Slowly I seem to be recovering my enthusiasm for gardening and other projects.
I’m not sure why I got burned out. Maybe because I always tackle too much at once. In any case, I’ve been reading about traditional gardening and Gertrude Jekyll.
Gertrude Jekyll, aka “Bump”
One problem with Gertrude Jekyll and the English landscape designers — at least for me — is that their history is intertwined with the rich and privileged. Even that would be okay, except for the tremendous snobbery and condescension. The lack of any awareness that there is a problem with living off a peasantry. As her biography admits, she was a great snob.
On the other hand, one cannot avoid admiring Gertrude’s productivity and what she accomplished. Her taste is impeccable. Many of the values she held are good values (tradition, nature, etc.). Is this the Tory view of the countryside? I don’t know English history and culture well enough — thank God! My ignorance enables me to appreciate the good about Gertrude Jekyll without having the emotional reactions a native would.
Sometime I’d like to write about the way that Gertrude taught herself one craft after another. Amazing discipline and talent.
Apparently, she was quite a formidable figure. What humanized her for me was her long relationship with the much younger Edwin Lutyens, the famous country architect. With Lutyens, she was able to unbend; he called her “Bump” and teased her playfully. At the same time, they collaborated on many projects and influenced each other’s craft. It’s the sort of relationship that is unfamiliar to us in our cynical, overt times.
Some interesting facts about Gertrude’s family. Her brother Walter was a Church of England cleric who was unfrocked because of his radical views (I wonder what they were?). He moved to Jamaica, became a Buddhist, collected folklore, and served as mentor to Jamaican/American writer Claude McKay (“Jamica’s poet laureate”).
In England, he had been a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and there is speculation that he lent the Jekyll name for Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Also, there was a nephew, Francis Jekyll (nickname Timmy), who was a figure in the first English folk music revival and wrote a biography of his famous aunt. His personal life, however, sounds sad — dominated by severe depression.
Reculer pour mieux salter
Reading about Gertrude Jekyll makes me think about my direction. There’s something in her life that is a bracing tonic for us moderns. Her “environmentalism,” expressed as a love of traditional crafts and the countryside, came from within, from deep personal needs. It pushed her to productivity and creation. In contrast, the modern impulse might be to join a group, take a class, become an activist.
Is there anything wrong with the modern approaches? No, not in themselves. What’s wrong is what is missing — the personal, the family-ar, the unique point of view. One can’t imagine Gertrude Jekyll taking her opinions from the Web, from environmental magazines, or from anywhere in the media. There is a strength that comes from standing on the earth, from being in touch with something deep.
How does this look in practice? Staying in one place. Attachment to people, places, and customs, especially to the homely and non-commercial. Attachment to land. Gardens. Landscapes. One’s personal history.
Not being so quick to jump into group activities. Instead, commiting to a few connections of high quality.Not letting one’s life fill up with trivia and detritus.
The distinction I’m making here does not correspond to the environmentalist/mainstream, left/right or urban/rural dichotomies.
It’s an awareness of who one is, where one came from, what one’s place on earth is. It’s neither brash nor apologetic. As one begins to value tradition and nature, one becomes vulnerable, as so much in the modern world seeks to destroy or exploit these values.
Certain things kill these values: TV, modern movies, modern magazines,