My garden has been the poster girl headline for 3 articles in the UK broadsheets without me being asked for a comment. I have agreed to the use of the photos in return for a credit in 2 cases and in another one knew nothing about it until contacted by a friend. All publicity is good publicity, more eyes on you, more followers on Social Media, more click. “More” is essential as it brings me closer to being an “influencer” – something that is apparently necessary if I am to achieve my desire to be published…. You must play the game…
My garden isn’t a poster girl. What I want to talk about and what the garden signifies isn’t some naturalistic (insert greenwashing words here) pretty picture. I am passionate, I care deeply about land and how we create and exist within landscapes in a world that is undergoing global warming and a mass extinction of life. My journey here has come from eco-activism and feeling the excruciating pain of impotence and having no ‘voice’/ not being heard. The trauma of being seen but not heard is one that has dogged my childhood and continues into my adulthood. It is both a galvanising force for activism: a single-minded pursuit of justice, and it is an ever present sore: forever stinging with salt. This is what drew me into writing – a chance to be heard and to find my voice.
For years gardens never really held my gaze, they were things for privileged people, they had hardly any landscape in them, they held no emotion or intimacy, they didn’t talk about the ways in which humans could live in harmony with the ‘wild’. Ironically, it was the realisation that gardens could be landscapes, that they can be liminal loved spaces that blur the edges between ‘wild’ and ‘human’ that turned me onto gardens. Gardens can be experimental, deeply personal, pioneering utopias that gently explore ways to live lightly, in sync with the more-than-human world. They can be the best of what it is to be human and to have humanity – they can investigate the ways in which we can find hope and ways of coping amid environmental collapse. They can be places where imaginations can work with natural processes to regenerate and restore beauty and life and grow new ways of living. They can be spaces where the unseen and the unheard – the plants, the soil, the dysphoric and the diasporic, can have a space and belonging. They are anything but ‘puritanical nonsense’ (a phrase Monty Don used to describe the trend for ‘wild’ gardens in Gardeners World Magazine) because they are free from the rigid ecological constraints of a nature reserve. My garden, a love letter to land that has been both used and abused by humans, is the best of me. It is me – a complex, rather earnest narrative of hope and imaginative experimentation; a yogic practice uniting my ever-flicking mind with the body of the land that holds and earths me. A journey to find the kin that share my home with me. And if you think this is hyperbolic nonsense then I pity you. Gardening has connected me to the ‘real’ world – a world that transcends our everyday world of school and iCal – and has made me notice the transit of the moon and the smell of fresh rain on the soil. Connecting has allowed me to move from exhausted jaded campaigner to a dreamer with freshly galvanised hope for a change that feels possible. Gardening has given me everything.
The articles in which my garden has featured have held none of the thoughts above. One article used the words ‘naturalistic’ ‘sustainable’ and ‘wildlife-friendly’ as though they are all interchangeable. Then there is the Jeremy Clarkson-esque cheap click-bait journalism with the ‘Hug-a-slug brigade’ slogans etc. This current trend to associate the world of gardening with the world of culture wars and ‘woke/anti-woke’ agendas and dialectic diatribes makes me horribly tired. Because I see gardens and the thinking around gardens as a haven cocooned away from the over-simplistic Punch-and-Judy Twittersphere numbskull nonsense. As I see it gardens are the only truly soft-politics place where we can have informed sensitive nuanced discussions about how we (humans) manage and live lightly, imaginatively, and intimately within our landscapes and ecosystems. These gentle deliberations are vital explorations that need to avoid the world of cancel culture, newspaper by-lines, knee jerk politics etc and accept a diversity of responses (of which rewilding is only one on a large and exciting spectrum that we’ve hardly even heard of).
The conclusion I have come to is the conflation of ‘rewilding’ with a type of gardening that is more about land abandonment than gardening and the ridiculous ‘anti-woke/anti-wilding’ rants of some of the great and good of the gardening world must come down to the plain fact that our industry is still stuck in the past. Architecture and even Agriculture have begun to embrace ideas about what it is to be ‘Regenerative’, ‘Progressive’ and ‘Inclusive’. Our small industry, dominated by those with patronage and land wealth, lags far behind. A reflection, maybe, of the huge social injustices that keep England so nature depleted and our rights to land access and land justice so brutally curtailed. For me, there is an interconnectedness here, an entanglement and a history that needs to be brought into the light in order for our industry to advance. Unfortunately, tradition, hierarchy and deference have arrested the ability to challenge, to invite healthy criticism, debate, learning and PROGRESS. Our symposiums, Flower shows, and media coverage are full of the same ‘established’ voices. ‘Volunteering’ and the hierarchies of design over garden management keep us all locked in a world that doesn’t value the craft of gardening and doesn’t therefore value the garden as an evolving ecosystem or something with permanence and social purpose. How can there be responsible stewardship and nature-connection when ownership and authorship are paramount?
The Guardian used a picture of my garden for their publication of an excerpt from “The Book of Wilding” about how to rewild a garden. The double page spread of my garden didn’t credit me, just the photographer and Isabella Tree. I wasn’t told that my garden was going to be featured and I wasn’t asked. I don’t even see my garden as ‘rewilded’. Ultimately rewilding is about large tracts of private land that is mostly inaccessible to the public, it isn’t reaching out beyond the echo chamber and bringing nature-consciousness to society, – a very human (not herbivore) role that gardens now need to champion and a role that I am interested in exploring. In her article Isabella Tree listed things that made a ‘rewilded’ garden – no chemicals, lots of long grass and wildflowers, virtually no lawn or hardscape, dense planting, water, grown out hedging, lots of berries and fruits left for birds and mammals. I can see why they didn’t feature the new rewilded garden at Knepp as, although a lovely garden, it doesn’t have many of these attributes and it surprised me to find out that Glyphosate was used in its construction. It seems that even a rewilded garden must still be instant and weed-free in order, I am guessing, to ensure commercial success.
The misappropriation of my garden to illustrate the Wilding Book article illuminates the divide that still exists in our industry to me. The ability for those with power, access to the media and land to take without thinking about who they might be silencing or taking from. I don’t blame Lady Burrell/ The Guardian/ Knepp at all for this, and I am not even annoyed about it. I am privileged enough to be able to benefit from the publicity and ride the wave. I get serviced just as they do from this publicity. What is my problem? Its surely a win-win? But, I am bored of hearing the same voices servicing the same hierarchy of needs and the same ethnocentric experience. I want to progress, to learn, to grow, to hear and listen to all the wealth of untapped experience, failure, and hope. If only Knepp Rewilded Garden could have taken the same risks and been as ambitious and adventurous and progressive as the estate was when it released all those herbivores and let nature take its course. Think of the amazing amount of learning it could have brought, even if, particularly if, there were mistakes and failures.
Gardening is my grounding and writing is my therapy. But learning and progression is something that I would like to share with others and is vital to keeping our gardening world alive and instep with our society. It is time to grow a new more inclusive, more tolerant, more experimental, more progressive, more regenerative horticulture.