Ruth Little is a writer and navigator working in theatre and dance. She is dramaturg for Akram Khan Company, and has an allotment on the Thames in London.
I entered the Walled Garden through a wooden gate by the large stone bothy in the grounds of Harewood House. August Bank Holiday Saturday: last night’s rain clouds dispersing over sodden moors and log-jammed motorways.
The garden sits apart from the old house, beyond the old stables, below the Bird Garden, across the narrow arm of a lake encompassed by woodland and a thousand acres of landscape curated by Capability Brown.
Harewood House was built in the second half of the eighteenth century on wealth created in part by participation and investment in the Atlantic slave trade. That is a truth more solid than the vast Palladian mansion itself.
The Walled Garden is as old as the house, but its story has followed a different rhythm; its life and growth fluctuating through seasons and ages, determined as much by environmental cycles and local conditions as by politics and economics. But it too is inescapably part of the larger European narrative of wealth generation and accumulation of capital through private land ownership and the cheapening of labour at home and abroad. This truth is visible in the estate’s unpeopled swathes of grass- and woodland and in the imposing neo-classical architecture of the house, and it is palpable, if invisible, in the fertile, friable soil beneath my feet.
On the threshold of the Walled Garden, the purple buddleia is covered in butterflies – peacock, tortoiseshell, painted lady, comma – 4 or 5 to a flower head, their wings pulsing open and shut, open and shut. Conversation of picnickers, unfamiliar calls of exotic birds in their aviaries. I step through the bright gateway. From a wooden bird box on the wall among hop vines to my right, the high, bright and distant notes of a recorder. Bells sound, resonating on red brick and rippling in the moving air. I stand, sound-bathed, listening. The dark eye of orange calendula nuzzled by hoverflies; butterflies probe and dip into nectaries of valerian and oregano. The longer I stand, the more sound and movement I become aware of. Sound as movement. Stems tremble in a bed of flowering thyme thick with the hum of bees and hoverflies. The whole garden reverberates. A baby cries somewhere, beneath the sudden punctuation of a whip bird’s call and response. Whip bird? In North Yorkshire?
But why not? The clarity of that held note and flick of release is answered now by a pair of actual kookaburras across the lake in the Bird Garden. What’s real and not real, rehearsed, remembered, recorded and revealed is all entangled in the experience of Genevieve Lacey’s Pleasure Garden.
I try photographing the illustrated wings of a peacock butterfly, the blue eye marks and blood red patches, but I’m not quick enough – the brilliance is revealed so fleetingly, in the space between perception and reaction. That’s the space I have to enter to see and hear the life of the garden. I put my camera away. I let the day be bee-loud.
Soft chirruping now from a bird box between the espalliered branches of a fruit tree on a south-facing wall. The fluttering recorder notes so sweet and warm they become plum scent. So I eat one, listening and tasting, sun in the smooth purple skin, nectar on my tongue, Lacey’s breath in green shadows as her fingers open and stop the tone holes, open and shut like butterfly wings. Everything is alive; everything belongs to and completes everything else. We’re all participant things in this garden: me, the 32 speakers in bird boxes and buckets, the movement of breath in music and birdsong, the secret processes of photosynthesis, the crying child, calls of caged birds, field recordings of cicadas in other trees in other summers, even the sweet cane and its bitter, brutal harvest.
Can this music, this integration of breath, heartbeat, history, wing beat, the green cell and the physics of sound, make another kind of space, between perception and reaction, where the whole truth of this place is held and not forgotten?
Down cool grass and clover paths in the orchard, now the soprano recorder twitters like high skylarks, though those are house martins up above me now, catching insects on the wing.
What living thing doesn’t move in its own way? Here in this garden of moving beings and waves of wind and sound, remembering has a movement too. The listening Garden, in Genevieve Lacey’s synaesthetic and encompassing gesture, is all of its lives and deaths, here, now, always; everything present, nothing denied.
Ear to a bird box in a greengage tree; harsher sounds now, percussive rattle and creak. Boat, chain, plough; woodpecker, axe, spade. Long wavelength of bass recorder runs down the trunk and disappears underground. Vibrato, legato, pip of breath, plosive, searching, sending tendrils down into the pores of soil. Beyond the walls a mob of Canada geese honk their horns, restlessly, in readiness. Shadow of autumn. Kneeling in damp grass and cow parsley, melody notes scatter like seeds – I could catch and plant them. Feather of dandelion drifts by.
