“It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place
anyone could imagine.” – The Secret Garden, Frances Hodges Burnett, 1911
I came to the garden gate by my father’s side. When describing myself or what I do, I have a variety of answers I might give someone, but one of my most defining characteristics is a term I rarely share publicly – I am a Daddy’s girl, and proud to be my father’s child. My earliest recollection of being in the garden includes being in the company of my scientist/engineer father whose avocation was his botanical pursuits. At one time he maintained the largest collection of succulents in our region of Southern California.
I recall a special father-daughter project one summer creating an entry for the Orange County Fair’s horticulture show. I am not sure which one of us decided the best possible container for this little garden would be one of daddy’s old size 14 work boots, but that worn leather vessel and a coat of bronze spray paint was beautiful in my eyes. Together we carefully planted Crassula muscosa or “Watch Chain” and Fenestraria or “Baby Toes”, tenderly nurturing the garden for weeks. While I remember the trip to enter our work boot succulent garden in the fair, I don’t remember if it won any prizes, and it doesn’t really matter. I had a lot of brothers and was the only girl for the first thirteen years of my life so any time with my father in his garden was priceless. I would tag along as he watered and cared for each plant in the cool of the summer evenings. He addressed all specimens by their scientific name, planting those impossibly long entries into my memory for future recollection. Even now, when I least expect it, as I stand before some little botanical beauty in a nursery, it will call out its proper name as I futilely grope for its more familiar but long forgotten nickname.
I suppose I can thank my lucky genes for some of my passion for green growing flowering things as I come from a long line of plant lovers. My paternal grandfather and my uncle were orchardists raising red delicious apples and pears in Eastern Washington. My grandmother was still running up hills to show off some unusual native wildflowers well into her eightieth year.
A few years ago I was fortunate to be able to travel to Bedfordshire, England, to visit Chicksands Priory, the site of my families’ ancestral home for over 400 years which now houses the Royal Air Force. The manor was given to the Gilbertine Order of monks and nuns in 1180 and split into two monasteries, one of which was destroyed in the 16th century. The remaining monastery was bequeathed to my family in 1576 and my ancestors occupied it continuously until 1936 at which time it was given to the Crown for use as an RAF post. As one of the 25 remaining English monasteries, Chicksands represents the most complete medieval examples of monastic life. The plantation of oak and ash created by the Osborne’s is now maintained by the Forestry Commission.
Capability Brown (1716 – 1783) who has been called England’s greatest landscape designer was responsible for over 170 gardens in England including many famous castles. This ‘highly capable’ artist was the designer behind the acres of ponds, foot paths and a very special garden on the grounds of Chicksands. On my Bedfordshire visit I was treated to a private tour of this mysterious and wonderfully secretive walled space by the RAF officer who had taken on the abandoned and neglected garden. He was very proud of the restoration he had begun and obviously delighted that someone else took an interest in his work, particularly a decent of the original garden.
My copy of the children’s classic “The Secret Garden” still holds a highly elevated spot in my library; its tattered dust cover is evidence of the numerous times I have revisited this treasure. But even the many flights of fancy taken in response to Frances Hodgson Burnet’s description of Mary’s adventures at Misselthwaite Manor were surpassed by walking into the garden at Chicksands priory. It was for me as much a coming home as an introduction. I felt my roots naturally reaching deeper and deeper into the soil, spreading out to establish kinship with all the other Osborne’s who had at one time or another found restoration, healing and inspiration between those walls. Were any of the seventy-seven love letters composed by Dorothy Osborne* for Sir William Temple written from within the secrecy of this space? Being a part of that history in some remote way offered me momentary connection to this distant life and time.
We use tree language to talk about our families as readily as the ancient Celtic people who strongly believed their connection to trees went far beyond metaphoric or symbolic. This branch or that of our particular tree might have represented specific characteristics and would have been designated by the emblem of an oak or a yew.
The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, one of my favorite garden lovers says this about our rootednes:
“Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.
You were born from a ray of God’s majesty
and have the blessings of a good star.
Why suffer at the hands of things that don’t exist?
Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.
You are a ruby embedded in granite.
How long will you pretend it’s not true?
We can see it in your eyes.
Come to the root of the root of your Self.” –Rumi
Are there literal or fictional landscapes that hold your imagination or soul? Where do you feel most rooted? What does being rooted mean for you? What is my genealogy?
* Dorothy Osborne, youngest of ten children, daughter of the Royalist nobleman Sir Peter Osborne had a clandestine courtship with Sir William Temple much to the chagrin of her their families. After turning down suitors including the son of Oliver Cromwell, Dorothy fell in love with William Temple in 1649 when they were nineteen. It wasn’t until December 25, 1654 after the passing of both fathers that their families sanctioned their marriage. Lady Temple was buried next to her husband at Westminster Abbey. The missives have been bound and are available for a romantic read here: http://librivox.org/love-letters-of-dorothy-osborne-by-dorothy-osborne/