Happy Summer Solstice! An appropriate day to finish reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift. What a lovely book this is too. If you enjoy gardening or viewing gardens or just enjoy a meditative memoir that happens to center around a garden, then you really must read this.
The Morville garden Swift writes about is just over 20 years old now. She began it from a field and has turned it into a garden based on place and history. Morville, in Shropshire, has been around for hundreds of years and passed through many hands. Swift traces the history as she builds her garden made of compartments, each compartment a tribute to a part of the history of the place and the people who lived there. Into this history and the garden making, she weaves her own personal history as well as that of her parents.
Swift used to be a rare book librarian and she is fascinated by books of hours. She owns one that was her mother’s. Morville Hours is organized along the book of hours, each chapter named for one of the hours which represents a portion of the day, the span of a year, the metaphor of the length of our lives. The book of hours follows the day and follows the season and each chapter is a month, a season, a meditation on the life of the garden and the gardener. It seems like an oh too clever thing, an oh so done way to organize a book, but Swift does it so beautifully and honestly that it feels fresh.
Gardening makes a person slow down, pay attention; brings one close to the earth, close to life and death, to the cycle of the seasons and what goes on in each. The garden forces you to work on nature’s time. One cannot rush the growing of a tree or the blooming of a flower (you can force a flower to bloom out of its natural time but it will still bloom at its own speed). Hours pass differently in a garden and the gardener must give herself over to it, relinquish control. When one does that, what a change happens.
Swift documents it beautifully. She captures what it is like to plan a garden:
Anticipation is the imaginative leap which enables us to picture how a garden will look in ten, twenty, a hundred years’ time, and yet still relish the time in between; to enjoy not knowing, too, or half-knowing, savouring the delights of gardens which tantalise us into wondering what is through the arch, around the next corner. Playing with our sense of anticipation is one of the great devices of garden planning.
She is talking about two kinds of anticipation, the anticipation of what the garden will look like in the future and the anticipation that a good garden plan builds into the design of the garden to lead the wanderer down the garden path.
The book is full of gorgeous images and turns of phrase, things that I wish I could say or think of or write in relation to my own garden but don’t have the skill. For instance, Swift is writing about Michaelmas and the harvest celebration at the church at Morville. She describes all the things that people from the parish bring to decorate the church and to the feast to share with one another:
What should I take? Apples? Plenty of those already. Honey? Quinces? I ponder the choice. But I already know what I would take if I could: I would take the smell of the garden after rain, the spiders’ webs lacing the tapestry hedge in autumn, the reflection of the pear tree in the Canal at blossom time.
Into the book Swift weaves the history of the land itself, how at one time it was covered by glaciers and how this made the soil and landscape what it is today. She made me want to know more about where I live and what was here before my house was built and back into time. So I did a bit of research and found that the glaciers in the last ice age did indeed make it down this far. I couldn’t find anything about the small lake I live near but since I know it isn’t spring-fed, it is probably leftover from the glaciers. I do know from the first land survey map made of Minnesota by the US after it was acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase, that my local lake used to be bigger and the tiny lake south of me used to be much bigger (it was drained to make room for the airport and a freeway and then partially restored).
Before the land became settled, where my house now sits was the edge of a hardwood forest that met the prairie just a short walk south. It was oak savanna, part of the Upper Midwest forest-savanna transition where Great Plains grassland met the forests that used to extend across the whole upper midwest. None of the original savanna remains in my neighborhood. All the trees were logged and an aerial photo from 1900 shows the street grid already laid out and hardly a tree in sight.
I like incorporating prairie plants into my garden and I always wondered if there was any prairie in my area to begin with or if it was only wishful thinking on my part. Now I know there was plenty of prairie and the main grass in my area was little bluestem, a lovely grass that whispers in the wind and turns a pale pinkish red in the fall as it gets ready to go dormant for the winter. I have this grass growing in the garden in bunches here and there and have been amazed at how well it does and how readily, sometimes for the worse, it spreads. Now I know why and it makes me happy and gives me more of a feeling of connectedness to my little house not quite in the woods and not quite on the prairie.
I digress. Morville Hours is a book to read slowly. It is meant to be savored. I enjoyed reading it most on weekends after I had spent time in my own garden. Litlove’s review of this book is what prompted me to read it, so be sure to hop over and see what she thought of it.