‘Every moment here,’ says Trevor Nicholson, head gardener at Harewood for 25 years, ‘has its own distinction.’ He joins me in an orchard row and we walk through wild meadow heavy with seeding grass and the last crimson poppies to the shade of the wall. It’s hot in the full sun, and I remember I have 6 bags of fresh manure shovelled at a nearby stable in the boot of my car.
Sudden, intense tapping, drumming, pulsing from an upended bucket. Then a silence that continues to resonate. ‘For all the life and colour around us,’ says Trevor, ‘I feel the absences too. The gardeners and tenant farmers here, ordinary people who worked the land and disappeared during the First World War. But then gardeners were brought back here to grow produce as part of the War effort – and a sense of community was renewed. These gardens were havens then; places of pride and productive, skilled labour.’
The cabbages in the vegetable garden are 3 feet across. Hundreds of years of tending to the soil, putting back what was taken away, have made this a place of abundance and vitality; an organic, thriving collaboration between the human and the non-human.
Putting back what was taken away.
The secret of the soil wants to be heard across the ages of growth and harm, both in gardens of pleasure and in the hollowed out lives and landscapes that are an invisible part of their story – their underground, withdrawn. What are we hearing when we try to listen? What are we missing by separating thought from sense, past from present, the human from the non-human, the proximate from the far away? The tended garden, the garden of attention, is all of these, inextricably, at once. Its underground of soil, water, rock and memory, and its horizon – the distant places where its migrant birds return to each year, the evolving work of communication and ecological, social and cultural interconnection – are part of the thickness of the present. Nothing here is lost, nothing is wasted. Everything speaks of everything else.
The music in Pleasure Garden is inspired by and samples the work of Dutch recorder player, carillonneur and composer Jacob van Eyck, who died a hundred years before Harewood House and its gardens were built. Van Eyck was blind from birth, and very likely had exceptional listening skills as a result. He learned to tune church bells by whistling into them and sensing their resonance. For van Eyck and for Lacey, listening is a sensing of movement, placing a stethoscope to the earth’s breast. Bird box, bucket, bell and garden are instruments to be listened to and played upon, using nature’s own skills of improvisation alongside the physical laws that give form, rhythm and meaning to our sensory experience.
In a poem recording the suffering and resilience of West Indian descendants of slaves, Martiniquais poet Aimé Césaire celebrated
those who give themselves up to the essence of all things
ignorant of surfaces but struck by the movement of all things
free of the desire to tame but familiar with the play of the world…
open to all the breaths of the world
fraternal territory of all breaths
undrained bed of the waters of the world
flesh of the flesh of the world pumping with the very
movement of the world
Pleasure Garden moves its participants with the very movement of the world. It creates a synaesthetic field in which the world, and all the contradictions of the world, coexist as vibration, as forms of energy and matter constantly transforming. It opens a space for an experience as layered and complex, and moving, as the interaction of soil, rhizome and root; part dark and anaerobic, part living in and reaching for the light.
About Harewood House
Harewood House Trust is an independent charitable educational trust set up to maintain and develop Harewood, its collections and grounds, for the public benefit. The Trust includes the Grade 1 Georgian house and 100 acres of listed parkland and grounds www.harewood.org Pleasure Garden was commissioned as part of its on-going creative cultural programme Harewood Contemporary.
My childhood was spent in stories and gardens.
My mother’s garden held our games and discoveries, adventures real and imagined. We navigated our botanical world by touch and smell, as well as by sight. We came to understand in tangible ways how the rhythms of the seasons, changes in light and temperature, drought, frost and wind, all shaped our landscape, and our lives within it. Everything born in the garden went back into its earth, and we learnt that things die, as well as flourish. The garden taught us to be patient, to wait and observe. How to be still and silent. How it is to be small amid something wildly alive and impersonal.
When I was eight, a gifted teacher introduced me to Jacob van Eyck. She told me the story of him playing his recorder while wandering through a place called a Pleasure Garden. The poetry of that lodged deep, and I felt a strong affinity with Jacob. The fact that he was born in the sixteenth century, on the other side of the world, was of no consequence. His music was real to me, as was he.
We’ve been companions ever since, Jacob and I. He comes with me to weddings and funerals, nursing homes and prisons, impromptu sessions on verandas, and into concert halls too. His melodies fall happily under the pads of my fingers; his phrases measure the span of my breath.
