Archive for November, 2010

>What my garden taught me, part 2


A couple more lessons from the garden:


I suppose our gardens have been no different to most people’s. I couldn’t help, when I walked into our garden in Pymble, seeing so many things that needed doing. The gum trees rained down a constant flow of debris. Little weeds were always finding their way through the mulch. The stake of the pittosporum would give way and tip it against the fence. There were dead fronds on the big palm trees.

And that was without the projects. There was the pebble mosaic I wanted to do at the entrance to the Japanese garden. I was planning a new bed around the frangipani. There was the whole section where I had been squirreling building materials behind the shed “just in case” – it was overflowing and desperately needed rationalising.

This constant flow of things-I-oughta-be-doing was, in fact, keeping me from seeing truly the upside of our garden. What I realised is that I needed to PAUSE. Suspend the inventory of jobs. Then, instead of seeing the sticks and the leaves, look up and see the tall and casual elegance of the blue gums’ trunks against the morning sky. Instead of thinking the lawn needs mowing, feel the soft give of the turf under my bare feet. Overlook the debris collected around the bromeliads and see the startling brightness of the red feather that emerged since the last time I paid attention to that plant. Forget that mulch has blown onto the stepping stones, and slowly and deliberately step on one, then the next one, and the next, and take that slow and revealing journey through the things we had been nurturing and tending, without appreciating what they were giving us back.

We get so busy with do, do, do, do that we can lose the point of what we are doing things for. It’s no surprise about the cliché “stop and smell the roses.” Walk into your garden, with no to-do list; pause; let it give something back to you.

Joy of the unknown

We bought a new house in Leura, specifically for the garden. The garden sold us the house but we first saw it at the end of December, and moved in mid-February. There were hydrangeas out, lots of them, and some roses. Except for the profusion of Japanese windflowers, the rest was pretty much green. Autumn came, and with it the brilliant red of the leaves on a large tupelo out the front. Just about everything in the garden was deciduous, and by the end of June all looked stark and bare. There were some green shoots poking up here and there as July progressed. I realised that what I had taken for tree roots in the lawn, and relentlessly mowed over, were in fact daffodils, and I ceased mowing them just in time.

We had been advised not to pull anything out until we’d seen what it might be. As winter faded, the show commenced. A tree burst into beautiful pink blossom. A wonderfully fragrant daphne made an olfactory assault. What I thought was onion weed was a bevy of spring stars. As one blossom tree faded another came into flower in a display of serial beauty. Last of all some alpine phlox carpeted the ground with purple and white broadloom.

Spring is just about done now, verging on summer, and the trees are back in foliage or close to it, and the perennials are flowering. The whole spring experience was one of discovery. Our expectations were vastly exceeded. The biggest kick was that most of it was unanticipated.


I just had another lesson this morning, with my dear dad rushed off from the nursing home to hospital with a very gloomy prognosis. While I tried to sort out my emotions about that on paper, the climbing rose outside the kitchen window looked in at me with about 200 flowers that weren’t there two days ago and probably won’t be there in two days time. They have bloomed and flourished and will pass away, but their beauty will have had meaning during its time. My garden will keep teaching me for as long as I take time to learn from it.

>What my garden taught me


I have been privileged over the past 10 years to have lived with 2 beautiful gardens. The first one we created, building on some solid foundations and much of it out of blank space. The second one we inherited when we fled the city (partly to experience cold climate gardening) from 2 people who had been developing it for 19 years.

Gardens are a wonderful case of give and take. Apart from just the sensuous pleasures they grant in return for the efforts applied to them, I can see that my 2 gardens have taught me some important lessons in life.


We bought a beautiful crab apple tree. We had seen their spring show in other people’s gardens and had a place for one, right near the frangipani and in direct line of sight from where we sat on the deck, and even from the dining table. We planted it; it took just two days for the possums to discover that it was a delicious entree to their night’s foraging, and they munched the new growth, and broke branches by climbing on them to reach the higher foliage. Brigitte had read that you could discourage them by putting bamboo kebab skewers in the ground around the tree. She put about a hundred wickedly sharp skewers around the base of the crab apple, and then got worried about the dogs hurting themselves. It didn’t stop the possums anyway.

We moved the crab apple down into the Japanese garden, away from the possum route we hoped. I banged four stakes in the ground around it, and put bird proofing net around the stakes as a possum barrier. The poor little crab apple never recovered. By protecting it, we put a barrier between it and our capacity to nurture it.

