Nature, Bounteous

Twenty years ago or so, Katherine Swift was commuting weekly to Dublin, where she worked as Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College. But her husband wasn’t happy with the arrangement – he missed her, and so he set out to tempt her home. Always knowing that she wanted above all to create a garden, he searched for the right project, and eventually found The Dower House at Morville in Shropshire, a National Trust property offered for lease to applicants for a period of twenty years at a time. Swift had no formal training and was not an artist, so rather than submit the usual drawn plans for the garden, she described it instead, in a long essay written from the point of view of a visitor walking through it, vibrantly alive to its richness, complexity and beauty. Having read her book, I’m not at all surprised that the unorthodox plan won the National Trust over. Swift moved in, and had an acre of rough grazing land at her disposal, to create the garden of her dreams.

Whilst The Morville Hours tells the story of that garden, it is only a small fraction of the hybrid, many-faceted narrative. No single description of the book will do. It’s a subtle treatise on living in harmony with the real, seasonal, material world, on regaining a primitive, profoundly satisfying relation to our basic selves, in a way that explains why the word ‘nature’ can refer to both the inner world and the outer one. It’s a meandering journey through the course of the year, reflecting on the traditions, religious and pagan, that structure it, and the wisdom, both of mythology and of good sense, that informs the way we organize our lives. It’s a love affair with the land, with its underlying geological history, a magnificent recognition of the powerful forces that went into its creation, so much greater than us mere mortals, and with the endless gentle cycle of life that flourishes upon it. It’s an artist’s appreciation of nature, exalting in the depth of perception that lifts us out of ourselves, shows us the true meaning of beauty. It’s a fragmentary autobiography about a miserable childhood, transcended by work, ambition, passion. It’s a lovingly reconstructed history of a house that weathered the ages and encompassed the varied and lively stories of its many inhabitants. How to reconcile all these different elements? Well, in some ways there is no need – Swift guides us with terrific elegance through the changing landscape of her thoughts. Hers is a gorgeously personal voice, evocative in its descriptions, zinging with senses, always sharp and interesting and astute. Reading The Morville Hours, what you get is the story of an informed, wise, appreciative mind, deeply engaged in what’s most real and enduring in life, yet also fascinated by the stories that cluster around a place and bring layer upon layer of meaning to the experience of living in it.

But what I liked best were the parts that Swift spoke from her own experience. Here she is, beaten down by the end of summer heat:

‘In August the garden begins to run out of steam, and so do I. These are the dog days, the days about the heliacal rising of the Dog Star, noted from ancient times as the hottest and most unwholesome period of the year, a period when malevolent influences were thought to prevail. A sort of inertia sucks at my heels as I walk through the garden, slowing my progress to a reluctant crawl. I visit the garden less and less, becoming a stranger – visit the far reaches of the garden not at all. Seed heads dry and shake their contents onto ground baked hard by the sun. The roses in the Long Border begin to repeat and I almost wish they wouldn’t. This second burgeoning of leaf and bud seems almost indecent. Let them die in peace. The peas bloom grey mildew in the heat. Pots go unwatered. The turf seats in the Cloister Garden turn brown and dry. There are flashes of summer lightning on the edge of the garden, like the twitch of a nerve, but still no rain.’

There are so many wonderful descriptions that I don’t know where to begin. This is how she describes her apple harvest: ‘These are not the flawless spherical fruit of supermarket shelves, but the Quasimodos and Cyranos of the apple world, humped and bossed, flat-round and oblong-conical, with basins ribbed, puckered and russeted, eyes open and closed, skin flushed, striped, spotted and seamed, flesh redolent of acid drops and honey, pear drops and strawberries, pineapples, hazelnuts, aniseed and cloves.’ This is such an alive book, a book where nature lives and breathes through the pages, bringing the lovely, funny, all-accepting realness of the world into the reader’s mind. Gardeners may be subject to all the deadly sins, as Swift confesses readily, but gardens, landscapes, skies, simply are what they are, and therein lies their beauty. So it’s not surprising that this book urges the reader to live in congruence with the truth of that world, alongside the reality of our deepest urges and instincts. ‘Sloth is more than mere procrastination,’ Swift writes. ‘The concept of time being sanctified by use is fundamental to the Hours [of the divine office that marked out the monastic day]: to waste time is to waste our most precious asset, time upon this earth. This does not mean we should everlastingly be working in our gardens. Simply sitting and enjoying the garden is not doing nothing: it is the attentiveness of which the Hours speak. To watch time passing, noting the changes month by month, day by day, hour by hour – to live, as Thoreau said, deliberately – is a sort of sanctification in itself.  It is Indifference which is the real sin.’

There are not many books I end, thinking I would like to start them over again. The Morville Hours is undoubtedly one of them. Like the garden, it has its imperfect moments, sometimes the fragments from Swift’s childhood are too fragmentary, sometimes the information given isn’t uniformly engaging – a long description of different types of scythes almost made me laugh. But it really doesn’t matter, and it would be churlish to protest in a narrative landscape of such delight and richness. This was a book that stitched me into the natural world, something I daily transcend with thoughtless ease, and I was very grateful for it.