Some of his creations have become dear, trusted friends – Daphne, Amarilli, Marie. I have poured countless versions of myself into them, and they have held me, giving me substance and form.
Not far from my childhood garden is a place I revere: Lambley Garden. Its two inhabitants have moulded their lives around a pursuit of beauty – one through paint, the other through plants. Visiting their earthly paradise some years ago, I found myself thinking of Jacob and his Pleasure Garden, and the way history and emotions can speak to each other across time and place. Suddenly, stories began to converge.
Our Pleasure Garden sets Jacob’s exquisite blooms in a new environment. We collected material from Melbourne to Bermagui, Utrecht to Kristiansand, back and forth to Lambley – improvised melodies and textures, birdsong from the places in which we worked, and Jacob’s own carillon, still joyously played today.
We planted our music in bird boxes and flowerpots, nested in trees and dug into the soil at Lambley.
Then, we invited visitors. Sweet, spring days of people gently ebbing and flowing through a magical place, listening intently to very soft, delicate sounds. Something in the combined spirit of music and place seemed to encourage people to be quiet, move slowly, look deeply, and then to leave with a little glow of contemplative beauty.
Fiona Blair makes landscape theatre for The Old Van theatre company. She lives, in an old school house, down the road and around the corner from a beautiful garden.
Some weeks ago now, I walked back in time.
It wasn’t far, as such journeys go,
two miles perhaps, perhaps three —
the road crosses at the end of ours
and it wasn’t much further than that —
then down a long avenue lined
with cherry trees, and through a gate
into a sort of formal hall, green and
private with hedges and espaliered trees,
carpeted with grass. Half hidden,
behind a bench at the far end,
was another gate, leading to a huge
walled garden of flowers and fruit trees
and vegetables, stark and bleak just a
few weeks earlier, now lush, abundant
with colour, with sound.
Sound all about me,
riding on the air, coming up through
the earth beneath my feet.
Sometimes it seemed
I might be imagining it.
Sometimes it seemed
to happen only because I was there.
Hesitant, fragile, tantalising,
insistent; half heard, half seen
glimpses of melody:
wherever I walked, music, sound.
Sound was in everything,
and walking through arches –
down long paths edged with
tidy rows of planting,
where order had been imposed,
yet everywhere small rebellions of shape
and colour overflowed –
I thought about time,
and how I had no sense of it here.
I thought about how the music,
the unpredictable music, hanging
like light on the air, heightened every
moment, and drew on every sense.
I thought about how music was
everywhere if one could only hear it,
catch it, frame it,
and how the blur between
composed and organic sound was,
in this place, complete,
but that only we who were then
in the garden, would ever hear it in
quite this way,
with random birds and insects
winding themselves through melody
I thought about a book I once read,
in which was discussed the ways in
which music might be measured: that
a physicist might describe sound moving
through air, measuring pitch, time,
frequency, while a critic might comment
on melody, nuance,
and that both were true.
That music was not separate
from its sound, that it was the sound,
and that it showed us the
‘soul of the world’.
And I thought about how this garden
had always been a thing of beauty,
but that the sound confirmed it as a
timeless place, a place of wonder.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His works include Philosophy in the Garden (2012) and the forthcoming The Art of Reading (2016).
“A melody unfurls its fronds and I understand why the violin’s neck is curled.”
Luke Fischer, ‘Gardening’, Paths of Flight
The Keukenhof in Holland is high kitsch: acre upon acre of hyacinths, jonquils, daffodils and, most of all, tulips. Tourists bus in, try to avoid photographing one another photographing the flowers, then soon bus away. It is easy to mock gardens like this, as somehow fake or superficial—something for breezy out-of-towners,not serious garden-lovers.
But they are delightful. The shock of fluorescent corollas and sky, the play of stems in breezes, the meditative waltz of bees on tepals—these are sensory pleasures, pure and simple. They can be enjoyed for their own sake, with neither reflection nor justification. Like the trills and glissandi of van Eyck’s ‘English Nightingale’, they offer experiences that demand nothing beyond themselves.
This does not mean every garden must be delightful. They can be sublime, ascetic, brooding or menacing, and still be excellent landscapes. Delightful gardens simply offer pointless joy, in which we can revel without blame. As the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller noted in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, it is the virtue of a civilised mind to savour semblance without mistaking it for anything more. And gardens are an apex of semblance: a show, a display, a spectacle.
