A month into a new year and there are still many restrictions and uncertainties in our lives. I always feel disorientated in January, as if I have been propelled a little too abruptly across the calendar changeover. Creativity has been at a low ebb, and many of my writer friends have said the same. Anything that tweaks those grey cells in a positive way is therefore most welcome.
At the time of writing, I’m doing some virtual gardening. NRK is showing Gardener’s World. This series is from 2018, so dear old Nigel the dog is still following Monty Don and his wheelbarrow. I love learning about the different plants and seeing what people can achieve in all seasons and weathers. I will probably never get to own a garden now – and truth to tell, I had an on/off relationship with it when I had one in the past – but I’d love at least a balcony and a few pots or window boxes. Also unlikely unless I win the lottery!
What I can say with certainty is that simply being able to watch these gardens evolve on TV is like balm to the soul right now. Calming and relaxing – the power of nature. There are some very pretty and well-designed tiny gardens dotted around even here in Bergen city centre. I like to wander past and check out progress. As we are currently experiencing the coldest January for over ten years, there is not much sign of even a brave snowdrop yet.
One programme in particular caught my eye – featuring the Bosco Vertikale in Milan. Two high-rise blocks where an architect has created practically a vertical forest, trees and bushes planted on every level, right in the city centre. There are so many environmental benefits to this. The trees also provide welcome shade, and a home for accompanying insect and bird life. This is a real move in the right direction. And respect to the “flying gardeners” who carry out all the maintenance suspended from ropes!
I’m still working my way through the pile of books I awarded myself, and I received an exciting new collection of notebooks as well. One, gifted by my daughter, is full of a series of paint shades, one or two per page, complete with their evocative names. The idea is to approach a page per day and write or sketch whatever is inspired by the colours. I find it works very well – a form of automatic writing flowing freely for five minutes. Already, reading back over the last weeks, I see some nuggets of ideas for possible use later. Keeping the grey cells perky! Now I’m considering similar lists which could be utilised to kick start the imagination. If you think about it, seeds and plants often have names which should make a writer’s “what if?” muscle kick in. And I just discovered there is a miniature tulip named Lady Jane. Hmm. I wonder….
The ideal food in this chilly weather is a homemade soup. Also ideal, from my point of view, because you can eat with one hand whilst reading a book. It is great for utilising leftover root veg, for example. Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to flavour combos. I have just produced an oven-roasted tomato and a cream of potato and celery, but the current favourite is the wonderfully-named Mulligatawny.
This year, whilst we are still so short on company and chances to celebrate being together with friends, I decided it was even more important to pay proper respects to the poet Robert Burns, on Burns Night. Burns Supper for One. At home. Miraculously, there is one place in Bergen where they make traditional haggis. I’ve no idea how this came to pass, but anyway, I gratefully collected a small one. (As you know, the little devils are hard to catch…) I have been lucky enough to enjoy a proper haggis supper, complete with the ceremonial piper, on two occasions at Moniack Mhor, the Writing Centre near Loch Ness. Current restrictions have prevented me attending any more courses there so far, but I remember fondly the good times experienced with new friends. We’ll meet there again! I toasted the memories with my wee dram and even posted a video of my reading of “The Poem”, Address to a Haggis. Max was suspicious of my new accent but discovered, to his delight, that he loves haggis (though without the whisky sauce).
Animals are such a comfort. Whenever I find myself wearing a huge smile on my walks, it is usually because I have just met a new four-legged friend. Yesterday it was one cat and two dogs. We communicated and I continued on my way, the better for it. No wonder animal visits to the sick and elderly are so highly valued. I just watched a puppy gambolling in the snow, not quite able to coordinate his long limbs but just loving life. I laughed. Max, watching out the window, looked scornful. The expression he reserves for dogs or my attempts at yoga.
Gardens return to my attention. The more I watched these programmes, the more I saw parallels to the writing process – to life. What elements do you want to bring forward? A garden shouldn’t be too predictable or safe. Which plants – or words – suit the conditions you have? (Like hair maybe: work with what you have, develop it) Maintenance – the boring weeding (or editing) yields results. Protect and nurture tender beginnings. You need to adapt. Sometimes you need to radically and brutally prune. How painful it is to cast away pages you have worked on – only later to realise how much your work has blossomed as a result. And as writers are often told, add in some wildlife or animals. They add depth and a whole new play of characters.
There is no such thing as colours that don’t “go” with each other in nature. Why do we get so bothered about that? Look around you. Variety in planting, like writing, is more interesting. Monty Don says remember to stop and take in the garden – keep assessing and enjoying. Reading back bits of what you have written aloud lets you feel the shape of it, as well as the pace. Much like photography, don’t forget to look behind you! The affinity between gardening and writing just keeps appearing to me as I watch: make sure you don’t give it all away in one go. There should be a surprise around every corner. Expect the unexpected! Take care of your tools – that means the writer too. Don’t forget that handy trompe l’oeuil effect – works both in a garden design and in a novel.
Hopefully at the end of all that hard work you can sit back and watch your efforts bloom for a while. It is true that gardening and the craft or writing is hard work and takes perseverance. Watch out for pests! Dont get distracted down the wrong garden path, or stay admiring your one prize plant for too long – others are quietly getting out of control (like the mint). Thank goodness that most of us still have access to the world outside our doors (unless in quarantine) and are free to watch Nature getting on with it, as she always has. I look forward to the birdsong and those first green shoots. Meanwhile, brighten up with some flowers. I have yellow tulips on the table. Their proud, determined colour is stunning, and brings hope and resilience into the room. February- wipe your feet and come in! Welcome!