Reverie in the Garden

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I have just come indoors after over an hour of wandering around the garden, in the glorious thin March sunshine. I only went out to put some kitchen waste into the bin, but then as usual, a cloud came over me ….. this always happens when I venture into the garden between spring and autumn. I enter a strange state of reverie and can spend literally hours just pottering. I’m not quite sure exactly what I did over that missing hour and a half but looking out the window now I see I made a terrific mess (tidying up after me was never my strong point). I know I re-potted a few things (hence the empty pots and compost scattered around the paving stones), but most of the time I generally spend pootling about, checking things out, making plans, picking up the odd weed or squashing a cheeky slug who dares show his slimy mush in daylight. I also have a worrying tendency to make like Prince Charles and start chatting to my plants; some need a stern talking to of the ‘it’s my way or the compost heap for you my son’ others are praised for their great beauty – the deep, deep velvety plum hellebore, so tiny with such beautiful contrasting yellow stamens surrounded by a tiny, frilly corona of true petals or the delightful little cardamine flowers on their bed of pretty leaves. Other plants get an encouraging pep talk; these are plants on the way up – the trilliums, peonies and few surviving candelabra Primula by the pond. This is all done at normal talking volume, which in my cloth-eared case is full volume which means I do get rather a lot of funny looks from the neighbours and passers-by.

I imagine that most gardeners are exactly the same as me. A lot of our time is spent just having a good old think: considering what works well, what doesn’t work, what needs to be done and prioritizing jobs. Some problems need addressing immediately – protecting a particular plant from slugs, treating scale insects, moving a plant in the wrong place before it flowers, while others can be put on the long finger. Then of course there is fantasy time, how I am going to re-arrange the garden completely and have professionals come and do all the hard landscaping for me. This is when I win the lotto and get my kitchen extension ….. this train of thought leads to many and varied paths which have no garden-related theme at all: who is going to benefit from me when I win, how wonderful I am going to be, how charitable, how like Lady Bountiful I shall go around dispensing largesse to my astonished and grateful friends. How those who have slighted me in the past shall be crossed off my list of favourites, the charities who will be overwhelmed by my generosity and humbled by wish to remain an anonymous donor and so it goes on until I am awoken with a start from this ignoble hubris-tainted benevolent dream by spotting the dog running around the road with a pair of my dirty knickers in his mouth.

So back indoors to dreary housework. This is the key to why gardening is such fun, I never have reveries when I’m hovering or making the beds. I just feel cross, hot and ill-used.

The M word

Meno ………. Pause……

Now it really is time to address the dreaded M word. Why on earth is it that when I mention I am suffering one of the side effects of being menopausal, that so many women immediately say ‘Shhhhhh!’ or look mortified as though I’d just announced loudly that I was suffering from a particularly vicious infestation of crabs? When I say it to younger women they all, inevitably say ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous of course you aren’t, it’s just hot in here’. This is disingenuous as they are trying to say ‘oh but of course you are/look far too young for that’. When of course I am not and I don’t.

Why is it that in this day and age, after more than half a century of feminism are women still so afraid and ashamed of the menopause?  Firstly, to be accurate, all the hot flushes, sleepless nights etc. are the by-products of peri-menopause. The menopause has only occurred when a women has been free of periods for a full year. Then the symptoms of peri-menopause usually settle down and eventually vanish. I think that there are a number of reasons for the whispered references to the euphemistic ‘change’ and pretty much all of them are depressing and soul sapping.

I think that the main reason for keeping hush hush about menopause is cold, hard fear. The fear we women have, as a result of a ridiculous cult of youth that now exists, of growing old. We really couldn’t give a stuff about being regarded as sage old gnarled tribal elders, dispensing advice and being venerated for our great wisdom. We want to be hot forever, fancied, desirable and sexy, which really when you think about it is bloody pathetic. Life goes on, it is a cycle of birth and death, it always has been and always will be, so we need to get over it and move on and not waste precious hours, sobbing into our gluten-free granola, mourning the fact that our tits are moving steadily south and take solace in the fact that we can’t see the wrinkles without our reading glasses.

There is also undoubtedly a realisation of our mortality. When we are young we know in an objective way that death is inevitable, but it is abstracted and intangible that we don’t really pay any heed to it. In midlife death begins to stare us in the face. We have all either had, or know someone who has had a life-threatening illness. Our friends start to die – heart attacks and cancers strike randomly and we begin to fret over the unwelcome funny little lumps, bumps and skin tags that begin to spring up, about our bodies. I know that I can no longer spring out of bed, I have weird sore feet, my knees hurt and my back is banjaxed.

For those of us with children it is also a peculiar time. If you are an older mother, as I am, you worry that you won’t be around to see your child settled or to meet and be able to enjoy grandchildren. It is hard to let go and see our children grow up and go about their own business and for us to no longer be the centre of their universe. Their peers, not us, become their first port of call.

None of the bad stuff about growing old should hold us back though. Growing up was no picnic either if you bother to take off the rose-tinted specs – being a teenager was torture, fantastic fun but torture all the same. Remember the spots? The crippling social anxiety? The broken hearts? And what about endless exams? Instead think how wonderful it will be – no more periods for a start. Economically we are likely to be far better off in later life, no more school fees or pocket money. Holidays for one or two instead of a family and cheaper bills. After years of climbing career ladders (or not) or raising families and putting yourself constantly paddy last this is a time we can, corny as it sounds, blossom.

Men often go off the boil in later life, but for women there is generally a great burst of creativity. Free from domestic chores women often get a second wind. Writers such as Penelope Fitzgerald and Mary Wesley only began their careers in post-menopausal later life. Most women only start gardening in late middle age too. Intellectually this can be a very exciting and fulfilling time for women.

Please, I beg you all stop treating the menopause as something to be ashamed of and hidden away. Accept aging with grace. Stop the Botox and ridiculous lip fillers – they fool nobody and are demeaning. It is time to face this last feminist frontier and remove the element of taboo and make the second half of our lives the best bit ever.

P.s. A couple of years ago, my friend Aisling Grimley woke up to the fact that all she could find out there for women during and post menopause was a world of support stockings, stair lifts, Tena lady pads and funeral insurance policies decided to do something about it. She now manages a fantastic website called My Second Spring. http://www.mysecondspring.ie mysecondspring.com

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Irish Demesne Landscapes

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Well WOOOOHOOOO and whoop whoop whoop! My book is finally finished, out and in the shops – yes in the REAL shops and available to buy online. It is not about gardening per se, but takes a look at what people were doing with their gardens and estates in the seventeenth century and early-eighteenth century in Ireland. It is part Miss Marple and part history, the detective element being trying to reassemble – mentally – the gardens and imagine what they looked like as most of them have been lost. We have a rich gardening heritage and it is time we started to recognise and preserve it. The Celtic Tiger years dealt a killer blow to old demesne landscapes as they were snapped up by greedy developers with a voracious appetite for land and NO regard for history or beauty and industry. Some of these great lost demesnes and landscapes are now owned by NAMA and some can still be saved. If anyone would like to get in touch with me with ideas as to how we can organise and put pressure on NAMA to ensure that the demesnes it now owns will not be re-sold to developers and treated with respect do get in touch.

In the meantime, here is a bit about my book and a picture of it.

This book charts the history and development of formal gardening in Ireland in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and in particular the grand geometric style that was fashionable between 1660 and 1740. It examines the people who created these gardens, the influences that affected them, the materials that they employed and the uses of landscapes interventions. Using a wide range of sources, including several previously unpublished, this is the most extensive survey of early Irish gardens to date.