I have no recollection why I put Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges (1935) on my Amazon wishlist, but I’m assuming it was either because of a blogger or something Slightly Foxed mentioned (any guesses/answers?) – but it was enough to get my good friend Clare (not Leighton) to send this beautiful Little Toller edition to me for my birthday last year. And where better to read a book about a garden, thought I, than in a garden. So over the past few days, I’ve been reading it in study breaks from doing DPhil editing. And reading it in a hammock. Jealous at all?
It really wouldn’t have worked to read Four Hedges in a city, because it is such a hymn to nature. It’s non-fiction (I always seem to forget that you can’t know these things unless I mention them), and tells of Leighton’s experience creating a garden, through the course of a year – the year isn’t dated, but the garden is about three years old, and presumably it wasn’t long before the book was published in 1935.
As you might have guessed by the cover, the book is filled with Leighton’s woodcuts (I assume ‘engravings on wood’, as they are termed in the book, are the same as woodcuts?) It was this that undoubtedly attracted me to Four Hedges – there is something so simply and dignified about a woodcut; such a celebration of the forms and movements of nature. Leighton writes at one point that people don’t appreciate the feel of nature enough, valuing only sight, sound, and smell – and, later, writes that flowers are considered too much for their colours, rather than their shapes. Woodcuts are a rebuttal to both these errors, aren’t? Without colour, they somehow offer texture as well as appearance – at least, they do in the hands of a craftswoman like Leighton.
As you would suppose, a lot of her woodcuts show plants – and I can only presume that they are accurate, and might well be of especial interest to the botanist. For my part, I particularly appreciated the ones with people or animals in them. For I am almost entirely ignorant about nature.
That’s a shocking thing to confess, for a country-boy who is desperate to get away from the city (even a city as beautiful as Oxford) and live in the countryside. Right now I’m in my parents’ garden in Somerset, listening to the cows in the adjacent field eating parts of the hedge (indeed, I can see a couple about two metres to my left) and I love it. One day I will write properly about my deep love for everything about villages. But, with nature, my love is passionate but uninformed. I love nature in the way that I love friends – joyously living alongside them, discovering more about them when they want to share, but not needing to know everything in order to love.
But I was a bit nervous before starting Four Hedges. A few years ago I read some letters between gardeners and, while I enjoyed the camaraderie and friendship, I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on. I don’t know when certain plants need bedding, or when others need pruning. Latin names are so many Flowerus floweriori to me. I love gardens, but I love walking through them and not doing an ounce of work in them – because I loathe gardening.
Luckily, Four Hedges was still perfect for me. True, Leighton took it for granted that her reader loved gardening, and would be entirely unable to resist weeding (believe me, I resist it very easily), but she also writes in a way that can be loved by anybody. She writes about watching birds being reared and caterpillars metamorphosing; she writes about a baby goat moving into a nearby field, and the perils of windy days – most importantly of all, she writes about her thoughts, feelings, and responses. It is a delight to hear how thrilled she is about bulb catalogues, and I was swept away with her admiration for certain weeds, reclaiming them from gardeners’ snobbery.
It struck me how timeless this book was. No mention is made of experiences outside the garden – barely even the house, to the extent that I thought there wasn’t a house for a great part of the book. Certainly no hints of a forthcoming war (which was obvious to most by the mid-’30s) or anything like that. Everything in Four Hedges could be happeningin 1835, or today – the only anachronism would be the non-electric mower and the scythe. (Having said that, in the last place I lived in Oxford, our landlords only gave us a non-electric mower – one of their very many oddities.)
Although Leighton does not write humorously (nor intends to), there is a great deal in common between joyful writing and comic writing. They reach towards the same goal, of sharing and bringing delight – and Leighton is so joyful, so able to find excitement and hope in the smallest detail, that it is a lift to the spirits to read her words, even for the non-gardener. And which entirely humourless gardener, after all, would write this:
We should never take our gardens too seriously. It is hard to curb ourselves in this, if we have any love for our plants, even as it is difficult to take a walk round the garden without pulling up weeds. But too professional an attitude is apt to give us the same taut, strained feeling that comes into the faces and lives of all specialists. It is better to have a few weeds and untidy edges to our flowers beds, and to enjoy our garden, than to allow ourselves to be dominated by it. To be able occasionally to shut our eyes to weeds is a great art. Let us relax in our gardens, and as a dear old countrywoman used to say, let us “poddle” in them. We waste else the very beauty for which we have worked.
I am never in danger of taking gardening too seriously, but it is refreshing to hear Leighton say this nonetheless – any expert or avid hobbyist should include humour and self-awareness in their activities, shouldn’t they? Now excuse me while I tend to my book collection – it’s getting rather overgrown, and it’s threatening to take over the floor. A bit of weeding, and it’ll be fine.