Notes from the garden

Garden note #4

Stacking wood
18 February 2021

Robert Frost’s evocative poem, The Wood-Pile, mourns a beautiful ‘cord’ of maple: cut, carefully stacked in the forest, and then abandoned. It is leaning precariously, sinking, long past its best and ‘far from a useful fireplace’. 

Discovered by the poet, on a wintry walk, Frost considers the apparent quitclaim of such an impressive wood-pile. Surely, this must be the action of someone who flits from one thing  to another, abandoning and forgetting past achievements – to leave so carelessly such a useful stockpile? 

To the contrary, my own thinking settles on a more likely interpretation. Surely  the person is dead. For what woodcutter would relinquish such a carefully assembled horde, other than through death?

I’ve long been a devotee of well constructed woodpiles, spotting them on walks, train journeys, from the passenger seat of the car, or occasionally in a film or something on television. As Lars Mitting showed in his book Norwegian Wood, his countrymen have huge expertise in this department, you might say elevating it to an art form.

My own efforts are more humble. No attempts at a wood-pile in the form of a leaping salmon, a perfect sphere, or a collection of small houses. My main goal is simply to get the firewood undercover, drying out  and ready for a subsequent cold snap. But even that, I know, should be done with respect and diligence. I feel this increasingly as I grow older. Knowing from whence the wood comes, how long it has been cut, and the provenance of the trees becomes important. So too is attention to the stacking.

Which is why this week I was curious to receive a delivery of firewood (for next winter) where as part of the service, the logs would be stacked for me. I watched in admiration as barrow load after barrow load was tipped in front of a young man who then stowed them to perfection. Like a dry stone dyker, he selected each piece of wood with care and then placed it with confidence in such a way that the log sat snug and neat with its neighbours, eased into an almost pre-ordained position.  In every case he was right first time. His spatial economy created an end-grain jigsaw of satisfying complexity, with never a need for a second try.

Why should such things matter, I ask myself? I am not by temperament a perfectionist or an obsessive compulsive. But the perfect order in a wood shed full of beech, sycamore, birch and ash brings an inner pleasure. It is not for abandoning. 

In fact this woodstack pays a double dividend. It will warm my home when next winter comes, and it warms my spirit now, as I pass it each morning on my way to the garden.

Garden note #3 

Snowdrops at Candlemas

2 February 2021

For such diminutive plants, it was a Herculean feat. After something like a month of frost, with the ground as hard as bell metal, and then with fresh snow falling, our old friend galanthus nivalis made it through in the nick of time. I find snowdrops always take me by surprise. After days of watchful waiting, you turn your back, and there they are.

We are blessed with many snowdrops around where I live. 

From the kitchen window I have a wonderful view of an entire bank of them sweeping down to the Pennyland Burn. Across to the right I can see expanding clumps of what I understand to be more specialised varieties, ‘well worthy’ of any galanthophile. All these are in my neighbour’s garden. 

Under the stone dykes and hedgerows round the fields, along the farm tracks and loanings, snowdrops grow in abundance, and in sheltered spots these are often the first to appear. They are completely wild.

In my own garden I have a clump near the burn that catches a good bit of sun when it’s available, and I have more recently transplanted some ‘in the green’ to a couple of dogwood circles in the ‘arboretum’. I am patiently waiting for them to spread.

Beyond the common form, the only snowdrop name I can recall is ‘Three Ships’. It is prized for being in bloom on Christmas Day. But the snowdrop’s main association is with a different festival, Candlemas. 

Now I came to this by a diverse route.

In the late 1970s I got completely drawn into the BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre. Each episode ended with a beautiful choral rendition of what I came to know as the Nunc Dimittus. The haunting music matched wonderfully with Alec Guinness as the mournful George Smiley, brought out from retirement to find the ‘rotten apple in the barrel’. 

The Nunc Dimittus opens with the words ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. This is the utterance of Simeon when he observes the infant Jesus with Mary, together in the temple for the first time, and knows he has seen the light of the world and can now himself leave it. The scene was captured beautifully by Rembrandt in one of his final works, Simeon’s Song of Praise. The occasion was part of a ruling described in the book of Leviticus, nowadays one might say appropriately forgotten, of ‘purification’ 40 days after childbirth. 

A Christian tradition grew up around this particular day. It came to be known as Candlemas and is celebrated on 2nd of February. It marked the occasion described by Simeon but was also the end of the 40 day Christmas festival, a much more extended period than the 12 days we know today.

Yet its timing resonates with something far more ancient. The day in question is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.   It is adjacent to Imbolc, the Irish festival that later became the day of St Brigid – one also associated with fertility. This day, the very middle of winter, was a time for light, for hope, for saying goodbye to the darkness and waiting for the harbingers of spring. It was undoubtedly important to the earliest people of these islands.

Later, it also became an element in the agrarian cycle – a time for hiring labour, for paying rent, and for settling debts. Candlemas is one of the Scottish ‘quarter days’, along with Whitsuntide (15 May) Lammas (1st August) and Martinmas (11 November), when such duties are similarly discharged. 

By the Middle Ages, Candlemas was fully established as a festival in the Christian calendar. Like others, it had been successfully grafted onto older stock, along with some added bells and whistles. There were candle lit processions, pageants, plays and municipal feasts. The white ‘Candlemas bells’, often planted in churchyards, were gathered into bright bunches for church decoration on the appointed day in February, and deemed unlucky to pick before it. 

The Reformation did much to dispel Candlemas. Secularisation did the rest. Yet the snowdrops remain, and this year they have taken on another significance for me. Eagerly awaited, delicate yet tough, they have arrived just when we needed them most. This year perhaps we see them in a new light, emerging through the iron-gripped cold of lockdown and leading us, we must hope, beyond it.

Garden note #2

The fieldstone

14 January 2021

During an intermission between lockdowns, I was picking up some bags of compost in the yard of a young gardener/chimney sweep/entrepreneur of my acquaintance, when I spotted a beautiful sandstone gatepost lurking in the back of his yard. 

It wasn’t hard to imagine a spot where this magnificent piece of stone might sit in my Dumfriesshire garden. I was thinking about an adjacent field, that I began renting and planting five years ago. It is known as the ‘arboretum’ by some, the ‘pagan garden’ by others, and ‘David’s crazy idea’ by the insightful few.

Seeing an opportunity, I immediately went into acquisitive mode. Without further ado, a price for the stone was agreed and the deal done – to include transportation.

A few weeks later my purchase arrived. Delivery was by something called a Manitou, a piece of expensive machinery that is commonly seen in these parts. I was given 10 minutes notice of its arrival (the Manitou, I suspect, having somehow become ‘available’ that morning). Its operator had no difficulty in deftly dropping his payload within inches of my chosen site, where it lay flat on a wooden pallet.

In the days that followed I got to inspect the sandstone gatepost more closely. It nudges towards seven feet in length and is a little under two feet at its widest point. Estimated weight (and here I go metric) 150-200kg. Its rounded top sweeps down elegantly to the base and the edges and two broad faces are flecked with markings at 45 degrees that I would guess are the product of a scutch hammer. One side is almost completely covered in these flecks, like snow in a blizzard. The other side finds them in small patches, between which the surface is smooth. 

The task was to secure the stone in an upright position. It seemed that improvised experimental archaeology methods would be required. Luckily I’ve read quite a bit about the construction of Stonehenge. The challenge would be to lift the stone sufficiently at the top to allow it to be pushed onto a round fence post. At this point it would be rolled forward and would drop into an 18 inch deep slot I had excavated for its foundation. From there, at an accommodating angle, it could (fairly easily, I thought) be pushed upright.

On St Stephen’s Day, aided by two pandemically rusticated students in our family, the placing-manoeuvre was duly accomplished, just as planned, and I’m glad to say without mishap. We then re-used the rounded ‘stob’ to pack the excavated earth and small water-worn pebbles around the base of the stone. Within a few days it stood safe, firm and solid. I was content. After all, as the Manitou driver had said, ‘it’s not as if any cattle are going to rub up against it’.

Now, of course, a single gatepost does not a portal make. Newly sited, it stands alone, the sandstone equivalent, you might say, of one hand clapping. A passing neighbour on seeing it for the first time even asked my wife if someone had died. But despite such mordant humour, this erstwhile gatepost is now a fieldstone-with-impact. Likely to disappear among surrounding foliage during Summer, in the leafless months it already has undoubted Winter presence.

I hope a local stonemason will carve some words for me in the smooth patches between the fleck marks on the stone. I have chosen a phrase from Julian of Norwich, the Medieval mystic, who despite all her multiple sorrows and tribulations, proclaimed repeatedly that ‘all shall be well’.

Her words can surely bring hope for 2021, and perhaps even for years to come?

Garden note #1

Winter pruning

4th January 2020

For over a week the garden ground has been frozen hard. Occasional light snowfall settles and turns to ice, carapacing a crusty thin layer that crunches beneath trudging feet. Along with sporadic sunshine that is almost warm in sheltered spots, this makes for a propitious time to undertake winter pruning. The rose arch is most in need of attention, but tangled in whippy stems and fierce thorns, it makes an uninviting prospect.

I demur and turn instead to easy-going hazel stems, Corylus Avellana, leathery barked and massing in vase-shaped clumps, topped with emergent catkins. Choosing the older specimens, I bring out my newly purchased pruning saw. It has come from Japan and sits snugly in a wooden sheath, hiding its tiny steel teeth and with its curved handle, looking for all the world like an 18th century pistol. 

I proceed respectfully, for the hazel is said to promote wisdom and inspiration. My saw makes light work of the task. After each cut I pull another stem free from the clump, letting in light and air. I set aside the best staves and the rest are quickly dispatched for kindling. 

Turning back to the long, elegant poles, clipping off the side shoots is easy and satisfying. Some thinner stems I weave into the top of the dead hedge, making an inexpert but satisfying trim. 

The longest and straightest stems are destined to form two wigwams in the kitchen garden. If my skills allow, they will give elegant height and a sense of order in the raised beds. When the snow and ice are long gone, I hope these hazel poles will support fresh green legumes – to grace a summer lunch.

Please enjoy these horticultural and related musings, but do be aware they don’t constitute advice in any way. All errors of practice here described are entirely my own.

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