We dug it out and gave it to Jenny, to plant in her garden in Leura. It is growing happily, and will put on a show in spring, I expect.

Sometimes, despite our expectations, some things are not meant to be in the way we plan them to be. Our efforts to make them be that way can sometimes work against any prospect of success. Sometimes the answer is to accept that a thing will not work out; to accept that gracefully and let it go without regret. That thing, like the crab apple, may just flourish somewhere else.


I was always fascinated, ever since I first saw them, by the row of cloud trees I used to see outside the Buddhist temple near the hotel in Tokyo where I frequently stayed. The ones where the branches are cultivated so there are tufts of foliage floating like clouds in a spring-time sky. They were junipers though, and pretty slow to grow in my experience.

I thought I could take a permissible short cut and try growing a cloud tree with lilly pilly. I bought one with an undefined mass of leaves and thought I’d go home and start trimming, see what would emerge.

Something held me back though; when I looked at the plant I saw nothing cloud-like at all. Instead of starting to chop and try and force a cloud to appear, I thought I could let it grow for a little while and see what developed. Over the next few months it was hard to keep the secateurs in my pocket. But after about 12 months my abstinence was rewarded. Three main branches were growing, in a lateral enough plane to stake one shoot out on each side and leave one central stem.

So far, I have a large bank of low cumulus cloud at the base of the cloud tree, and three puffs of cirrus floating above; a couple of higher clouds are in the process of forming if I can leave them to take shape. It wasn’t easy keeping the cutting implements away, and avoiding the intervention to force a result. But I reckon it’s been worth the wait.

More lessons to come next post.

>Lines and Squares


Whenever I walk in a London street,

I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;

And I keep in the squares.

And the masses of bears,

Who wait at the corners all ready to eat

The sillies who tread on the lines of the street,

Go back to their lairs

And I say to them “Bears,

Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”


My mum used to read me that when I was little. It’s from a small book by A. A. Milne called “When we were very young“, which also had “They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace”, and “John had Great Big Waterproof Boots on”, and “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”, and plenty more little gems. I’m sure it wasn’t mum’s intention at the time, but “Lines and Squares” left me with a long term, strongly held superstition about where I could walk. Once I was in a fair bit of strife (only about 10 years ago, I’m ashamed to admit), and I figured it would all come out right if I didn’t walk on any lines on the way to the station each morning. The problem was, the route to the station took me through the local school and across the playground. It was painted with basketball, netball and handball courts, all on top of each other. To get across the playground, I felt, and probably looked, like I was playing hopscotch.

I’ve been trying to kick the lines-and-squares affliction. At its root, like many afflictions, is probably fear. My friend Sarah Friis says: “Fear is our belief in our own inability to deal with an action or its consequences.” Walking in the squares has been a tangible way for me to deal with that belief, I guess. The trouble is, it doesn’t do anything to change the belief.

I’ve spent too much of my life thinking maybe I’m just a bit of a coward. Too much time being paralysed and not dealing with the thing feared. Through some hard lessons, I have found four things which help me with fear.

Recognise it

It really helps me to know when it is fear that is driving whatever current emotion I am trying to deal with. Upsetting emotions can come from sadness, grief, hurt at the plight of others – they are things you can sit with in a different way than being afraid of something. Recognising fear as the driver at any given time can almost be a relief, because then I know what I have to deal with.

Name it

It’s really useful to me to be able to identify exactly what the fear is. It is not always immediately apparent, and some investigation is often needed. I spent time chasing down and articulating one fear, which I found out deep down to be the fear of being left alone. When I can name it, I can face it a whole lot more confidently.

Don’t beat yourself up about it

I’ve done plenty of that, proclaiming myself to be a bit of a coward in the face of various fears. It doesn’t help with the resolve needed to deal with the fear. I’m not alone in being afraid, and it doesn’t make me less worthwhile. It just is, like being happy or feeling grief. I remind myself just to accept it as part of life.

Do something, anything

The most destructive part of fear for me is the paralysis it brings. If I have been able to recognise and name a fear, and not beat myself up about it, the final bit for me is to do something to address it. Often the smallest step I can take is the best step, perhaps because it’s the easiest. Open and read that email I haven’t really wanted to read. Create a document and save the file and write a heading even if I can’t write the whole document just yet. Just doing one little thing usually helps to shake me out of the paralysis.