As pageants of sensation, gardens are also invitations—to thought and reverie. Every garden is literally and figuratively what we make of nature. Normally the world’s raw materials are hidden in glass, timber or plastic, but the garden is an exhibition of natural textures, forms, scents and hues. We give new harmonies to quartz, Agapanthus and Echium—yet they are still visibly rocks, flowers and shrubs. At the same time, we also reveal ourselves: the very human ideals, values and impressions that push us to intervene. For every eighteenth-century French estate showing off geometry and autarchy, there is an English one celebrating the serpentine and democratic. Some gardens suggest hardy austerity, others cartwheeling caprice.
Because of this to-and-fro between nature and humanity, gardens encourage philosophy and art. They prompt speculation and creation because they are a unity of two riddles. Nature is an enigma of sorts—we can never get to the bottom of what it is. It is always just beyond comprehension, if only because things like ‘comprehension’ are themselves uniquely human. Yet we are also mysteries to ourselves. There is no one humanity, fixed and forever—we shift with era and geography. And our own minds can be opaque or just baffling to us. In short, the garden combines two suggestive questions, nature and humanity.
Importantly, this unity is not achieved with numb abstraction. Instead, the garden offers sensory richness: bark to touch, perfume to smell, leaves to hear, and so on. To cross the threshold into a garden is to enter a new space, marked by goading or seductive puzzles, each offered in a tangible form.
History records many artists and thinkers beguiled by these virtues. Novelist Jane Austen with her Chawton Cottage syringa, finding consolation in the flowers’ eternal cycles. Philosopher and playwright Voltaire at his estate Les Délices (‘The Delights’), seeing the garden as an opportunity for civilised progress. The painter Eugène Delacroix in his garden studio, revelling in the botanical intricacy and dynamism. ‘I caught him in an ecstasy of delight,’ wrote novelist George Sand of her friend, ‘in front of a yellow lily whose beautiful architecture had just revealed itself to him.’ Philosophy itself had horticultural beginnings. Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus—each had his school in a park or garden.
Every garden, then, has at least two offerings. The first is pure delight: the pleasure in sensory richness or subtlety. Perhaps the tang of a tomato vine, or its furry leanings on stakes. Perhaps the burgundy peaks and capillaries of an Amaranthus. Perhaps just the sudden encounter with shades of green after a day’s indoor grey. The point is that the garden is a space for gratifying attentiveness.
The second is the opportunity to reflect: on nature and its habits, on oneself and one’s era, and on the ties between these. Put simply, the garden inspires and rewards thought. And this need not be academic philosophy, or the grand speculation of Plato and Aristotle. Poets like Emily Dickinson think in language, just as painters like Delacroix think in pigment and oil.
Gardens can be status symbols, labours and larders. But they are also hallowed spaces, which nudge us to look and think again.
Jane Davidson and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Australia Council for the Arts, Fiona Winning, Lieven Bertels and Sydney Festival, Ed Champion and staff at Vaucluse House, Sydney Living Museums, Criss Canning and David Glenn of Lambley Garden, Malgosia Fiebig, City Carillonneur of Utrecht, Toby Chadd and ABC Classics, Sheena Boughen and the Four Winds community, Music Norway, Lou Oppenheim and Circus Oz, Henk Heuvelmans and Martijn Buser of Gaudeamus, Graham Pushee and Arts Management, Martel Ollerenshaw, Atticus Bastow, Nick Roux, Ann Lacey, Francine Tanner, Jude Gun, Steven Richardson, Nicole Newman, Fiona Blair, Damon Young, Pat Hockey, Greg Lyons, Adam Gibson, Joseph Browning, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, APAM, Kara Ward, Emer Harrington, Catherine Ashton, Mark Lowrey, Lillian Desormeaux, Adele Conlin and Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, William Strode, Daniel Brine, Mark Denbigh and the team at Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Paul Forecast, Alastair Bradshaw, Tina Hammond and all at Felbrigg Hall, Suzie Curtis, Kate Robinson, Huw Humphries, Paul Keene, Sarah Hickling, Miko Malkowski and all at The Charterhouse and The Barbican, Tim Bifield, Anna Casey, Rachel Smith, Rebecca Driver, Sheila Pott and all at Salters' Yard, Michael Schneider, Patrick Schellenberg and all at Boswil, Jane Marriott, Nicola Stephenson, Trevor Nicholson and the team at Harewood.