A leafy meeting helps me grow in grace

The entrance to the garden was deserted. What could be better? The little kiosk – presumably manned on bright summer days – was closed and empty on this misty-moisty early spring morning. But a trustful notice asked visitors to deposit their £3 for charity through the slot. I dropped the coins in with a triple clonk. Then I looked for the first numbered arrow to follow.

The mapped-out route (one kilometer from marker No. 1 to No. 50, the notice at the gate had explained) immediately took me up a steep path and rough steps, crowded with a tangle of undergrowth and overgrowth. Ahead, suddenly, was a small waterfall sliding in a washy sheet below a high stone bridge. I brushed past one of those dark-red rhododendrons that flaunt their large blooms well before the trees towering over them have even dreamed of sending out the new season's leaves. The flowers were floppy with wetness.

I stood still for a moment, turning to look back for the "glimpses of the loch" promised by the book in which I had read about this garden. I could just make out fragments of reflective water between the trees. I thought with amazement once again how quickly in Scotland you can find yourself, even in our age of endlessly extending suburban spread, utterly alone. Lovely.

The steps became even steeper. The water, when I reached the level of the bridge, descended below me to a round, dark pool. The banks were miniature precipices. The next arrow guided me up to the left. The bridge had a chain across it, preventing passage. Close to my left shoulder an almost sheer rockface, colonized by ferns, climbed vertically. I felt enmeshed in the wild intricacy of this lonely garden. I might as well have been in some remote, unpopulated province of northern China. Or so (never having been to China) I fantasized.

Then it happened.

Above my head, but startlingly near, without the slightest warning, a very loud bark – or was it a shout? A cough? I couldn't say – sounded out. What on earth...?

I twisted around and looked up.

A few feet from me stood this man. He had a great unkempt nest of flowing white hair. His face was profoundly weathered. It looked as if it had been formed and colored by an evolutionary process brought about by permanent exposure to wind, rain, sleet, snow, mist, and sun.

My immediate reaction – I hope he will forgive me – was that he was a man of the road who had spent a night in a ditch under a layer of local newspapers and had now wandered, without paying, into the garden for a bit of morning exercise. Either that, or he was Tolkien's Gandalf.

I grunted involuntarily: "Whew! Do you deliberately startle people?"

He had three or four small rocks in his hands. Very softly, with a gentle, rather apologetic smile, he said: "I had no idea you were there. Sorry."

I instantly felt sorry, too. Social gaffe wafted in the air. "It's OK, really, I just jumped out of my skin, that's all."

He came down. "I'm building up that wall along the edge of the path over there," he explained, indicating a tenuous ledge on the edge of a sheer drop, the other side of the bridge. "With all the rain we've had, it isn't safe for visitors."

"Ah," I said. "I see."

"Have you visited the garden before?" he asked.

"No, this is the first time. It's wonderful."

He went back to work. It took me most of the rest of the walk around this wildest of gardens to fully arrive at the conclusion, as I caught sight of him now and then bent carefully over his wall-building, that he was not a tramp pretending to be a gardener, or even a gardener pretending to be a tramp. Actually, he was the owner of the garden.

This was confirmed, later, when I had a long chat with him across the intervening waterfall about the garden and all the improvements he and his son have made in it. He spoke about their neighbors, their visitors, about plant species and wildlife.

He turned out to be witty, mild-mannered, highly knowledgeable, and – best of all – had an amused, rather philosophical view of the world born, I suspect, of plenty of time on his own in all weathers.

He accompanied me down to the lower ponds to turn on the fountains. There we stood on the pond-edge and chatted for ages about golden carp and skunk cabbage, cats and water lilies.

Above all, he told me more about herons and their behavior than I have ever heard before. "Very strange birds," he said. What he said about them was the result of his close observation over many years. And most of it differed radically from the received wisdom about these primeval-looking birds. The books, it seems, have got it all wrong. But that, as they say, is another story.

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