Eighteen months ago, my family moved out of London to the North Essex countryside, and found ourselves in possession of a one acre garden. At first this fact was primarily acknowledged in a series of entries into our lengthy spreadsheet of new house tasks: ‘get a gardener’, ‘mow the lawn’, and ‘put fence around pond to stop children drowning’.
But week by week as the first lockdown wore on, I found myself wandering through the garden, dwelling on small details – a drastic prune to rejuvenate a forgotten hydrangea – and romantic fancies – establishing a nostalgic herb garden and cultivating wildflowers amongst our rampant rye grass. I started to commit to laborious tasks like turning piles of compost and planting out a hedge and found that with the expectation of imperfection and incompletion there also lay a solace. Time started to soften and surround, no longer meting out my day.
And it was at this point that I turned back to look at myself and recognised my father. For hours of my childhood my father pottered around our garden, pondering some seeming tedious detail after another, then cautiously enacting some idiosyncratic plan with mysterious slowness. And so I found both myself and my father drawn to this new garden, in synchronised pottering. “Look over here” I say, excited to discuss the merits of bark mulch, while dad concerns himself with the apparently excessive tree cover in the orchard. Then we reflect on the ideal sweep of the lawn and what ground cover could create variety with minimum work.
I cannot express how singularly satisfying I find this time. And surprising. As we often joke, I am set to ‘fast speed’, while my husband is generally ‘medium speed’. My dad is definitely at least a few notches down. My younger self was a proud ‘doer’, following the women in my family who scorn procrastination and cut through discussions with swift decisiveness.
"Anybody who wants to rule the world should try to rule a garden first."
I think what has happened is that inch by inch I have synched with the rhythms of the seasons and slowed into an intimacy with the peculiarities of this tiny yet fascinatingly complex piece of the world. I wonder now about where the garden wants to go next, what the lay of the land is suggesting, and what might be the next small move in that direction. A relief comes in finding my ‘right size’ in relation to the land: my actions have clear repercussions, yet I am never in control and always stumbling on surprises. It’s a relief I think because it is honest: it feels true. No ‘fake it till you make it’ for my humble veg patch.
As this discovery was dawning, I was working with an organisation who put me in touch with the powerful analogy between working effectively in complexity and gardening. It started to clarify my discomfort with some of the approaches to complexity in the social arena focused on clever strategies, tools and modelling. My hunch is that these are designed to qualm our existential angst by finding new ‘things to do’. ‘Shifting mindsets’ is a common refrain, and it seems like this shift is indeed expected to happen above the shoulders as a product of rational discourse and reflection. I rather think that what we need, and perhaps what we are really yearning for, is a different way of ‘being’ in the world – hand, heart and head – if we are to partner with the system, with life, with nature.
This way of being is far less a learning than a remembering. Human beings have always been immersed in complexity – we are complex beings held in a complex community in relationship with a complex ecosystem. And we were – are – pretty good at it. To awaken these memories – these patterns of being in the world – we need a stimulus, not just an abstract idea or rational argument. For me it was the time spent simply being in the garden that awoke a different aspect of myself, inherited from my father and those who came before him. I wonder what it would be for you? Where can you experiment with a different way of being? What is the inheritance that can carry you forward?