Monday, 11 July 2011

Telling tales

I’m beginning to suspect that the most successful people in any walk of life are the ones who tell the best stories. We all love a good story. It seems to be hard-wired into us in infancy, and we never lose that childlike trust to place ourselves in the hands of the storyteller and allow ourselves to be taken on a journey to an unknown destination. And who doesn’t still feel cheated on those occasions where the ending is given away before its alloted time? I think we all derive deep satisfaction from progressive revelation, and I’ve noticed this is something which the best gardens use to their advantage.

Think about it. In isolation, an open field is a pretty uninspiring thing. Leaving aside what it may have to tell us with its history or ecology, it’s a fairly passive, open, usually green space. Put a house on it, and it starts to get interesting. Enclose it, with hedges, walls or a fence, and a dialogue begins between the house, its garden, and that which lies beyond.

But I don’t believe many of us are really happy to leave things here. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something slightly depressing about standing outside your back door and being able to take in three fences in one glance; although, on moving into a new home, it may sometimes be necessary to strip away the layers of random ghastliness bequeathed to you by the previous owners, just to be able to see what you have to work with. Once we know where our garden begins and ends, we don’t want to be constantly reminded of its limits. At some point, I think most of us have a need to put some mystery back.

“A garden revealed all at once is like a story told before it is started”, writes Dan Pearson, in his book Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City. I don’t think he’s describing a wish to create a network of “garden rooms”, partitioned from one another by brick walls or dense evergreen hedging. Rather, I think he identifies a need for some mechanism by which we can obfuscate the limits of our outdoor space, by distracting the eye and drawing a veil over the reality of its boundaries. And it’s a strange phenomenon that the less we have in our gardens, the smaller they can appear. Our fences and walls are the covers of the storybook; we have the opportunity to arrange organic and non-organic materials to compose the details of the narrative within.

There’s a magical moment in the gardens at Sissinghurst when, emerging through a gap in the hedge which runs parallel to the Lime Walk, you find yourself facing open fields. It’s totally disorientating – standing with your back to the garden, you are transported to another world, rooted in the middle of the Kentish landscape, being examined quizzically by a sheep. You’ve stepped beyond the book covers, and all you’ve just experienced seems strangely fuzzy, like trying to grasp the details of a dream on waking. Surely, this pastoral scene, unchanged for centuries, is reality? An about turn, and you’re through the hedge again and, through some kind of wizardry, back in the story.