It was once said that necessity is the mother of invention. These words ran through the hall of my memory on Monday afternoon as I stood admiring a portion of our family garden that I had been employed in the process of weeding and turning over for the previous couple of weeks. The job was finished and a neighbour complimented me on my handiwork. Internally, I felt as though I had arrived on the stage of recognised gardeners ! The bed of garden contains a good number of rose trees, a pampas grass (the majority of whose sharp and biting leaves are held prisoner behind some supportive fencing; but straying hands, arms and legs beware !), a hydrangea and a glorious array of spring bulbs and plants that simply look after themselves, and yearly grow in number and capacity to offer the vibrant and varied colours that speak to all who look at them of the first signs of life at the dawn of a new calendar year.
Over the last few months I appear to have undergone a rather subtle conversion process, manifesting itself in conversations about gratitude for cooler nights that have helped maintain a longevity amongst our beautiful spring flowers not least the fragile fruit of hidden bulbs, the lack of wind to ruthlessly remove tulip blooms and blossoms prematurely, but also lamenting those same sharp frosts which have mutilated the magnolias of which I am custodian. Although not flung from a horse during this change, it has involved picking up and wielding stored equipment whose presence just a few short months ago I would only have been aware of through a cursory glance. Busying myself with this front of house activity has not seen me responding to any heavenly voice, but rather those of numerous Otley neighbours who have stopped me in my tracks, exchanging pleasantries and enquiring about Dad. At the core of this metamorphic change is my relationship with the garden.
Our garden was always the domain of my parents. Having begun their married life in a back-to-back terrace, their move to our home in 1964 (yes, one address for almost fifty seven years, and there are still other neighbours who have been there longer than us !) fulfilled particularly my mother’s dream of having a garden which soon became a shared source of pride and joy. My mother would spend many an afternoon pushing an aging mower up and down grass, which had it been sat in the barber’s chair would have been subjected to a Number One blade all over. She was skilled with both long and short handled shears, and was equally impressive with an edging tool when determining the boundary of the lawn. On one occasion having left the mower for a moment she returned to find a rat sat atop of it. Mustering a shriek, a neighbour came to her rescue with a stone, which hit the mower and sent – what was later described as a drowsy rodent – scuttling. On another occasion a wandering patient from Highroyds Hospital was found asleep on the lawn, profusely apologising when disturbed by Mum, saying that he thought it was a park ! Bless him; the garden is attached to a two bed-roomed semi-detached property, hardly Chatsworth House. Each of the three aspects of the garden has its own memories. The lawn was where we would sit as a family enjoying the summer sunshine, sometimes on the swinging seat which for a number of years was ritualistically erected around Eastertime, and whose cushioned seats were carefully housed in the garage after every use to protect them from dew, rain and other forms of dampness.
The lawn is also home to a line of three cherry trees; an aged weeper, a rather chic Amanogawa, and a standard which stands almost protectively head and shoulders above the others. The DNA profile of the weeping variety is probably closely related to my Dad’s given the number of times he has caught his head beneath its branches. With a bloodied head he would enter the kitchen passing the comment that he had come up too early when working beneath it ! There was occasional mention of the weeper’s removal, but with his head healed the veiled threat was soon forgotten. Beyond lies a second bed, again predominately housing roses, but there is a lovely diversity of other forms of plant and shrub life. Discreetly in a corner is something edible: rhubarb. On Monday I invited a couple of neighbours to come and help themselves to some of its stalks, as Dad normally does, as the harvest is beyond meeting his own needs. In return he usually receives a couple of crumbles. Personally I’m not living in hopes of these being delivered to the Presbytery anytime soon ! As a small boy I recall this part of the garden containing some lilac trees which both grew quickly and also out of vogue, so they were taken out in favour of roses (the culturing of which was a notable recreational habit of one of my predecessors at Holy Spirit, Fr. Denis O’Sullivan 1889 – 1897, who was something of an authority on them). The year before her death for Mothering Sunday I bought Mum a lilac sapling. Dad planted it so that it could be seen from the front window. It took immediately, and surprised us by budding early the following year. Mum never saw it in bloom, but touchingly on the day she made her last journey from home to church, a single stem of pure white blossom had burst forth, along with its rich scent. Almost on the fifth anniversary of that day, the green buds are waiting to mature and change their colouring. As the years pass, so we note an increase of its fragment stems.
Returning to the focus of my recent labours, the colourful and varying array of species of spring flowers at the edge of the bed reflect the canny Yorkshire approach of being hesitant to throw things away, not least bulbs given in bowls for internal displays at Christmases past, such as hyacinths and miniature tulips, daffodils and narcissi in all shapes and forms. On the demise of their initial crop they were randomly buried outside, where their presence evokes numerous happy festive memories from perhaps as many as thirty or more years ago. In those distant times of childhood and youth my own contribution to the maintenance of our family garden was being handed a bucket and implement with which to remove weeds from various nooks and crannies. It was far from a labour of love or even a voluntary contribution to Team Hird, instead it came from an overly loose tongue passing the comment that I was bored ! Vocalising any experience of boredom was virtually mortal sin in my parent’s eyes, the only remedy for which was the penitential act – literally carried out on my knees – of removing weeds.
My favourite part of our garden is at the back of the house. It is mainly pebbles (enhanced by some which were collected on forays along various beaches where holidays and days out were spent) surmounted with a variety of planters, a small rockery area and a pond. There is also a greenhouse, and yes, for the inquisitive of mind, this too has recently been given the pantry treatment – of both internal and external acts of tidying and culling – by yours truly ! The acknowledgement of which was shared – Confessional-style – and with the trepidation of a naughty child, to Dad on my first visit to him in hospital in late-March. At a distance I was granted pardon ! Fondness for this garden area probably comes from the fact that it has noticeably grown up with me over the years. In childhood it was home to a couple of pine trees each of which attracted numerous species of birdlife, and occasionally a squirrel. With the extension of the garden thanks to the reduction of space taken up by a neighbouring YEB generator came change, the removal of a privet hedge and an opening up of the space to more natural light. As a small child it was the area where I could be found sitting and playing in a paddling pool, later it was where various pets had their caged homes, and when we inherited Bracken in 1980 it became the contained and safe area in which she could roam freely, amusing us as she would follow the sunlight in order to lay out full length, basking in its warming rays. More recently it was where Dad and I would sit socially distanced for a few hours each Sunday drinking copious mugs of coffee chatting, commenting on the lack of both air and road traffic, listening to the bird life, and able to overhear conversations of neighbours also sitting outside making the most of a climatically pleasant Lockdown experience.
Of late, for many green spaces have taken on a new significance, and, as for myself, have become an outlet for time and energy, offering in due season a sense of achievement and satisfaction, or a place to exercise or, more recently, a safe environment in which to meet up with family and friends. A horticultural theme dominates the Gospel of this weekend, albeit focusing on a more rarefied form of cultivation than mere flowers or shrubs. In Jesus’ usage of the vine we are probably more able to connect with the imagery than with the vision of shepherding offered last weekend, despite our TV familiarity with Yorkshire’s own, Amanda Owen. Emphasising the need to remain a part of the Vine, which is Christ Himself, there is mention of pruning and cutting back in order for new life to be given the necessary nutrients and environment to grow and blossom, and above all enjoy a harmonious relationship with the ultimate source of life.
Gardening draws us into a new classroom and learning experience. Whether we are in attendance or not Nature is engaged at her work. Seen or unseen, above ground, below ground, life is evolving and being nurtured. With a generous spirit of accommodation what demands space in one season, retreats and makes room for its neighbour in another. When the exertion of producing a harvest rich in colour and enjoyed by the passer-by is over a process of near hibernation begins to rejuvenate that which has spent its energies for this year at least, recharging itself for a similar crop next spring or summer. Whether heads of many colours or bows of blossom benefit from a kind and gentle climate or succumb prematurely to decimating wind, rain, frost or snow, the virtues of patience, resilience and acceptance are taught, as innately plants, bulbs and shrubs hold an almost tangible and confident hope that they will be back again the following year. Some accept too the brevity of their existence. Blossoming and flourishing for a single season, whilst others age both gracefully and disgracefully, gaining all the while a memory of presence spanning decades for some and centuries for others. When it comes to diversity, tolerance and acceptance, gardens appear to have an abundance of each quality; even weeds are made welcome ! As St. Paul’s describes love, so too the growing population of a garden reflect a delight in the splendour and glory of one another’s blooming achievements. Such spaces are devoid of jealousy. A garden can teach us a lot if we are open to learning from it, working with it and giving it an assurance that we care for its over-all well-being. In standing back and observing the fruit of my own labours last week I could easily share God’s own creative statement of satisfaction when Genesis (1:12) records that “God saw that it was good.”
Let us continue to be united as a community of faith in both prayer and affection,