Friday, 13 May 2011

Under a green rainbow

My garden is never going to win any prizes. On the face of it, the location is unpromising. It is walled on three sides by high tenements, open only to the north. Late in the afternoon, on fine days in high summer, one corner is briefly blessed by a tantalising splash of sunlight. Otherwise it is cool and damp. If it were in Florence or Seville it would be much sought out as a shady solace, but it is not in Tuscany or Andalusia... it is in Scotland.

A veneer of soil, not more than inch or so, conceals a builder's yard of broken stone, slate and earthenware. Short of catacombs or the mosaics of a roman villa there isn't much I haven't found with minimal digging. The tenements provide a regular supply of discarded artefacts too. It seems that quaint old Edinburgh traditions survive, except these days beer cans and pizza boxes have replaced pails of natural fertiliser. I have no wish to be at war with my neighbours, whoever they may be, so I stoically bag up their offerings shaking a silent fist at high windows.

Finding things to grow in this sizeable space has involved some triumph and much despair. Most flowering plants simply don't, or if they do they grow leggy with disappointing blooms. Some of them try hard but each year they dwindle until a last straw cold snap sees them off once and for all. Green things do best; ferns and mosses, hostas and creeping shrubs; and the cool colours that look best in the evenings, whites and ivories especially. Friends have been generous with old house bricks for structure, and with cuttings of things that thrive in the permanent penumbra. Slowly, slowly it is taking shape.

Without doubt my garden is at its best from April to June when the new growth accelerates and the force that Dylan Thomas called 'the green fuse' is uncoiling fronds of ferns, rupturing bulbs and buds, sending up emerald spears. Only a few weeks ago the cold was biting hard enough to crack concrete and the crisp leaf litter was dressed in frost. Now as I sit on the doorstep at dusk, soothed by the evening inventions of a thrush, I am in the arc of a green rainbow. There are more shades of green than I could begin to name, greens blending to greys and blues as the daylight fails. Anything other than green in its myriad hues would be out of place. In the middle of a city it is an utterly peaceful place to be and, with all its shortcomings, a reminder to me to find contentment in what I have.

Recently there has been much talk in the media of happiness. The Government, we are told, is to commission research into what makes us happy. In order, my first three reactions to this news were: This needs to be researched? What on earth will the Government do with the findings? And thirdly... Oh please don’t let the Government anywhere near my happiness! But just now I was thinking. If the happiness researchers alight at my door with their clipboards and multiple choice questionnaires I will invite them to come sit with me awhile, under the canopy of my green rainbow.


  1. Your ‘Under a green rainbow’ post is utterly lovely. I too live in Scotland and saw your garden instantly in my mind’s eye as I read. The lush greens of every spectrum, the beautiful ferns uncurling and delicately fuzzy, the peaceful hush that settles on the city after a busy day all sound so soothing. It made me think of a poem I have heard years ago. If you have a shed, look inside....

    A Small Dragon

    I’ve found a small dragon in the woodshed.
    Think it must have come from deep inside a forest
    because it’s damp and green and leaves
    are still reflecting in its eyes.

    I fed it on many things, tried grass,
    the roots of stars, hazel-nut and dandelion,
    but it stared up at me as if to say, I need
    foods you can’t provide.

    It made a nest among the coal,
    not unlike a bird’s but larger,
    it is out of place here
    and is most times silent.

    If you believed in it I would come
    hurrying to your house to let you share this wonder,
    but I want instead to see
    if you yourself will pass this way.
    Brian Patten

  2. I remember this poem. It has a sadness to it which is quite elusive. It may nostalgia for times before we lost our sense of wonder, or regret at our inability to connect with living things that are 'other'. It appears in Brian Patten's collection of Love Poems so that ought to give us clues. Perhaps the dragon is a metaphor for love itself, mysterious and vulnerable, something we desire to nurture but are clumsy at handling. I am left wondering will the dragon die, or will it not be there next time he returns to the woodshed? The final stanza shifts the perspective. There is another. The dragon becomes an enticement and a test of belief. It is very deftly done.

    Believe in dragons always.