Sunday, 30 July 2017

Grandfather's message about gardens

I'm creating a garden around our new patio, hanging baskets and laying rolls of lawn. This piece of earth was a dark wilderness, with strange dappled light and unforgiving shade. So though the space has opened up to the sun, I plant with caution relying on elegant ferns that thrive in lowish light.

As it nears completion, my grandfather’s love of gardening comes often to mind. Like us, he lived in a bungalow. One of the cherished memories of my childhood is being shown his chrysanthemums and then inspecting his concrete garden plaque with this very famous quote. It was favoured by thousands of veterans of World War One.

garden.jpg(from Our Daily Blossom - link below).The source poem is "God's Garden" lines 13–16. Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

He drew our attention to the plaque every time we visited him. It was one of his two messages to us, as children. The other one was "Enjoy your childhood : these are the best days of your life".  Even at eleven and an atheist, I knew the author was a Christian, so I wondered why my apparently unbelieving grandfather so admired it. It was never clear to me whether he was telling us about cherishing nearness to God, or the joys of gardening! Children should ask these questions at the time or they will never find out. Though brought up within a vibrant church, my grandfather went through the full horrors of World War One, and as a result probably lost his faith. He was a socialist local councillor in the 30s, but became disillusioned with left wing politics and what he saw as selfishness and financial greed. When I knew him, he voted Conservative. I never recall he went to church, but possibly, at heart, he wished he still did.

Sadly, the faith of that whole European generation was shattered by the industrialised slaughter of World War One. In early December our family reaches the centenary of his walk, aged nineteen, towards enemy machine guns in a field in remote France. Austrian gunners mowed down his entire troop of Welsh Guards, some of whom died singing hymns of unbroken faith. He survived, though badly shot, by falling into a shell hole and admirably staunching the profuse bleeding of his double wound. The arrival of a tank at dawn, then a brand new British invention, saved him. Did nearness to God in a garden somehow keep faith with the Welsh who died singing out their faith? At any rate, it is a kind of victory over the darkest days of the 20th century.

These lines were written by the daughter of the vicar of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London, granddaughter of the Bishop of London, Dorothy Frances Gurney a poet and hymnwriter. She wrote them in the visitors’ book at Hammerfield, Penshurst, Kent a house about five miles from where we live now. Part of that house was marketed last year as having a 'delightful', if now neglected and overgrown garden. No one says in the particulars, that the garden once inspired the famous poem.

Her poem, 'God's Garden', sees God as a creator of the Garden of Eden and envisages how The Almighty enjoyed His evening walks in it; then He broke His heart to heal our soul in the Garden of Gethsemane. I particularly warm to her perception that bird song is expressing mirth and that the sun brings healing if not actual pardon (only accessible through the Cross).

Gardens are powerful in terms of rest and healing, reflecting heavenly relief from pain and stress. Healing is a key activity of the compassionate Divine presence. Personally, I feel closest to God in nature, when gazing on remote mountain peaks - but then I have never, until now, had an English garden to sit in. One must reflect, in tranquil gardens, on Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God”.

The genius of this poem is that it sees the Divine in the accessible and commonplace and in 'this moment in time'. It recalls for me what T S Eliot says in the soothing (and believing) 'Four Quarters': "Now, and in England" (Little Gidding). Sitting in a garden in the Garden of England (Kent), with sun and birdsong is an experience close to heaven.

Thank you, Dorothy and grandfather : message understood. Sit, live and mediate in an English garden (and buy the plaque).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Alison for posting the link to the poem which I had never seen in its entirety. Good gardening! Alison G.