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Gardens and moments of fleeting pleasure

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

May 29, 2016

Michael McCoy wrote an excellent blog post last year about memorable moments in a garden (Seconds and Centuries) which has often inspired me to think about how our understanding of gardens is made up of fleeting moments of pleasure that can’t be photographed or often even later recalled with any visual clarity.

Front garden February 2012

Front garden February 2012. The glint you can see is wire mesh to protect new plantings from being scratched up by brush turkeys.

We tend to think of our gardens in a long-term way. I love to look back at early photos of a garden bed and be astonished at how things have grown and changed over the months or even years. What?! So big now? I remember you when you were just a baby with barely 10 leaves and you didn’t reach to my ankle bones.

Front garden May 2016

Front garden May 2016

I also love to look forward, and try and imagine what the plant I am planting today can become given a few favourable seasons, or perhaps half a lifetime of nurture. Will I be here long enough to sit under your shade? Or see you flower at last? Realise one day that while my back was turned, you outgrew me and our garden?

Garden-making is an agonisingly slow and truly four-dimensional art form. We work in three dimensions but must always have that long, long stretch of the fourth dimension in mind, as the shapes and spaces we create with our hardscape and plants today slowly morph, with care and attention, into something very different as the months and years pass.

The intense colour of this pinoak in autumn colour quite took my breath away. I had to lie beneath it.

The intense colour of this pinoak in autumn colour quite took my breath away. I had to lie beneath it.

While slow gardening has its great pleasures and challenges we gardeners, always prone to be over self-critical and acutely aware of failure, need to also notice those small, fleeting moments that can make you stop and sit back on your heels.

Even visiting other’s gardens can be fraught with the danger of bringing in with you an over-critical eye, of taking a sweeping and cursory look at layout, function and plant combinations and perhaps, finding it wanting, then dismissing it all as second rate. I’m not suggesting that we should become post modern relativists and start accepting all gardens as good gardens. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, and a poorly designed garden cannot ever be a good garden, no matter how much it is loved and tended.

But I think if you stop, and take off your critic’s glasses, you can and will find somewhere within it a tiny delight that brings you pleasure.

Mowing pattern in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. There one, day gone the next

Mowing pattern in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. There one day, gone the next

I find that they are usually relatively insignificant things but the intensity of the delight, if you allow yourself to be absorbed by it for just a few seconds, can make the difference in your day and, longer term, possibly your life.

If, in your own garden, you are the gardener who only sees the faults in your planting combinations, who keenly feels the despair as a plant succumbs to an unstoppable pest, who is frustrated when the fruit drops without ripening, who cannot get past the slow death of a loved tree, or who forever regrets not doing that One Thing that would have made your garden perfect and brilliant, this is for you.

It may be the way the sunlight shines through a particular leaf, highlighting its veins.

Leaf venation backlitSunlight on a spider’s web.

Sunlight on a spider's webIt may be the way the wind plays with the foliage of a plant and its light, wispy leaves.

The surprise of a garden visitor.

King Parrot in the claret ash

The way two colours suddenly sing together.

The feeling of one’s insignificance when beneath a majestic tree..

Agathis robustaThe shadows cast by a bare tree in winter.

Shadows at YarralumlaThe delicious hint of something beyond.

Brickendon garden TasmaniaA perfect pattern.

One leaf resting in the perfect place.

Liriodendron leaf. Mayfield

Paradoxically, I say don’t reach for your camera to record it. The camera so easily lies and doesn’t show you what your eyes really saw. In fact so much of what you see in garden photographs, even here on this page like the beautiful backlit dahlia below, is a manipulation of light, focus and depth of field that greatly exaggerates certain qualities. In reality, my eyes couldn’t put that background dreamily out of focus.

Backlit dahlia with an out of focus background that my eyes had perfectly focussed

Backlit dahlia with an out of focus background that my eyes had perfectly focussed

Don’t even try and commit to memory what it looked or smelled or felt like. Don’t tell anyone about it later. Don’t look for it again the next day. Just be with it for that split second and feel the pleasure that you were there, right at that moment.

If you do try and photograph it, as Michael tried, you will know when you look at those photos later that what you have is not what you saw. Something is missing, or it looks much less interesting than you remember. You delete the photos, disappointed in your photographic ability, but that’s not the problem. Some things just cannot be captured and held.

I spent several wasted minutes taking umpteen photos of the light coming through beautiful palm leaves in the Daintree. I kept this one shot, just to remind me of that failure

I spent several wasted minutes taking umpteen photos of the light coming through beautiful palm leaves in the Daintree. I kept just this one uninteresting shot to remind me how pointless that was. Why couldn’t I just look at it and be totally there?

Psychologists call it ‘mindfulness’. I think it’s a secret that we gardeners know but can forget in our drive to be better, to get things right, and to document everything we see. The tyranny of our ubiquitous cameras, and our desperation to remember every minute of our lives can spoil so much.

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7 years ago

Brilliant reminder of how to catch the moment and be in it. Thank you!

7 years ago

Yes Catherine and well expressed … At its most spiritual is the realisation that we are not in the world but that the world is in us. We are therefore, inextricably enmeshed with the natural world and gardens. Its very liberating to know this –
“I move through my days light hearted and carefree, knowing that all is well.” Deepak Chopra

Kate Wall
7 years ago

I could not agree more, wonderful!

7 years ago

This piece was a pleasure to read with some very beautiful photos. Thank you Catherine.

7 years ago

What a beautiful article you’ve written Cathy, and so so true. Thank you.

Anne King
Anne King
7 years ago

Dear Catherine,
On holiday in Tuscany so late to respond to your post, but keen to add some comment about the limits of photography as a means of recording magic moments of pleasure in the garden (or landscape).
The arts of landscaping and gardening are the only ones I can think of that are so multi-sensory; spatial awareness, shapes, textures, colours, smells, touch, sounds, and a feeling for the passage of time.
None of the photos I’m busily snapping can truly capture the feeling of the sun on my back, the wind in my hair, the song of the birds or the perfume of the wildflowers.
Nevertheless I know that’s not going to stop me reaching for the camera!