There are the people we really are, and the people we wish we were. I really am a reader, and a teacher, and a little bit of a writer. These are the things I do despite myself, reading in corners, explaining and teaching even when others would rather I didn’t. Much as I wish I were, and tell myself encouragingly I could be, I am not a gardener: if my garden is not practically maintenance-free, it goes to rank weeds every time.
Katherine Swift, the author of The Morville Hours, is a reader, a teacher, a writer, and a gardener. Twenty years ago, in a bid to bring her home from Dublin, where she was Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College, Swift’s husband found the Dower House at Morville in Shropshire. It was a National Trust property, up for lease for twenty years at a time: Swift could take the acre of scrub and make a garden of it, something she’d always longed to do. She hesitated — she had no formal horticultural training — and then applied. Morville was hers.
The Morville Hours is, in a way, the story of the making of that garden. But it is so much more. The book is built — or I should say, rather, that it is trained, like an espaliered tree — around the twin frames that structure her gardener’s time: the Benedictine hours of divine office that toll from the nearby church clock (vigils, lauds, prime, etc), and the seasons of the year. She calls upon the traditions of the countryside, religious and pagan, and their rootedness in the land; she notes the long history of Morville and its owners; she reflects on the way a garden is necessarily always here and now, but also reflects on what has been, the long cycle of life going all the way back to the geological history that began it all.
Swift’s voice is beautifully personal. This book is, of course, about how the garden came to be what it is, but it is just as much about how she came to be who she is. Her parents come into the picture, along with the ancestors of the Morville garden, and as she lovingly constructs knot gardens and cloister gardens and nut-orchards that Prior Richard or the Elizabethans would have loved, she is also planting her father’s own cuttings of lavender.
The experience of reading this book was deep, peaceful, meditative. Swift is sharp and astute, well-informed, and always profoundly engaging. She loves the garden. Every job, every time of year, she repeats, “I like that.” Digging, working the manure, doing winter tasks, breaking the ice in the Canal, planting bulbs by moonlight before the first hard frost: I like that. She does, you can tell. Everything she writes about — even the manure! — is a poem, praise and thanksgiving for all that pleasure, all that life. In the chapter called Vespers, near the end of the year:
The mornings are cooler now, with night-time temperatures hovering a degree or two above zero. When I open the door in the morning the smell of quinces wafts across the garden — sweet and musky on the chilled air. The cold breath of condensation lies on the red berries of the honeysuckle. I cross the lawn, my footsteps trailing behind me in the cold dew. Spangled spiders’ webs lace the tapestry hedge. The quinces are furred like cats, weighing down the little trees like great golden pears. One or two lie on the silvered grass. They will hang on the trees until late October or even November, perfuming the air around the house. But once picked they will not keep. Cooked, their plump goldness is transformed into the dark red of cornelian. Raw, they light up the garden like lanterns.
Swift urges us to use our days, as the monks did, for rest and work and thankfulness. Sitting and enjoying the garden, she tells us, is not doing nothing: watching and noticing is a sort of sanctification by use. Indifference, she says, is the real sin. It is impossible to walk away from this book not seeing more, noticing more, trying to live alongside this natural world even when we must let a given garden go. This book was sheer delight to read, and I thank Litlove for recommending it to me. What a rich, lovely book. Go find it yourself.