I have been revisiting Kipling’s Just So Stories. My 1955 edition is one of the few books I remember from my childhood – I particularly loved the stories about the birth of language. The illustrations, including the depiction of the solitary life in The Cat that Walked by Himself, are Kipling’s own. It’s a perfect metaphor for the life of the writer: there is the cat, waving his ’wild tail’, and a long and empty road stretching ahead. Trees line the road. These are the Wet Wild Woods, mainly bare branches and, though there are spaces between the trunks, it seems there is nowhere for the cat to go except ahead.
I’ve spent the last year or so as writer in residence at the University’s Botanic Garden in Cambridge, attempting to translate its inspiring qualities into a radical rethinking of the journal. In many ways this has been as wonderful as it sounds, and I’m immensely grateful both to Arts Council England for their support and for the patience and kindness of the Botanic Garden’s staff and volunteers. Still, I’ve been unable to shed the lonely feeling of being a stranger in the camp. Partly this is due to being a rank amateur in a field of experts; partly a mismatch between the visibly active working day of those around me and my intention to be still and separate and receptive, ‘to be isolated and alone, like a proper writer should be,’ as Jenny Diski says, ‘To think, to read, to listen.’
In fact, gardening and writing, ‘these two ways of rendering the world in rows’ according to Michael Pollan, have much in common. Both deal in imagination and dreams, both attempt to create something in an apparently empty space, though with what Pollan calls a ‘backward glance’ to what has gone before. And a garden path does lead somewhere: we experience a garden not as a picture, Katherine Swift reminds us, but as a ‘series of shifting perspectives’, a narrative composed of the ‘vocabulary of plant and tree, the grammar of path and hedge’.
Being rooted in the Botanics, even as an annual, has helped me think about our relationship with the natural world, and there is a sense in which this has to be a lonely endeavour. In her extraordinary book The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd talks about the essential inaccessibility of a mountain loch:
‘It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive,’ she writes, ‘not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness.’
Her intention is to experience the mountain fully, with all aspects of her being, and in doing so to communicate this experience, to ‘irradiate the common’. Others have found walking, rather than being still, a path to enlightenment: artist Richard Long’s walks becoming ’textworks’, for example, and Kathleen Jamie’s observations in Findings.
The lonely path we haven’t chosen is tougher. If we are lucky enough to avoid the isolation caused by chronic illness or ageing, poverty or displacement, at some point we will experience the loneliness or being lonely implicit simply in being human: Auden saw a ‘solitude ten thousand fathoms deep’ even in the closest relationships. Still, fellow travellers can sustain us on the journey. Dear Friend and Gardener allows the reader to share the precious friendship between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. Jackie Kay’s celebration of a lifelong friendship ends with an invitation: ‘C’mon, c’mon my dearie – tak my hand, my fiere!’ And past and present combine in the McGarrigles’ lovely ‘Walking Song’:
‘In sneakers or boots or regulation shoes
Walking beside you I’ll never get the walking blues.’
Kate’s been reading:
Jenny Diski. 2006. On Trying to Keep Still. London: Little, Brown
Michael Pollan. 1997. Second Nature (1991). London: Bloomsbury
Katherine Swift. 2008. The Morville Hours. London: Bloomsbury
Christopher Lloyd & Beth Chatto. 2013. Dear Friend and Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening (1998). London: Frances Lincoln