural dainties) it never seems like a looming chore, as the house does. I feel the same way about the garden as I used to when I was four. It's there for me as primal therapy and unmerited reward.
When I feel uninspired or uneasy I go outside and dig or weed. In this Mood bramble banks are cleared, large areas of earth are turned over. Sometimes, when I've finished, I get an extraordinary sense of being at one with the earth.
It's partly exhaustion, but there's more than that. Just for a minute or two there is a feeling of complete tranquillity the feeling perhaps that animals have, or plants. in as much as they have feelings. It is the sensation of being part of a perfect system. I suppose this is a kind of prayer or meditation. Certainly it is medication for the over-courted symptoms of stress, unruly hormones and seasonal depression.
The sentimental poets have given gardening a bad name. The French novelist, Colette, a passionate gardener, understood it better. She described the "perfidious" scent of lilies, and recalls that when she collected them from her mother's for the May altar, "the unruly smell of the lilies would grow thick and interfere with the singing of the hymns. Several of the faithful would get up and rush out; some would let their heads droop and fall asleep, overcome to a strange drowsiness".
Gardening is magic business. It is a hand in creation. You put a little onion down in the mud and up comes a colourful bunch of flowers. You tilt a watering can at a burial mound of seeds and summon up something more perfect than you could hope to make in a lifetime.
It is also a mucky business. Images of the lady gardener with a lawn dress, a little trowel and an enchanting basket of blossoms. are the meanderings of a vapid muse.
Like all sensual pursuits, gardening is not for the fastidious. The mark of the committed gardener is filthy fingernails, thorn scratches and insect-bites and a, decent ridge of muck on the wellies. And a happy grin.
Children and gardeners know that it's fun to get filthy and that if youleep your eyes down you'll probably find something interesting.
Everywhere I go people are talking about the awful weather and the arrival of their flu but I am more interested to announce the arrival of the first scented viburnum blossoms. the delicate crocuses and snowdrops. the white and purple heather and some profuse pink thing which knows it has my affection, even if I can't be bothered to learn its name.