I began my exploration of the Mulberry tree garden in the middle of December. Everything was grey and dying and snow was in the air. I was particularly fascinated by the robins who seemed to divide up the garden into two or three territories. I started off taking photographs but then my camera stopped working, so I have interpolated a few pictures from the following year.
When the snow came it dominated everything else, but it was only to be the precursor of heavy January falls.
16 DecemberToday it is a week before Christmas. The air is cold and dull and only a few leaves still cling to the mulberry tree. Disjointed snowflakes float across the greyness. There is always a robin in the garden. Today three converged in a straggly bush stripped of all its leaves. They didn’t fight but eyed each other suspiciously with much stretching of necks before flashing off into the undergrowth. I managed to take a photograph of one on my very cheap digital camera.
17 DecemberIt was cold in the garden this morning, the tiniest sliver of ice on the bird bath. Snow is forecast. I walked down into the wild patch at the bottom of the garden and cleared up some of the litter. I found what looked to me like some scaffolding equipment. I don’t even have a name for it but it is very heavy and very solid and has a strange beauty about it. EN74 T00610 6P2182 is stamped on it with a large DR between the two lines. A garden, of course, is as much as a human construction as this nameless bit of scaffolding kit and the constructions which it makes. Out of the stuff of earth we make our home.
19 DecemberIt is very cold this morning. The sky piercing blue and the ground frozen hard. The bird bath was frozen solid and I filled it with cold water. I heard some years ago that this takes longer to freeze than hot water and I have found this to be true although the physics behind it I don’t understand. The plants are heavy with cold, most of the leaves have wilted and sunk to the ground, as if they have lost the will to live, although most, I have no doubt, will recover and be vibrant once again. Plants must bear this cold as best they can but we humans are able to burn fuel to keep our blood warm, make clothes and build houses. So for us this cold, bright morning is a delight and the cold, rather than a threat to life, can become invigorating and a celebration of life.
20 DecemberThe foxes returned to the garden today. There are normally ever present but I haven’t seen them for a while. They seemed to be enjoying basking in the midday sun although it is still very cold and icy snow crinkles underfoot. One quickly disappeared as I entered the garden, but another lay down behind the mulberry tree looking at me as I walked my circuit, then scampering off when I got too close. Stopping in the middle of the lawn then disappearing into the bushes behind the shed. The urban fox is, nowadays, remarkably abundant, like the grey squirrel they have become a necessary part of the urban landscape. When I was first married we had fox cubs in our garden – a quite delightful and enchanting sight. Now there are everywhere: strolling across the road, basking in the sun and rummaging in the rubbish bins – although here it is squirrels that create havoc in the garbage, opening sacks and scattering things everywhere.
23 DecemberIt continues very cold and we had a good fall of snow which looked very pretty lit from the light of our windows in the darkness, but now it is shrinking into the dark corners and looks a bit sad. There seems to be at least three Robins in the garden. I watched two chasing about the mulberry tree and there was another one in close attendance. With all this frozen ground I wonder what there is to fight about.
Christmas has come and gone, although as my wife reminds me it has actually only just begun and we are three days into the 12 days of Christmas. Living in a rectory makes you think of these things. The garden has a plentiful supply of ivy and holly, although, sadly, no mistletoe. But the ivy makes excellent ivy chains and I am inordinately proud of our large hallway which is now decorated with abundant greenness; it is a skill I learnt when a child and this, more than anything, makes me feel the presence of Christmas: abundance in the midst of the scarcity of winter. Ivy is a lovely plant and a most interesting one. I am fascinated by the way it changes when it becomes fruit bearing, the tripartite leaf becomes more circular, and, so I am told, if you transplant this rounder leafed part it continues in its new form and does not revert to the more familiar leaf. Its late flowering is also an essential source of nutrients for insects in the autumn months, although most people never notice its tiny flowers. The ivy family is at the northern extreme of its range in Britain and as it gets further north it becomes more and more difficult for it to produce berries, but this Christmas our hallway is bountifully supplied with its pretty little purple fruit.
I have not been into the garden much, suffering, as I am, from a winter cold. I peer out into the greyness: the huge rambling shape of the mulberry tree, the leafless branches, the odd spot of snow marking where a snowman stood. A few days ago before the cold took hold I ventured down into the wilderness where I discovered again an old blue cart entirely covered by brambles. I had completely forgotten about it but seeing it again I immediately thought that it was a donkey cart, and having recently seen a donkey cart on TV found myself coveting my own shaggy grey donkey. It would look very splendid pulling this blue cart but I’m afraid owning a donkey and renovating this cart are both quite beyond me. So it must remain lost to the brambles. What a remarkable plant the bramble is, a most ferocious weed with the ability to gobble up land at great speed and turn it into a vicious and impenetrable jungle, but also the very essence of late summer with its abundant crop of blackberries made all the more tasty by the cuts and gouges which must accompany any serious blackberrying expedition.
Snow is forecastThe garden bleak, stripped, dying, will be transformed
These damp, thick leaves
This lattice of twig and trunk
This writhing of blackened bramble
Will by white be smothered
And all its darkness shine with maiden light
But it will shrink
Like aging skin grown lax,
And slump around the edges.
And its complexion once so bright
will sour and split with melting time
And all will be returned to sodden blackness
Except that sparkling in the darkened air
Comes the ever present robin
Hops upon the weathered fence
And fights with fierce intent to keep his private paradise.