Excerpt from Scrub, an essay collection proposal by Caroline Harris

Over the next few months we will be celebrating the work of the shortlisted authors from our 2021 call for essay collections. Excerpts from their proposals will be showcased here on our blog. Excerpts have been left largely unedited, aside from minor changes to formatting and typos. This is to give a sense of the wide variety of writing that engaged us during the reading of submissions. All of the entries were unique, and interested us for different reasons.

Caroline Harris – photo supplied by the author.

Caroline Harris is a writer, poet and publisher whose pamphlets include SCRUB Management Handbook No.1 Mere (Singing Apple Press) and Type Flight and Cut-out Bambi (Small Birds Press), with poetry also in Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology (Crested Tit Collective). Caroline is currently researching a PhD on the poetics of deer. Follow Caroline on Twitter @carolineyolande and also @waitingfordeer (poetry-related feed) and on Instagram @carolineyolande.

My garden is not really a garden. It has not been tended. It has been left, for the past four-and-a-half years, to rewild itself, with only occasional human interventions (to even get into it, I now need hedge shears). This garden no longer has a cottage that it belongs to. For the past twenty-nine months it has not had a human purpose – not even to collect flowers and ferns – except to be here when I visit.  

My garden has never really been my garden. I inherited this small rectangle from my parents, who lived in the village for more than twenty-five years. I refer to it as the ‘garden land’, expressing my confusion over whether it is an asset – a piece of property – or a place that needs looking after, or simply a site: a well of soil and vegetation and life behind a dry-stone wall on one of the village’s main roads. As I talk with my not-really-neighbour (I do not live next door or even next-village, only occasionally now, and especially since the pandemic, venturing across from where I live), I feel a prickly, scrubby knot of emotions. 

I attempt a little tidying, picking up some litter blown in from the road. Tentatively, with gloved hands, I move some of the woody, thorny rose stems to beneath a low shelter, where my parents used to keep their compost before the bins. I begin to pull out an empty plastic sack, ready to dispose of it, and then I see that beneath this, too, is a slow worm. I do not want to disturb it, so I put the plastic back. Slow worms are legless lizards; they look so smooth and metallic because their scales, unlike those of most snakes, lie flat and do not overlap. They can blink and will shed their tail, if necessary, as a predator distraction tactic. They do this by snapping one of their vertebrae: breaking their own backbone to save their life. Like other UK reptiles, slow worms are protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. It is an offence to intentionally kill or injure a slow worm, or to offer them for sale. However, their habitats are not so legally protected; unlike other species listed by the Act, it is not an offence to damage, destroy, or obstruct access to “any structure or place” that they “use for shelter or protection”. 

My neighbour tells me there was a brood of slow worms last year.  Perhaps I should keep this land as a micro-nature-reserve; let it do as it will, let the slow worms be. But what would the people who live here think?

***

The grand garden of Stourhead in Wiltshire is the most artificial landscape I have ever seen. To walk its carefully planned paths, to gaze over its trimmed and embellished vistas, is a sensation completely different from being in a city. In London, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Chennai you know unequivocally that you are in a human-built environment. A place of human habitation, human labour, activity, of human dust and noise, built from brick, set in concrete, a space of glass and corrugated iron, of plastic and paint, roads asphalted or trodden, thronged with buses, rickshaws, motorised scooters. With people. Stourhead is not like that; it is calm, tranquil, green. A still lake reflects the faux temples. A zigzag pathway leads into a grotto deliberately built as a ruin, its intentionally lopsided, pocked and made-to-weather stones pooled with moss, the nooks in between nestled with ferns. The National Trust website calls the garden a “timeless paradise”.   

Stourhead is just as human-made as a city, but pretends not to be. The artificiality is sur-real: laid on top of and shaping the living into a vision of a cultured Eden seen through the gaze of mid-eighteenth-century genteel Englishness. I check back with my photographs from September 2019. One looks across the lake formed from a dammed river: an almost-perfect reflection of trees in shades of green and plum to either side of a smoothly dipping valley, spanned by the hillock of a five-arch bridge. To the left, in warm, creamy stone, the columns and triangular roof of the Temple of Flora. (If I could zoom in without losing resolution, I would see an inscription in Latin: ‘Procul, o procul este profane’, which has been translated as ‘Keep away, anyone profane, keep away’.) To the right, dappled sunlight falls on a narrow beach between grass and water. There is no scrub here; not even meadow. Instead, a clean divide: the trees stop, and close-cut lawn begins, sweeping down to the valley and lake, emphasising the contours. 

The gardens were designed by the second owner of the country villa of Stourhead, situated in (or next to, or across, or on top of) the village of Stourton. The villa was constructed in the Palladian style fashionable at the time, characterised by its columns and cupolas, its triangle-topped facades, its references to the classical temples of Greece and Rome. For the achievement of the gardens, Henry Hoare II, son of the first Henry Hoare who commissioned the house, was known as “the Magnificent”. The National Trust website notes how Hoare created “a series of carefully constructed views, like scenes from a landscape painting”. In her 1958 book Garden Design, Sylvia Crowe (1901–97), one of mid-twentieth-century Britain’s most widely recognised landscape architects, analyses the transition from earlier formal gardens to such “pictorial composition”. This parkland style was, she says, the result in part of the artistic tastes and ‘grand tours’ of Europe embarked on by the elites of the time. It was made possible by the wealth and large land-holdings of aristocrats and estate-owners, and their interest in the ‘embellishment’ of those holdings. 

Henry Hoare II was not a member of the aristocracy, however, but from a banking family. The bank that his grandfather founded in 1672 is the oldest in the UK, and still providing private banking services. In a letter to his nephew, Henry II wrote of Stourhead: ‘Those are the fruits of industry and application to Business and shows what great things may be done by it.’ Crowe also notes how at this historical point in Britain, ‘the eternal struggle against nature appeared (deceptively) to have reached a point where nature was subdued and regulated; and, with the perversity of man [sic], he proceeded to enthrone her as a goddess’. Stourhead is held up as an examplar of the English landscape garden, a style famed for its attention to “the genius of the place”; its working with the existing contours, geological and ecological features; its working with ‘nature’, but it is still an artificial imposition.  

The whole of the British landscape, in fact, is artificial. Trimmed, hedged, ‘sheepwrecked’, felled, ploughed, mined, pared, trampled, riven with roads, railways, arranged in cairns, earthworks, re-routed, re-rooted with species plucked, plundered, transported from across the world. And since the era of acid rain, of the hole in the ozone layer, of climate change, microplastics, pesticide residues, every part of the planet has been seeded with the results of human activity. Does that make the whole world artificial now? And what does that even mean, since we as humans are part of the ‘nature’ we so often divide ourselves from – or certainly have done in Anglo-Euro cultures?  

Stourhead feels like a manifestation of these contradictions. 

Caroline Harris is a writer, poet and publisher whose pamphlets include SCRUB Management Handbook No.1 Mere (Singing Apple Press) and Type Flight and Cut-out Bambi (Small Birds Press), with poetry also in Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology (Crested Tit Collective). Caroline is currently researching a PhD on the poetics of deer. Follow Caroline on Twitter @carolineyolande and also @waitingfordeer (poetry-related feed) and on Instagram @carolineyolande.

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