Recognising, naming, doing something – the most usual result I get is a validation of the well-worn statistic that 80% of what you fear never happens. And the other 20% – well, at least I’m not crumbling in front of it. So I’m sorry Christopher Robin, but I just want to say: “Bugger you, bears, I’m walking on the lines.”

>The Riding


I was on the way home from a pretty special bike ride (see the recent post on “Place”) and there had been a fair bit of hooting and hollering from the joy of the ride: muddy, wet, and cold notwithstanding. I had jumped the bike over the drainage humps, and felt the giddy liberty of mid-air; I had given it its head down short steep rocky slopes hanging on grimly; I had valued the low gears grinding back up those slopes; I had felt the rush of riding really hard along the flat pebbly sections. I had thoroughly enjoyed riding my bike.

As I rode home the last few k’s, still in the relatively quiet early morning, something else crept up on me in that peaceful time. Out there, in the dirt, it had been just me, my bike and the track, all having a great time together. Now, it was no longer the rider and the ridden, and the duality dropped away till it was just one thing – the riding. No need for an excited, congratulatory self, digging it all, but enough to be part of what was happening in that moment, fine to be nothing. No need for an observer to observe it, or a doer to do it. It just was. “When you recognise this, you will realise that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything” says Kalu Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama. “That is all.”

The experience didn’t last that long, and I drifted back to me, my bike and the road, but it was a moment of awakening. There are plenty of good things written, spoken and podcasted about non-duality by much more enlightened hearts and minds that mine. The riding, though, was an exquisite validation that when the self falls away, awareness doesn’t need to; in fact it heightens, and an ordinary rural back road early on a Saturday morning can become as sacred as any temple, anywhere, even when you are splattered with mud.


After I wrote this blog, I came across this from Jon Kabat-Zinn in Coming to Our Senses, writing about a field near his house which he walks past each day, at different times and in different seasons:

In walking these paths, there is less and less separation between me and the view when I give myself over to attending , when I allow myself to come to and to live within my senses. Subject (seer) and object (what is seen) unite in the moment of seeing. Otherwise it is not seeing. One moment I am separate from a conventional scene as described to myself in my head. The next moment, there is no scene, no description, only being there, only seeing, only drinking in through eyes and other senses so pure they already know how to drink in whatever is presented, without any direction at all, without any thought at all. In such moments, there is only walking, or standing, or only sitting ….

Yep, that’s what I’m talking’ about.



It’s a long drive, and it was late at night. I was tired, and Brigitte was asleep in the seat beside me. But as I got closer to the destination, the tiredness fell away; and when I turned off the highway and pointed the car at Sussex inlet I felt my heart soften, and a bunch of negative vibes melted away. I drove the last 13 k’s probably a bit too fast, but it was just some joy, too long hidden, bubbling out.

I had forgotten the importance of place. There are plenty of things which we can use to make sense of an imperfect and shifting world, but place can be taken for granted. With somewhere like Sussex Inlet, for me, place can be inter-woven with emotional threads reaching back 45 years, from late childhood, to teenage surf zealot, to gonzo uni student, to young father and now (young, I hope) grandfather. I don’t believe, though, that the peace which settled on me on Friday night was just about happy memories. The place was speaking to me.

I got up early the next morning, with only my son Tim and baby Kennadie awake at that hour, and snuck out on my bike. I turned onto a vaguely familiar dirt road, was dive-bombed by a currawong, and had a black wallaby race across my path. It was early, it was muddy, and no other fool but me was out there in the conditions; I had it all, all to myself. The road was fast in spots, and in others the bike sank to its axles (and my feet) in cold dirty water stretching right across the path. The conditions didn’t matter. Fast or boggy, descending or slogging uphill, the place was special and granted just to me. My hoots of exuberance bounced off the trees and mystified the black cockatoos. On the way home, I pulled in at a little look-out with a view over the rocky cove which had been one of the favoured, treasured surf spots and I connected with the place, as well as the memories.

I stood on the wharf at sunset, Kennadie on my hip and the tumble-down trees edging the far bank; the evening light tinting the clouds, mirrored in the ruffled water. A place like many others, I guess, but a place to me.

It’s there if you let it be there. Feel it through your feet, or your pedals, or even the car’s tyres. Place can touch you, caress you, restore you. You just have to keep your senses open so that when you get to the right place, the link is made.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 17 other followers

%d bloggers like this: