CHAPTER 1 Beginnings
Sue and Tom with baby Rose, planting the first hedges in the courtyard at the Barn, 1988.
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
Long before I wanted to be a psychiatrist, long before I had any inkling that gardening might play an important role in my life, I remember hearing the story of how my grandfather was restored after the First World War.
He was born Alfred Edward May, but was always known as Ted. Little more than a boy when he joined the Royal Navy, he trained as a Marconi wireless operator and entered the submarine service. In the spring of 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign, the submarine he was serving on ran aground in the Dardanelles. Most of the crew survived, only to be taken prisoner. Ted kept a tiny diary in which he documented the early months of his captivity in Turkey, but his subsequent time in a series of brutal labor camps is not recorded. The last of these was a cement factory on the shores of the Sea of Marmara from which he eventually escaped by sea in 1918.
Ted was rescued and treated on board a British hospital ship, where he recovered just enough strength to attempt the long journey home overland. Eager to be reunited with his fiancée, Fanny, whom he had left behind as a fit young man, he turned up on her doorstep in a battered old raincoat with a Turkish fez on his head. He was barely recognizable, weighing, as he did, little more than eighty pounds and having lost all his hair. The four-thousand-mile journey had, he told Fanny, been “horrendous.” On top of everything else he had endured during the preceding years, that journey took a severe toll on his health. When he underwent the naval medical examination, his malnutrition was found to be so advanced that he was given little more than a few months to live.
But Fanny nursed him faithfully by feeding him tiny amounts of soup and other sustenance on an hourly basis, so that gradually he was able to digest food again. Ted began the slow process of regaining his health, and he and Fanny were married soon after. In that first year, he would sit for hours stroking his bald head with two soft brushes, willing his hair to grow back. When it finally did, it was prolific, but it was white.
Love and patient determination enabled Ted to defy the gloomy prognosis he had been given, but his POW camp experiences stayed with him and his terrors were worst at night. He was especially afraid of spiders and crabs because they had crawled all over the prisoners as they tried to sleep. For years to come, he couldn’t stand being alone in the dark.
The next phase of Ted’s recovery began in 1920, when he signed up for a yearlong course in horticulture, one of many initiatives set up in the postwar years with the aim of rehabilitating ex-servicemen who had been damaged by the conflict. After this, he traveled to Canada in search of a new life and in the hope that working the land might further improve his physical and mental strength. At that time the Canadian government was running programs to encourage ex-servicemen to migrate, and thousands of men who had returned from the war made that long Atlantic crossing.
Ted labored on the wheat harvest in Winnipeg and then found more settled employment as a gardener on a cattle ranch in Alberta. Fanny joined him for some of the two years he spent there, but for whatever reason their dream of starting a new life in Canada did not come to fruition. Nevertheless, Ted returned to England a stronger, fitter man.
A few years later he and Fanny bought a smallholding with an orchard in Hampshire. In his spare time, he kept pigs, bees, and hens as well as growing flowers, fruit, and vegetables. For five years during the Second World War he worked at The Admiralty wireless station in London, and my mother remembers his pigskin suitcase which traveled up with him on the train, packed full of home-slaughtered meat and home-grown vegetables. He and the suitcase used to return carrying supplies of sugar, butter, and tea. She relates with some pride how the family never ate margarine during the war and that Ted even grew his own tobacco.
I remember his good humor and the warmth of his spirit, a warmth that emanated from a man who seemed to my childish eyes to be robust and at ease with himself. He wasn’t intimidating and he didn’t wear his traumas on his sleeve. He spent hours tending his garden and his greenhouse and was almost always attached to a pipe, with his tobacco pouch never far away. Ted’s long and healthy life—he lived into his late seventies, and his reconciliation to some of the appalling abuses he experienced—is attributed in our family mythology to the restorative effects of gardening and working the land.
Ted died suddenly in his late seventies, when I was twelve, from an aneurysm that ruptured while he was out walking with his much loved Shetland sheepdog. The local paper ran an obituary entitled “Once youngest submariner dies.” It reveals that he was reported dead twice during the war and that when he escaped with a group of captive soldiers from the cement factory, they lived for twenty-three days on water alone. The closing words document his love of gardening: “He devoted much of his leisure time to the cultivation of his extensive garden, and achieved fame locally as the grower of several rare orchids.”
Somewhere inside her, my mother must have drawn on this when my father’s death, in his late forties, left her a relatively young widow. In the second spring afterward, she found a new home and took on the task of restoring the neglected cottage garden. Even then, in my youthful, self-preoccupied state, I noticed that alongside the digging and the weeding, a parallel process of reconciling herself to her loss was taking place.
At that stage of my life, gardening was not something I thought I would ever devote much time to. I was interested in the world of literature and was intent on embracing the life of the mind. As far as I was concerned, gardening was a form of outdoor housework, and I would no more have plucked a weed than baked a scone or washed the curtains.
My father had been in and out of the hospital during my university years, and he died just as I started my final year. The news came by phone one morning at around 5 a.m., and as soon as dawn broke I walked out through the quiet Cambridge streets into the park and down to the river. It was a bright, sunny October day, and the world was green and still. The trees and the grass and the water were somehow consoling, and in those peaceful surroundings, I found it possible to acknowledge to myself the awful reality, that beautiful as the day was, my father was no longer alive to see it.
Perhaps this green and watery place reminded me of happier times and of the landscape that had first made an impression on me as a child? My father kept a boat on the river Thames, and when my brother and I were small, we spent many weekends and holidays on the water, once making an expedition up to the river’s source, or as near to it as we could get. I remember the stillness of the early morning mists and the feeling of freedom playing in the summer meadows and fishing with my brother, what was then our favorite pastime.
During my last few terms at Cambridge, poetry took on a new emotional significance. My world had irrevocably changed, and I clung to verses that spoke of the consolations of nature and the cycle of life. Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot were sustaining, but above all I turned to Wordsworth, the poet who himself had learned:
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.
Grief is isolating and is no less so when it is a shared experience. A loss that devastates a family generates a need to lean on one another, but at the same time everyone is bereft, everyone is in a state of collapse. There is an impulse to protect one another from too much raw emotion, and it can be easier to let feelings surface away from people. Trees, water, stones, and sky may be impervious to human emotion, but they don’t reject us either. Nature is unperturbed by our feelings, and because there is no contagion, we can experience a kind of consolation that helps assuage the loneliness of loss.
In the first few years that followed my father’s death, I was drawn toward nature, not in gardens, but by the sea. His ashes had been committed to the waters of The Solent near his family home on the south coast. It is a busy channel full of boats and ships, but it was on the long, solitary beaches of north Norfolk, with barely a boat in sight, that I found greatest solace. The wide horizons were the widest I had ever seen. It felt like the edge of the known world and seemed as close to my father as I could be.
Having studied Freud for one of my exam papers, I had developed an interest in the workings of the mind. I gave up the idea of staying on to do a PhD in literature and decided that as soon as I completed my English degree, I would change direction, study the sciences, and train to be a doctor. Then, in the third year of my medical training, I married Tom Stuart-Smith, for whom gardening was a way of life. I decided that if he loved it, then I would too, but if I were being honest, I’d say that I was still a garden skeptic. Gardening seemed at that point to me to be another chore that had to be done, although it was nicer (as long as the sun was shining) to be outdoors rather than indoors.
A few years after, along with our tiny baby, Rose, we moved to the Barn, close to Tom’s family home at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire. Over the next few years Rose was joined by Ben and Harry, and at the same time we hurled ourselves into making a garden from scratch. The Barn, as we had named our new home, was surrounded by an open field, and its position on a north-facing hill exposed to the winds meant that above all, we needed shelter. We carved out some plots from the stony field around us, planting trees and hedges and making enclosures of wattle fencing as well as laboring over the ground to improve it. None of this could have happened without an enormous amount of help and encouragement from Tom’s parents and a number of willing friends. When we held stone-picking parties, Rose, along with her grandparents, aunts, and uncles, joined in the task of filling up endless buckets with rocks and pebbles that needed to be carted away.
I had been physically and emotionally uprooted, and I needed to rebuild my sense of home, but still I was not particularly conscious that gardening might play a part in helping me put down roots. I was much more aware as they grew of the garden’s significance in our children’s lives. They began making dens in the bushes and spent hours inhabiting imaginary worlds of their own making, so the garden was a fantasy place and a real place at the same time.
Tom’s creative energy and vision drove our garden making forward. It wasn’t until our youngest, Harry, was a toddler that I finally started growing plants myself. I became interested in herbs and devoured books about them. This new area of learning led to experiments in the kitchen and in a little herb garden that by then had become “mine.” There were some gardening disasters, unleashing a creeping borage and a tenacious soapwort among them, but eating food flavored with all sorts of home-grown herbs was life-enhancing, and from there it was a short step to growing vegetables. The thrill I felt at this stage was all about produce!
At this point, I was in my mid-thirties, working as a junior psychiatrist in the National Health Service. In giving me something to show for my efforts, gardening provided a counterpoint to my professional life, where I was engaged with the much more intangible properties of the mind. Working on the wards and in clinic rooms was predominantly an indoor life, but the garden pulled me outdoors.
I discovered the pleasure of wandering through the garden with a free-floating attention, registering how the plants were changing, growing, ailing, fruiting. Gradually, the way I thought about “boring” jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering changed, and I came to see that it is important not so much to get them done, but to be fully involved in doing them. Watering is calming, as long as you are not in a hurry, and strangely, when it is finished, you end up feeling refreshed, like the plants themselves.
The biggest gardening buzz I got back then, and still get now, was from growing things from seed. Seeds give no hint of what is to come, and their size bears no relation to the dormant life within. Beans erupt dramatically, not with much beauty but you can feel their thuggish vigor right from the start. Nicotiana seeds are so fine, like particles of dust, you can’t even see where you’ve sown them. It seems improbable they will ever do anything, let alone give you clouds of scented tobacco plant flowers, and yet they do. I can feel how new life creates an attachment by the way I find myself coming back almost compulsively to check on how my seeds and seedlings are doing; going out to the greenhouse, holding my breath as I enter, not wanting to disrupt anything, the stillness of life just coming into being.
Fundamentally, there is no arguing with the seasons when you are gardening, although you can get away with postponing things a little (I’ll sow those seeds or plant out those plugs next weekend). There comes a point when you realize that a delay is about to become a missed opportunity, a lost possibility, and once you have your seedlings tucked up in the soil, you are carried along, as if you have jumped into a flowing river, by the energy of the earthly calendar.
I particularly love gardening in early summer, when the growth force is at its strongest and there is so much to get in the ground. Once I’ve started, I don’t want to stop, and I carry on in the dusk till it’s almost too dark to see what I’m doing. As I finish off, the house is glowing with light and its warmth draws me back inside. The next morning when I steal out, there it is—whatever patch I was working on has settled into itself overnight.
Of course, there is no way of gardening without experiencing some disasters and ruined plans—moments when you step outside in anticipation, only to be faced with the sad remains of lovely young lettuces or a line of ruthlessly stripped leaves of kale. It has to be acknowledged that the mindless eating habits of slugs and rabbits can set off bouts of helpless rage, and the persistence and stamina of weeds can be very, very draining.
Not all the satisfaction in tending plants is about creation. The great thing about being destructive in the garden is that it is not only permissible, it is necessary, because if you don’t do it, you will be overrun. So many acts of garden care are infused with aggression, whether it is wielding the pruning shears, double digging the vegetable patch, slaughtering slugs, killing blackfly, ripping up goosegrass, or rooting out nettles. You can throw yourself into any or all of these in a wholehearted and uncomplicated way because they are a form of destructiveness that’s in the service of growth. A long session in the garden like this can leave you feeling dead on your feet but strangely renewed inside, both purged and re-energized, as if you have worked on yourself in the process. It’s a kind of gardening catharsis.