Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 5 July 2008

A gardener must be a philosopher but never an atheist

Somebody asked: ‘How do you express your love of country in this leaden age? How do you sweep aside the multicultural poison and simply assert — “I am an English patriot?”’ I answer: ‘Create a garden, or help those who do so.’ There is no more English activity than gardening, and it has been so for over a thousand years. Indeed, there were Anglo-Saxon gardens before: traces remain. Gardens grew under castle walls, and were tended by the wives of men who wore chain mail. They took the place of water lilies when the moats were peaceably drained. The first great English essay, written by Francis Bacon early in the 17th century, is ‘Of Gardens’. I have just reread it. It is long, elegant but detailed and full of ripe knowledge, about nature and our intimate relationship with her.

Bacon is particularly good on the scents and smells of a garden which, stirred by faint breezes, he compares, in its coming and going, to the warbling of music. Thus he gives advice on planting accordingly, to create varying odours all the year round. He distinguishes between passive smells, and those you can arouse. Thus: ‘Those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three: that is, burnet, wild-thyme and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.’ Of course, you say, flowers had much stronger scents in that golden age. Not necessarily so: Bacon complains that some flowers which ought to smell gloriously do not, and instances bays, rosemary and sweet marjoram; and he complains that some flowers, once in bloom, expend their scent quickly: ‘Roses, damask and red, are fast flowers of their smell, so that you may walk by a whole row of them, and find nothing of their sweetness; yea, though it be in a morning’s dew.’

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