When growing up, our garden consisted of a hybrid combination of grass and concrete which, in the most simplistic of ways provided an all-weather pitch for me and my brothers to play football, irritating the neighbours when our ball ended up in their lettuce patch or among their roses. Most of the time, we’d sneak across the fence without them knowing, although sometimes we got caught.
For some weeks, the concrete was chalked with lines and marks for starting practice for sprinting. Left toes to chalk line, right toes, half a measured foot in, against the arch of my left foot. Left knee lowered to right heel, resting on the concrete, clenched fist apart. Thumbs extended, stretched from each hand, resting on the line, like stilts to support my body.
Time and time again, I shot from the imaginary blocks, stopped a few yards away, with no finishing line, and then returned again and again to the starting line
On another occasion, we decided, on our own merits, to paint one of the garden walls with some white paint we’d found in the garden shed only later to discover that it was a large vat of sun tan cream my father had acquired. We waited for the wall to glow.
St Mary’s Gardens
Considering that St Mary’s is a church building in the heart of the city, we are blessed with a fairly large footprint and outdoor space. A large car park to the west of the building, and a garden which wraps itself around the east end to the south. I suppose in recent years, apart from some grass cutting, it hasn’t received its due attention, and was badly in need of some work, particularly since it’s the main public façade for the community and all who pass by.
Cost and time are often the obstacles to such a feat. A few years ago, we began carving out some shape to create a Wild Side. We had a few volunteer sessions, the RSPB helped out, and we took advantage of Good Gym who helped to lop back overgrowth and pack a skip.
Lockdown, and the few the summer months of relaxation of restrictions provided an opportunity for a few people to move in, with no great master plan, no wonderfully worked out idea of what we were doing. In one sense, the gardens seemed to be telling us what it wanted, and what was possible.
During Lockdown, people have responded and been affected in so many different ways. There has been the anxiety associated with waiting for restrictions to be lifted so that some parts of life can return, recognising that the way we have to live now isn’t normal at all, and shouldn’t become ‘the new normal’ a phrase that unsettles me.
A sense of impatience has gripped some and, with the impatience, a restlessness and dissatisfaction as worries set in, stress takes root. The absence of human contact and the usual momentum of life, of sharing the same physical space and engaging with others means that, sometimes, loneliness and isolation can take their toll.
As a fairly impatient person, the gardens, for me, have taught me the need and virtue of patience, allowing nature to take its course. Panting bulbs in the Autumn and waiting those long winter months for life to emerge. But even more than that, there is a reminder of how just a few hours work, every now and then, can create results which begin to have a life of their own. A project that was once in the mind and in our hands begins not only to shape itself but to shape us too. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” wrote St Paul in terms of his ministry among the Church at Corinth.
The gardens here are for the community, and whilst we have ideas of how they can benefit the wider community – with opportunities for volunteering and work, learning and exploring, meeting others, enabling people to grow close to nature and engage in a little eco therapy, helping to raise moral, improve mental health and well-being, lifting the spirits, contributing to a green and safe community, caring for the natural world of which we are a part – there is something in the gardening that also wants me to allow things to, well, take their natural course.
Glory be to God for dappled things
In the beautiful poetry of Genesis we see a paradise place, a garden in Eden, beautiful, perfect, with human beings given responsibility as stewards of the whole of Creation, a responsibility we have ruined at time. They, too, have been given authority to name the creatures with which they share the world. My childhood days of fascination with nature, remerges. I can spot some of the birds that I knew as a boy, and have learned to identify others, seeing them only because I choose to look. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, Pied Beauty, “For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow | For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; | Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wing”
Sometimes, we may feel as if we are only ever starting, and we never get close to the finishing line which seems too far away. We go back, again and again, to begin again, or at least to try to begin. Lockdown has, in so many ways, been unable to show us a finishing line, or make it easy to plan too much for the future.
In some ways, for some, life has slowed down. There is a void waiting to be filled. For some, this lull has allowed other things to be appreciated, valued, loved, like being alert to the wonder around us, the power of the natural world, of God’s Creation. Before, maybe, we were just too busy, too brash.
My childhood gardens where we once kicked a ball, are now awash with colour as my father in his retirement has taken to gardening and transformed the back garden of the sometime Council house with flowers and shrubs and a lawn that does not have the scuffed marks of free kicks and tackles. The sun-tan lotioned wall has long been dismantled. Every environment changes over time, and we all have a part to play in the shaping of our community, to realise the dreams which sometimes lie in the mind or in our hands, and if let go, can have a life of their own.
“Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)” continues Gerard Many Hopkins, “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; | He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: | Praise him.”