Two recent memoirs suggest that gardening can be less about taming the outer world of nature, and more a therapeutic way to come to terms with the inner wilds of the self. Sarah Lohmann was at Durham Book Festival to hear Allan Jenkins and Alys Fowler talk about their work.
On a grey Saturday, we were ushered into a cosily darkened upstairs hall at Palace Green Library, where a whimsical stage featuring a lantern- and ivy-clad wooden fence and garden furniture on a strip of lawn fittingly set the scene for two writers well-known for their work on gardening: Allan Jenkins, editor of Observer Food Monthly, and Alys Fowler, award-winning journalist and passionate gardener with a weekly column in The Guardian. However, the works they were to discuss with Caroline Beck, herself a green-thumbed journalist, moved beyond this shared interest to explore nature as “a powerful means of therapy and self-discovery” – a course that neither had apparently intended their writing to follow, as we learned over the following fascinating, meandering hour of conversation.
Jenkins’ Plot 29: A Memoir, he said, was supposed to be a book about a garden, about “an old man who grows food and flowers because another old man gave him food and flowers”. However, by the fourth paragraph, it had turned into an exploration of “being looked after or not being looked after”, which he then dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased brother Christopher. Gardening in his allotment, Jenkins explained, gave him “something vulnerable to care for, something to protect”, which made him feel strong, “like I couldn’t be for Christopher” – and this, he said, made it clear to him that this book “wouldn’t just be about broad beans”.
Fowler, likewise, explained that her Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery was not the book on urban nature, and on encouraging people to explore the natural world around them, that she had set out to write. Although it retained that element, it also became an exploration of her own ‘hidden nature’, of her gradual acceptance of herself as gay and the effect that her coming-out had on the people close to her. Fittingly, this realization coincided with, or perhaps gave rise to, a move away from her daily gardening, in line with the rhythms of the seasons, and towards an interest in the genuinely wild elements of the city of Birmingham surrounding her – specifically, the “unsettled ecology” along its canals, which she began to explore with a little blow-up boat.
As Fowler and Jenkins answered Beck’s questions, Fowler in a calm and gentle manner and Jenkins with an upbeat energy that helped balance out the melancholy tone of Plot 29, we learned that both their stories were in a way about endings and new beginnings: where Jenkins made sense of Christopher’s life and its eventual loss, Fowler’s Hidden Nature was about coming to terms with the end of her marriage and about moving on with a new relationship and a new sense of self.
Both had turned to nature in order to cope, but where Jenkins used it as something to nurture while coming to terms with “the guilt of the luckier child”, Fowler was finding her own true nature in a new kind of unleashed ‘garden’ in the little-explored canals: “suddenly […] a free agent”, she “just had to paddle for three hours and look at things” in order to focus on her own “inner space” and her new place in the world. Moreover, what she found was an environment featuring plants and entire ecosystems (described lovingly and in great detail in her book) that were adapting and in transition, just as she was. Gardening, she said, had become a “prop” that left her “blinkered to everything else” after it had been her entire career for so long, and she was finding herself in escaping it. Meanwhile, for Jenkins whose roots lie in journalism, gardening was still an escape in itself: a “blessed relief” to “not have to deal with Trump, Syria and so forth for one hour”.
These different approaches to nature as self-care were then reflected in the extracts that Jenkins and Fowler read out: Jenkins’ featured him in his allotment in winter, “standing on the sidelines like a parent at sports day” and imagining himself “a friend for his plants, so they know they’re not alone”, while Fowler’s described her journey down the Dudley Tunnel – an exploration into an unknown and at times scary darkness, evocative of her new direction in life. It ended with a particularly graphic description of the flora and fauna she and her friend encountered there, namely the tunnel’s “thirty or so different species of cave-dwelling spiders”, which “seemed to be eating either each other or us”. Later, this was curiously echoed in Jenkins’ description of the psychoanalysis sessions he tried to replace with gardening: “what if you go at a bad time, then they take you apart – how many wings can I take off? How many legs do you need to walk?”
At this point, however, it was interesting to observe Beck’s different reactions to Fowler and Jenkins’ musings. A life-long gardener and current vendor of beautiful homegrown flowers, Beck perhaps identified a little more with Jenkins’ fondness for cultivated care, and seemed slightly troubled by Fowler’s temporary abandonment of her own carefully curated garden in favour of littered and untamed post-industrial waterscapes – sometimes containing questionable human characters in addition to the aforementioned arachnids. At first she enquired whether Fowler took herself away from gardening as a “punishment”, which the latter vehemently denied (“I just took a year off!”), and later she pointed out that “some of those Edgeland places are really creepy”, specifically recalling a paragraph in which Fowler described a man videoing her for a little too long. However, Fowler was quick to reassure her that barring one incident, she actually felt remarkably safe in the canals: “nobody can get to you when you’re in a boat, sitting in the water”.
This idea of escape, then, of removing yourself from others and your daily routine in order to think, focus, and ultimately find yourself again, was the final theme of the conversation – as was the gentle rhythmic pace that can lead to such a rediscovery, be it in the routines of gardening or the patterns of boating. Fowler used the beautiful phrase “the song of the paddle” for the latter, while Jenkins extended this idea of flow to the writing process itself, describing it vividly as like the flight of a kite, “catching the wind and going with that” – quite unlike his usual note-based proceedings.
When Beck asked whether any of these processes had eventually “ended something”, however, both authors were reticent to impose any finality or resolution on their experiences. Jenkins said, “I don’t believe in catharsis at all, I believe in kindness and tenderness and care”, while Fowler explained that her late coming-out had not necessarily brought happiness, but “immense peace – inner peace I didn’t know you could have”.
Fowler’s assertion at the end of the conversation that “I’m true to myself and that’s really important” then set the scene for a brief but engaging Q&A session on the nature of truth, and what it meant to Jenkins and Fowler. Once again, neither writer claimed to have any authority on the matter, but Fowler spoke of how helpful the process of telling her own truth had been to her, while Jenkins stressed the importance of being honest with oneself: “I tell my brother’s story, and even if I just told it for myself, I wouldn’t shy from it”. Finally, one audience member brought the session to a close with the thoughtful statement that “sometimes the most we can do is not lie to ourselves, and sometimes that’s enough for the here and now, so thank you for that”. It was a fitting sentiment that I’m sure was shared by the rest of the audience – as well as by any readers of Jenkins’ and Fowler’s expressive, intimate and gently thought-provoking tales.
Durham Book Festival continues until 15th October, bringing an array of writers, poets and thinkers to the city. And if you are interested in the links between writing and gardening, you might want to check out a talk on eighteenth-century gardens and how they shaped the English landscape, which forms part of our Walpole Legacies series.