Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 26 February 2018 by Tim Ingram
The Importance of Place.
The Importance of Place
Writing these entries here is rather like making the garden I describe because both contact much more widely to cultural contexts and experience from outside. So the garden contacts to so many people I meet at events we go to, talks I give, Plant Fairs and sales, and most of all where we live as well as the botanical world itself. And these Diary entries specifically to a gratitude, and sometimes critique, of membership of the AGS and other Plant Societies and how much I learn from others growing and writing about plants.
Why should this be so much focussed for me now though? Probably for two reasons. One that making the garden and running the nursery has become harder and more tiring with age - and in the present unhappy time of politics - and secondly that the recompense and stimulation comes from locality and the people we meet. And this results from opening the garden and attending Plant Fairs, and also at our local market (even though most people in town are not especially interested in the more unusual plants we grow), and in this particular weekend at a cultural event happening beyond the garden - the Faversham Literary Festival http://www.favershamliteraryfestival.org.
This is the first year a Literary Festival has been held here but it lends itself perfectly to the event as a small town with strong historical roots and artistic culture. It was an inspired idea by those who have organised it, the Festival Directors, Amanda Dackombe and Louise Frith, and has been a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating weekend with around 40 authors, many local to Kent and some from the town itself, as well as nationally significant figures and a special part devoted to children. We went to three of the talks, which I will describe here for the wider resonance they have with plants and natural history. And to one more, from the War Correspondent Martin Bell on his book 'War and the Death of the News', which so sadly chimes with the present day. This is a picture of Martin Bell and his colleague and journalist Julia Wheeler, in conversation with the audience.
The effect of the weekend overall has been to re-introduce reason into what seem such chaotic times - the result of thoughtful writing and conversation, and simply the time to sit back and listen to these people who have put so much personal experience and passion into the books they have written.
The first talk we went to was by Peter Fiennes, speaking with Anna Stanford, on his book 'Oak and Ash and Thorn'. This was stimulated by the proposal of Government in 2010 to sell off our public woods, and the overwhelming negative response to this from people up and down the country and, as he says in his introduction: 'I found myself wondering: what kind of demented ideologue would want to sell them off?'
From this followed a year travelling and visiting woods throughout the country and immersing himself in the literature of woodlands, less in an analytical and scientific way - though that is there - than in their social and emotional meaning to everyone who walks in them and gains insights from them. In this sense it is a book for our time when in once and the same moment we have the City Council of Sheffield cutting down large numbers of perfectly healthy mature trees because they are 'too expensive' to manage, and Government (after its monumental failure of democratic and cultural understanding) now proposing the planting of a vast new 'forest' crossing the country from west to east, infiltrating the great cities of the Midlands, and doubling the tree cover in a region amongst the most impoverished in the country. The irony and short term nature of political thought is not hard to discern.
Kent is still one of the most wooded counties in the country, despite heavy pressures from development (and no reason for complacency), and has the highest count of truly 'ancient' woodlands. And these places are not only wonderful to walk through and study but also inspire our plantings in the garden. So Peter Fiennes' book instills hope that the relatively low tree cover in the UK, compared with Europe as a whole, is on the turn, and with it a greater ecological perspicacity. In this his book stands in the same tradition as those by other highly informed writers and at a time of strong literary environmental emphasis.
What Peter Fiennes' book does for trees and woodland, Alex Preston and Neil Gower's does for birds. 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' is a particularly beautiful book, illustrated with unique paintings from Neil Gower - an internationally recognised illustrator who has also designed the covers of books by Bill Bryson. The partnership between himself and Alex Preston - an avid bird-watcher since childhood, and accomplished writer - has resulted in something very special, crossing between ornithology, literary anthology, and fine art.
Even more telling is their commitment to the craft of book publishing at a time when the Internet and ebooks have made this ever more difficult and competitive (and at times mediocre). The rapport between the two of them was palpable from their conversation and description of how the book was put together. They are pictured here with editor and author Andy Miller, who introduced and questioned them.
The title of the book comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which catches that individual essence of a specific bird - the Kingfisher - in the eye of the observer. Neil Gower's paintings catch that same impression, drawn from Alex Preston's words, showing how much of a partnership this book is, and I have picked out this one example of the Curlew as an example.
The final talk was very local and intimate, from Carol Donaldson 'On the Marshes', an exploration of the sometimes bleak and featureless, but wildlife-rich, North Kent Marshes.
More than this though, it is a very personal immersion in this place, the landscape and the people and history, and the degradation and thoughtlessness, as well as the hidden beauty and detail. And a discovery of self from a troubled past and challenging present, which has given her an ability to communicate in an unique way with many different people, including farmers, environmental organisations - and those of us in the audience - about the importance of preserving and connecting specific habitats for wildlife along this coast. This is her in conversation with Peter Saxton from Waterstones.
In this her work closely compares with that of Nikki Gammans who talked to us a while ago about re-introduction of the Short-haired bumblebee http://www.alpinegardensociety.net/diaries/Kent/+October+/783/.
Both of these conservation incentives carry especial resonance with Faversham and those of us living here because of our proximity to what is such an unique wetland/saltwater environment and all the wildlife it supports, just as at that same time the town is facing unprecedented pressures of development. Perhaps more than anything else her comment that she hopes people will get out and discover this detail for themselves and react to it as she has - in other words really value it - was the most telling message of all. And there is no doubting her sincerity and commitment to this place.
Others have written in similar vein, in particular the locally produced book 'Of the North Kent Marshes' by Ian Jackson and Keith Robinson, and 'The Natural History of the Isle of Sheppey', published by the Kent Field Club and edited by a local friend, the entomologist John Badmin.
All of these books show how important is 'place' and how we discover and understand it, and they follow a long tradition of scholarship and emotional attachment to where one lives. This doesn't seem so very different to investing time and effort into making a garden and understanding plants, and the Literary Festival certainly caught my imagination in ways that I have rarely found so deeply since my childhood and time in academia.