Visiting a garden: the approach, attitude, pace and conduct are prescribed. To fall into a border, to go too swiftly or lazily, to look in the wrong direction – the unspoken corralling of behaviour in relation to visiting sites of horti-culture, are so familiar. We speak and think of gardens as opportunities for encountering space and time, yet the rules of behaviour and expected mode of visitor comportment in the garden are as high as the tall yew hedges.
Megan Calver has made a new piece of work as part of the Abundance Garden Trail, at Henley Mill, near Wookey in Somerset – Sally Gregson’s garden. Abundance is a partnership programme between Somerset Art Works and National Garden Scheme, to place 7 artists in 7 gardens around Somerset, and to make new work in response, and curated by Zoe Li.
Studying and thinking over many months, and visiting Henley Mill over the year since spring, Megan has drawn together her connections, and made some astute choices to find an absorbing structure enabling the visitor to encounter, to be embodied, to peruse the layers and for me crucially the ‘culture’ of the garden.
There’s a welcome, a stepping into the Gregson’s back porch where the ordinary gardening coats are hung. Beside the row of dingy anoraks, are some bespoke tailored reversible coats – a choice of wool green ‘camouflage’ or flower pattern ‘display’. Then the invitation from Megan to choose and wear one. Initial wariness becomes pleasure, curiosity. The sleeves are not sleeves, the shoulders high, constriction, formality, and slits rather than cuffs where my hands appear.
I set off around the garden alone with a key ring of plant labels, each holding a written invitation: possible destinations and approaches.
Eager to be away, I then slow down. There is some abundance here in this garden – an array of different blue salvias, crowded with bees. Plants at the end of summer all in amongst each other. I drift around relaxing, arriving, appreciating what only a large garden with spacious borders and multiple spaces can do.
“Perhaps, strolling through the garden, the only thing we can be assured of is that we, and all manner of things, are here now” (Megan’s note)
Staring at a long herbaceous border, with a cut lawn, in my formal coat, red hot pokers appear absurd, and the garden a privilege. The visitor is in a unique position of not having the ongoing relationship of labour or care. No missed opportunities or planting failures are being held in mind, and the momentum and cycle of desires is invisible.
I walk backwards and forwards through a huge oat grass with my eyes closed. The formality of the coat and the straight back and restrained contact my arms have, are encouraging me.
A walk out along a narrow ‘boardwalk’ – a kind of foot high herbaceous border safari – leads me to view the large gunnera to look down on its huge leaves – how amazing they are, really. I don’t even like the plant particularly, but it demands such attention and admiration. This is a striking mature garden full of different spaces and species, opportunities to wander and bordered on all sides by water.
A tea set, cups and plates floating on the mill stream. The haw-haw tea and cake associated with visiting country gardens, are not on sale. Like Lilly-pads, china leaves and flower forms, faking, mimicking. Wrapped china British Birds in black nylon cord, their beaks just escaping, in a basket. Others hung between branches and the ground, suspended flight, fallen. I collect some windfall apples from a basket too.
And finally in the vegetable garden, other birds and winged creatures: carved carrots in a stupendous line. Crafted by hand in a Thai restaurant for decoration, they create such a powerful presence here, returned to stand in a glorious orange row, the root crop upended and full of other beings. A vegetable becomes a kind of flower – unreal.
Walking back I see one of the garden’s own decorations – one of those ‘African-style’ head mask things, with grasses on the top of its head, so it looks like hair. The absolute ridiculous strangeness of this ‘sculpture’ amplified by the so-much-saner carrots and birds.
Megan has created a way of entering, being and experiencing this garden. I leave softer and weirder.
all images by Megan Calver