It’s the month for remembering. There's the eleventh of course, when a crowd collects round the memorial at the Station Road gate. There is a group of schoolchildren in uniform. I imagine they have been working on projects with the ‘Lest we forget’ theme, and wonder what they make of it all. Coming ten days after Day of the Dead, the date brings to mind not just the images of bravery and suffering associated with war, but thoughts of those closest to us who are gone. In the wake of the devastating trail that Ebola is leaving across the world, I recall a lovely boy I shared a flat with when we were students together. He was the first Aids victim I knew personally, although I didn’t hear of his death until relatively recently. I remember his mane of red-gold hair and his gentle spirit.
It’s a good day for memories: after October’s gales and the fogs earlier this month, by mid-morning the sun is warm. I head towards the lake, where a poplar stretches upwards, listing slightly, almost bare branches yellowed against a heart-meltingly blue sky. One or two leaves cling on, fluttering in the light wind. Not too cold, it does feel like the start of winter. Water beads the stems of grey-green euphorbias on the edge of the limestone garden. Everywhere there are signs of work in progress, barrows full of debris and red and white diagonal tape keeping us away from heaps of dead foliage where beds have been cleared. There’s no need: the few visitors have a business-like air about them. We know the ropes and the routines, their brisk pace seems to say. Woollen hats and waterproofs mark them out as regulars. They are in tune with the rhythms of the gardening year. On one of the picnic benches there’s a mug, though no drinker in sight.
Some flowers linger, the leggy stems of Verbena bonariensis waving their purple heads as you pass. Seedheads of phlomis and alium and globe artichoke Cynara scolymus are dark against the sunlight. This is the time of year when trees come into their own, though. Here is Parotia persica, the Persian ironwood. Sole member of its genus, it belongs to the Hamamelidaceae family and is a close relative of witch-hazel. Its trunk is remarkable, thick limbs twisting and twining round each other, its flaky bark water-coloured in pink and green washes. Not far from the Station Road gate, you might pause to investigate the sudden knobbly sensation beneath your feet. These are the fruits of Pyrus communis, the wild pear, hard green golf balls hidden in the mat of damp leaves. Past the fountain, the American oak Quercus shumardii draws attention to itself with its larger-than-life leaves, rough paper cut-outs darkened to copper tones now. And across the Systematic Beds, the small colony of Maclura pomifera ‘Osage orange’ has kept its leaves but its fruits lie scattered in the grass and on the paths nearby, with a number clustered round the trunk of the largest. In arboreal as well as human contexts, then, it seems that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Despite a gentle rain of falling leaves, many trees still blaze with autumn fire: from the yellowing leaves of Ginkgo biloba, the fawns and pinks and creams of Liquidambar styraciflua, the reds and golds of beech and London Plane, to the aptly named Cotinus coggygria x obovatus ‘Flame’. And the acers! Their delicately shaped leaves burn crimson and orange. ‘Autumn colours,’ my mum says. ‘I love the autumn colours. It’s my favourite season.’ There is something about the time of year, some bittersweet sensation which recalls other autumns. Two magpies, one following the lead of the first, fly north. Squirrels and finches dart about, in tune with some deadline unknown to us. The days shrink; afternoon skies are prone to a rosy glow.
Away from the garden, the same sense of reprise: old friends, familiar journeys, and a family outing to a production of La Traviata, which I remember listening to when my almost 25-year-old was tiny. The weekend before, I take part in a training course run by the English National Ballet as part of the Dance for Parkinson’s scheme. The workshop is based on The Nutcracker, the ballet I was taken to for a Christmas treat when I was quite small. I don’t know if I had been expecting another event entirely, or if we were simply too far from the stage to engage with what was happening, but I remember struggling to conceal the sour taste of disappointment. Then, last weekend, the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford, a first for me, an exciting coming together of writers, scientists, thinkers and doers, under the title ‘Nature matters: a Sense of Scale’ – and not an anorak in sight! Trees are here, too: according to Richard Mabey, who opens the conference in conversation with Tim Dee, trees are ‘4D organisms – they have the added dimension of time’. My brother, chairing a lunchtime panel discussion, quotes Harriet Mead, sculptor and President of the Society of Wildlife Artists: ‘Art breathes life into the bones of research.’ Inspiring stuff. Even so, an overnight stay in The George awakens memories of previous visits, when my dad was still alive, and thence to a different hotel in a different part of the country, our family assembled supposedly in celebration of Easter. In fact, it was a kind of goodbye: already far too poorly to be there, our dad dressed each evening for a meal he couldn’t eat in a dinner jacket grown huge around his spare frame.
The first full day of New Networks for Nature begins with readings from three poets: first Jessica Penrose whose last piece, ‘Too Much Sky’, recalls her move to East Anglia from the north, an experience I share. Jessica’s lovely poems are followed by haiku from Matthew Paul and John Barlow. The words drop like jewels into the morning, with a resonance that brings me close to tears even before John’s emotional tribute to a fellow poet and naturalist. I like the use of words as a memorial: we’re very used to flowers, the heaps of bunches which appear at roadsides at the scenes of accidents, or on graves; and poppies, of course, their short lives a fitting echo of our own brief span. But I’m with Jonathan Jones on the subject of the Tower of London’s ceramic version, a ‘prettified’ reminder of a war that was anything but pretty.
At home, I listen to a 1956 recording of the tango ‘Remembranzas’, written in 1934 by Mario Melfi with lyrics by Mario Battistella. In this version, Jorge Maciel sings with Osvaldo Pugliese’s orchestra. Pugliese was famous for his Communist Party membership as well as for his musical innovation, and this meant he was often in trouble with the authorities, leading to at least one spell in prison, when the orchestra would place a rose on the piano to represent their missing leader. The song, like so many tangos, is a lament for a lost love, a sentimental longing for what is gone: how long the weeks are when you’re far away, the singer tells us – que triste es recorder, how sad it is to remember.
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden