There’s a reason for changing the usual name of these gardens. We’ve just got back from 5 days in Cornwall which we spent entirely in exploring the gardens – they’re that good. We first visited in the summer with some of our family including the three grandchildren. They raced around having fun and doing what happy children do and we would not begrudge them a single moment of that mad ecstatic reception of a new place -in truth I wish we could all recover it for ourselves. But there was much more than novelty and ‘visitor experience’ going on there, and that was what we spent last week exploring. So this posting may well turn into several as I turn the days over in my mind.
Why “Lost gardeners” then? Cynics might say that every visitor attraction needs a ‘hook’, and the narrative that the Gardens have come up with hinges on the discovery of old privvy (earth closet) in the gardens which was used by the gardeners and on the walls of which some of them had inscribed their names. This became important almost a century later when it was discovered that a significant number of those who’d written their names on the wall had fought in the First World War and never returned. It’s a poignant discovery that must surely give anyone who passes by – for even a moment – pause for reflection. A sombre remembrance in a place of great beauty. I couldn’t sense any trace of commercial cynicism there. The little herb garden adjoining the ‘thunderbox’ associated the name of each remembered man (they were all men) with particular herbs; a form of remembering that was all the more powerful for its understatement.
By chance, or as a Jungian might say – ‘synchronicity’ – I was reading a collection Wendell Berry’s writings, “The World Ending Fire”, every evening when we returned to the campervan. I’ve picked at his writing for decades, but something about the conjunction of time, place and setting gave his words and thoughts wings. Most of us have probably had moments when the book and the reader suddenly seem made for one another.
Heligan puts before us that which is lost and issues an unusual challenge, not the usual “what do you feel about it?” which is an empty question with no worth. No, the question that the project raises is more like “what do you do about it?”. What do you do about the loss of those lives? what do you do about the loss of those skills? of that whole culture of local economy?
Wendell Berry shares with William Cobbett, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, the capacity to hold the lyrical and the downright angry together. I want to write more about him when I’ve had time to think some more, but as I read him I had the strangest feeling that he was exposing some of the tangled roots of the perplexing extremism that’s appearing like bindweed in our societies.
The toll of the industrial slaughter of the First World War was just one of the reasons for the decline of the Heligan Estate, but there was more to follow, much of it the result of exploitative farming and the destruction of whole habitats and their cultures – not least the local human communities whose skills and memories and whose mutual dependence cry ‘shame’ at our isolated and hard-hearted lives. It would be easier to visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan and forget all about the lost gardeners, but I don’t think that’s the idea at all. The vision of fulfilment and plenty that keeps breaking through the sense of loss is an energising vision, a quiet and beguiling political statment if you like, that says – “it doesn’t have to be like this”.