Charlie Hart On How Gardening Became The Counterbalance To Personal Grief And Anxiety

CHARLIE HART is an author and gardener who read theology at CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY. He recounts how having a garden became the counterbalance to personal grief and anxiety …

had a black period in my early 20s and another one in my mid-20s. The first was a collision between the anxiety that had plagued me since my earliest years on the one hand and the new and heady scent of adult freedom on the other. My life quite quickly ground to an undignified halt; and I ended up before a row of magistrates. My second black period was a result of the loss of both my parents in relatively quick succession. I touch on both these episodes in my new book, Skymeadow: The Story of An English Gardener.

Measured against these troubling times, the heart-stopping wonder of a single snowdrop, the drone of the first bumblebee, the lavish unfurling of green leaves in spring has always been a curative. The wonder of creation, even the mere idea of it, has always been for me at least the true counterbalance to trauma. But it wasn’t until I had a garden, and importantly a garden of my own, that I found a place safe enough to start unpacking the tricky thoughts and feelings I had been carrying around.

Having a neurotic turn of mind can mean simply worrying about things too much. We can all do this from time to time, and we all know it is foolish and doesn’t change a thing. But worry is a sort of symptom that if you are lucky can sometimes be ignored, anxiety for me looked more like trying to lead a normal life when my brain chemistry was telling me I was in mortal combat with a lion.

After my parents died, the grief, together with the normal and quite reasonable demands of a young family, and the less normal and entirely unreasonable demands of a raging anxiety disorder, danced a merry dance in my mind; mostly secret, mostly hidden. Anxiety can spill into compartments of your life where you don’t want it; robbing and stealing as it goes. My garden, and perhaps my slightly obsessive approach to it, became the counterbalance.

Of course building a new garden over a relatively large area (five acres) also involves a lot of shifting soil and soil is heavy to dig and dump, particularly my claggy clay. So endorphins played their part in my recovery. But I think their role was top level only. They were a medicine, but the medicine only provided the space for the real healing to take place. The process of building something, of pouring oneself into a creative task where, even if hard won, progress is self-evidently possible, helped too.

I have stalked this garden from every conceivable angle, crawling on the ground or climbing a tree to get a better view of something. In fact gardening is all about looking, looking honestly and frankly and looking without flinching. I have found this is a skill in the sense that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Over time, this skill seemed to tumble from the beguiling and obsessively-observed external space to the emotionally charged but intentionally unobserved internal one. As this happened, knots began to be untied and loose ends tied up. Working with the seasons, with lost or gained harvests, helped train me to look patiently not just externally but internally too.

Having the emotional space to look at grief and anxiety can significantly disarm both. So much of our misery can be the struggle against something rather than the thing itself. For me, building a garden was a way of creating that space, but talking to other people can be absolutely essential in creating space for healing too. And yet, so often we are ashamed to do just that. For me the support of my family and my ability to discuss things with my wife were paramount; just as important as the garden.

While a garden might one day be structurally complete, still it is never finished. I often say to people that as my garden came together on an incoming tide my grief seemed to leave on an ebbing one; and the anxiety went with it. In my experience grief and anxiety, like the tide, recede rather than completely vanishing. But, over time I came to see my grief as something good, as just another corollary to love; it became almost protective. On the other hand the garden taught me to look at my anxiety head on. Now when it knocks I throw the door open and welcome it in for tea. It has become an odd but undeniable friend!

Gardens are the home of the patient investor; progress and glory slowly mount. Today my garden rests my mind and replenishes my soul. I must remind myself that there is enough joy in the fallen petal of a rose to fill an entire day, if only I will stop and look. The greatest lesson this garden has taught me is that progress, inside or outside, is possible.

Skymeadow, The Story of an English gardener, by Charlie Hart (above) is published by Constable, £18.99.

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