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20 thoughts on “Nature, Bounteous

  1. I do like a non-fiction book that defies categorization and it sounds like “The Morville Hours” is one of those. I will definitely be looking for a copy after reading your eloquent praise of it. The passage that you quote above reminds me a bit of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful essay collection “Findings” which I highly recommend.

  2. This is a beautifully written post about what appears to be a beautifully written book. I’m going on-line to see if I can order it from somewhere as I’d like to read it as soon as I finish Slaves of Solitude. I hadn’t heard of Swift before, but I think this book will be just the ticket in what has been a poopy month so far.

  3. I’ve just reserved this at the library. I love this kind of writing — it could be about anything, really, but when a writer so obviously loves her subject, there’s something really compelling about the resulting product. (Your writing is like this, by the way!) I hope you’re well and that the big pipe in the study is getting taken care of! xoxo

  4. Sounds like something for me, and my wife would probably enjoy it too. You write about it in such a delightful way, making the book sound equally so and yet another layer arrives on the tbr pile. I guess if I’m an addict you must be my dealer! And I have just added a few tempting volumes with no help at all, down at the local discount store. By the way I’ve just finished Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and if you haven’t read it I think you would like it.

  5. You had me hooked with your first sampling, but this review will have me picking this up today when I head into town. It sounds absolutely delightful and I know I’ll be sending a copy to my mother for her birthday as well – she is an avid gardener and loves stories of intriguing projects.

  6. Ok, this seals it. I’m getting this book! She’s living one of my fantasies only mine usually starts with me being caretaker of Sissinghurst and then moves to creating gardens from an acre of scrub. :)

  7. kate – this is most certainly an unclassifiable book! I do think they are the most interesting ones, and I love the hybridity in contemporary non-fiction. It’s really exciting. Thank you so much for a fantastic recommendation, too. I’ll be looking up that essay collection.

    Grad – poor you! Poopy months are the pits. You deserve something more uplifting and heartening than a book, but in the meantime, a very beautiful, uplifting and heartening book might stop the gap.

    Bloglily – yes, someone said once to me that writing with your head and your heart engaged was the way forward, and it’s so true here. Thank you for the good wishes about my monstrous pipe. We have hope it might be altered and improved!

    Lilian – I would love to know what you think about it. It is truly lovely.

    Bookboxed – I was so hoping you’d read this post, because this book is perfect for you. When I was reading it, I was thinking how much you might like it. Mind you, I don’t want to oversell because then it’s hard for a book to meet up to expectations. But you know us dealers, always something we have to push. ;) Do you know, I love Atwood but have yet to read Cat’s Eye. I most certainly will get to it.

    Verbivore – I’d love to know what you think of it – and what your mother thinks of it too, if you get hold of copies! I do think the range of information it encompasses would appeal to you.

    Charlotte – there are lots of funny moments like that. But I must say that I wouldn’t think of myself as someone who liked gardening or nature books. It’s a bit of a one-off really! And yes, very beautiful.

    Stefanie – lol! That’s a great fantasy. Mine only involve being left alone for a long time and actually getting some writing done! ;) But I do think you’d like this book and would love to know what you think of it.

  8. I think I had to read “Keeper of the Rare Books” several times as my eyes just glazed over and imagining what a fantastic job that would be! haha…

    Lovely review of this book. I’m definitely adding it to my list.

  9. What a lovely, lovely review. It reminds me much of how I felt after I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – and I definitely want to recapture that feeling. And, as a new gardener with nothing but frustrations thus far, I need some encouragement and a reminder that the connection to the natural world is of overriding importance. Thank you!

  10. I always worry that nature writing will bore me, but this sounds like it wouldn’t. Of course, it sounds like it’s doing all kinds of things and isn’t “just” nature writing — not to dismiss nature writing! (more than I already have …) I agree with Kate that nonfiction that defies categorization is fascinating — this sounds like just my thing!

  11. This books sounds terrific, I think I will have to get it. In a way I wish I was at all interested in gardening, but I’m happy enough to read about it so long as I am not required to do any. Although I do have a garden dream that one day I’ll have an Elizabethan herb garden.

  12. illiana -lol! I get the impression it WAS a fantastic job, and Swift needed a really good reason to leave it. I’d love to know what you think of this if you read it.

    Courtney – Now that’s another book I’d like to read. I’ve never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver and I must do so. I’m not much of a gardener, but I certainly wanted to BE in my garden after reading this!

    Dorothy – lol! I do know exactly what you mean! If someone had said to me I’d love a book on gardening, I wouldn’t have believed them. But just like you I love hybrid, unclassifiable books, and it certainly fits in that category!

    Ms Musings – ah you will like this; one of the gardens Swift creates is an Elizabethan knot garden made of herbs. She talks about the history of them and what the herbs were used for. I would love for one to spring up overnight in my garden, but that’s the only way it will get there. :D

  13. Some people have all the luck, don’t they? Doing something that they feel passionate about–and it certainly sounds like she’s passionate about this garden. My copy will hopefully be showing up sometimes soon–I ordered it after you mentioned it before–now I can’t wait!

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