Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Four Hedges - Clare Leighton


I have no recollection why I put Clare Leighton's Four Hedges (1935) on my Amazon wishlist, but I'm assuming it was either because of a blogger or something Slightly Foxed mentioned (any guesses/answers?) - but it was enough to get my good friend Clare (not Leighton) to send this beautiful Little Toller edition to me for my birthday last year.  And where better to read a book about a garden, thought I, than in a garden.  So over the past few days, I've been reading it in study breaks from doing DPhil editing.  And reading it in a hammock.  Jealous at all?

It really wouldn't have worked to read Four Hedges in a city, because it is such a hymn to nature.  It's non-fiction (I always seem to forget that you can't know these things unless I mention them), and tells of Leighton's experience creating a garden, through the course of a year - the year isn't dated, but the garden is about three years old, and presumably it wasn't long before the book was published in 1935.


As you might have guessed by the cover, the book is filled with Leighton's woodcuts (I assume 'engravings on wood', as they are termed in the book, are the same as woodcuts?)  It was this that undoubtedly attracted me to Four Hedges - there is something so simply and dignified about a woodcut; such a celebration of the forms and movements of nature.  Leighton writes at one point that people don't appreciate the feel of nature enough, valuing only sight, sound, and smell - and, later, writes that flowers are considered too much for their colours, rather than their shapes.  Woodcuts are a rebuttal to both these errors, aren't?  Without colour, they somehow offer texture as well as appearance - at least, they do in the hands of a craftswoman like Leighton.


As you would suppose, a lot of her woodcuts show plants - and I can only presume that they are accurate, and might well be of especial interest to the botanist.  For my part, I particularly appreciated the ones with people or animals in them.  For I am almost entirely ignorant about nature.

That's a shocking thing to confess, for a country-boy who is desperate to get away from the city (even a city as beautiful as Oxford) and live in the countryside.  Right now I'm in my parents' garden in Somerset, listening to the cows in the adjacent field eating parts of the hedge (indeed, I can see a couple about two metres to my left) and I love it.  One day I will write properly about my deep love for everything about villages.  But, with nature, my love is passionate but uninformed.  I love nature in the way that I love friends - joyously living alongside them, discovering more about them when they want to share, but not needing to know everything in order to love.

But I was a bit nervous before starting Four Hedges.  A few years ago I read some letters between gardeners and, while I enjoyed the camaraderie and friendship, I didn't have much of a clue what was going on.  I don't know when certain plants need bedding, or when others need pruning.  Latin names are so many Flowerus floweriori to me.  I love gardens, but I love walking through them and not doing an ounce of work in them - because I loathe gardening.

Luckily, Four Hedges was still perfect for me.  True, Leighton took it for granted that her reader loved gardening, and would be entirely unable to resist weeding (believe me, I resist it very easily), but she also writes in a way that can be loved by anybody.  She writes about watching birds being reared and caterpillars metamorphosing; she writes about a baby goat moving into a nearby field, and the perils of windy days - most importantly of all, she writes about her thoughts, feelings, and responses.  It is a delight to hear how thrilled she is about bulb catalogues, and I was swept away with her admiration for certain weeds, reclaiming them from gardeners' snobbery.

It struck me how timeless this book was.  No mention is made of experiences outside the garden - barely even the house, to the extent that I thought there wasn't a house for a great part of the book.  Certainly no hints of a forthcoming war (which was obvious to most by the mid-'30s) or anything like that.  Everything in Four Hedges could be happeningin 1835, or today - the only anachronism would be the non-electric mower and the scythe.  (Having said that, in the last place I lived in Oxford, our landlords only gave us a non-electric mower - one of their very many oddities.)

Although Leighton does not write humorously (nor intends to), there is a great deal in common between joyful writing and comic writing.  They reach towards the same goal, of sharing and bringing delight - and Leighton is so joyful, so able to find excitement and hope in the smallest detail, that it is a lift to the spirits to read her words, even for the non-gardener.  And which entirely humourless gardener, after all, would write this:
We should never take our gardens too seriously.  It is hard to curb ourselves in this, if we have any love for our plants, even as it is difficult to take a walk round the garden without pulling up weeds.  But too professional an attitude is apt to give us the same taut, strained feeling that comes into the faces and lives of all specialists.  It is better to have a few weeds and untidy edges to our flowers beds, and to enjoy our garden, than to allow ourselves to be dominated by it.  To be able occasionally to shut our eyes to weeds is a great art.  Let us relax in our gardens, and as a dear old countrywoman used to say, let us "poddle" in them.  We waste else the very beauty for which we have worked.
I am never in danger of taking gardening too seriously, but it is refreshing to hear Leighton say this nonetheless - any expert or avid hobbyist should include humour and self-awareness in their activities, shouldn't they?  Now excuse me while I tend to my book collection - it's getting rather overgrown, and it's threatening to take over the floor.  A bit of weeding, and it'll be fine.

24 comments:

  1. I do so like this post. I love gardens and nature but not the actual gardening bit!

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    1. It seems there are a few kindred spirits here!

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  2. I reviewed this on my blog a year or so ago so may have mentioned it on the doves list. I love woodcuts & CL's are very beautiful.

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    1. That's what it'll be! Thanks for the inadvertent recommendation :)

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  3. Ah, you are the same kind of gardener I am -- an appreciator! :) I just recently discovered Beverley Nichols and have found that it doesn't matter if I don't have a clue what plant he is talking about -- it's about the experience. That said, when he mentions classical music, I have to go look up the piece on youtube if I don't recognize it so that I can fully appreciate the atmosphere. I think I have added this one to my wish list already, but I'm off to be sure. Greetings to OVW, and may you have a wonderful time at home!

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    1. Appreciator sounds so much better than 'lazy', so I'll use your word! I *still* haven't read Nichols, and I have loads - I really must do it sometime.

      When Linda Gillard mentioned a piece in The House of Silence, I went away and discovered that on Youtube, and now I love it dearly.

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  4. I love gardening and nature and I have NO problems reading such books in the middle of a large city! Why on earth should where you sing your hymns make a difference to what you are praising? Puzzled rather than being contradictory for the hell of it let me reassure you.

    Just back from CERN and loved seeing the orchids coming into flower there; usually over by June. Also all the black kites wheeling around over the countryside near Geneva (and in the city too, just like our Red Kites did centuries ago) and the swifts and hearing the blackcap sing etc.

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    1. I shall answer your puzzlement! I wouldn't be able to read this in a city, because it would just make me hanker for the countryside too much - every page would fill me with envy for people in the countryside, and it would drive me crazy!

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  5. The woodcuts are beautiful. When I'm not too hay-fevery, I enjoy a 'poddle' in my garden, or TBR piles come to that!

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    1. Ha! Yes, I poddle amongst books most of the time...

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  6. *giggle* I'm delighted to see the word poddle in print, it's one my mother's family used and I've not heard it in years. Since I am of the-people-who-love-seed-catalogues I am sure I would very much enjoy such a charming gardener's thoughts. Added to my wishlist. :)

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    1. I'd never heard of it before, I must confess!
      If you actually like gardening, you'd DEFINITELY love this.

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  7. For some more gardening letters, and an appreciation of gardens you could try Ann Scott-James gardening books, including "Gardening Letters to my daughter".

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  8. Hi Simon, those are indeed look like wood engravings and not wood cuts. Different tools (gouges for wood cuts) and wood cuts work with the grain of the wood, wood engraving uses end-grain blocks and a burin. Essentially invented by the wonderful Thomas Bewick who made some stunning wood engravings of birds. In C20 Gill and Ravillious might well be considered masters of this technique.

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    1. Thank you very much for filling me in on that! Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people - but now I am one of them too.

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  9. Oh, very nice. I had no idea she was a writer as well as a woodcut artist. I have one book of hers (from when my partner's father decided to clear out his bookshelves and offered everything to everyone): Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts. 1932.

    Actually, I know very little about her, except she comes up in Vera Brittain's memoirs, since Roland was her brother.

    What a perfect setting for your reading. Yes, Simon, I am jealous. Also, I'm impressed that you can take a break at all with the edits of your DPhil hanging fire. When I have edits looming, everything else suffers.

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    1. If only I had that mindset! I did get a lot done whilst in Somerset, but I didn't struggle to take breaks...

      I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of her work - and a book just of wood-engravings and woodcuts would be delightful too. Were they mostly nature-based?

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  10. I love gardens - especially sitting in them and reading, definitely not gardening. All I ever do in the way of gardening is mowing and weeding, not much fun! It's a relief to read that Clare Leighton felt like that about weeds, because I do too. anyway, you've made me want to read this book, which has to be a good thing.

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    1. Absolutely! I have the same attitude to gardening that you do (well, I only ever seem to mow, I don't even get as far as weeding.) They also had a gardener, but they seem to spend most of the book telling him not to do things! (like get rid of weeds they think are beautiful).

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  11. Greetings from Cornwall - where our 'garden' is a 2' x 5' plot around a corner (where we can't see it from the cottage)and only needed watering! The more immediate 'garden' is a run of pebbles leading to a gate, 3' of concrete pathway, a railing and... the sea! Constant movement, changes in light, bobbing boats and wheeling seagulls - ahhhhh.
    Back to the weeding all too soon!

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    1. Charley much admired your garden! But yes, the sea is an aspect of a garden which requires very little weeding.

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  12. Simon, I have been catching up with your posts and love the look of this book. I hope you don't mind, I mentioned the book and linked to your post on BB&C on 8 June. I hope I haven't broken blogger etiquette by doing so! Anyway, I ordered this book and it is winging its way to me. Thanks for the recommendation.

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    1. Thanks for the link! I'm delighted to bring this book to a slightly wider audience - although several people seem to have got there before me :)

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