TS writes: Just back from the Berkshire Conference at Hofstra University, NY. The sessions – feminist, theorised, activist – were wonderful, but one of the real stars of the show was the glorious campus landscape, which greeted delegates with all possible shades of green and the heavy scents of jasmine and conifers as we emerged from the chill of air-conditioned rooms into what for New York was moderate heat and humidity. Hofstra is best known for its spring tulip festival, a nod to its Dutch heritage, but by early June these had long bloomed and been cleared away by the friendly and efficient grounds staff.
Exploring the campus with a Visitor’s Guide, it was a treat instead to find a small Sensory Garden tucked behind one of the large buildings, marked out with a polygonal trellis fence and featuring raised beds planted with an array of species to smell and touch.
At the centre of this cool, shady space (in the morning, at least) was a fountain, its gentle splashing providing a backdrop to the birdsong all around.
Exploring further, I wandered through the cathedral-like Pinetum, featuring over 110 varieties of coniferous trees reaching up and providing another sanctuary from the sun for those seeking it.
Beyond the green space, the campus also boasted a paved labyrinth, a replica of that at Chartres cathedral in France. Enclosed on three sides by buildings, the 40-foot-wide labyrinth encourages you to walk to its centre and ‘filter out the external world’ before working your way back out ‘with a better understanding of your own internal identity’. I found myself wishing that Hofstra’s version wasn’t quite so exposed: it’s hard to filter out the external world when the world insists on crossing the square straight through the marked-out paving maze. As the HC team has always suspected, an enclosed garden is a much better way to zone out…
In his Le Livre de physicke, (a book full of advice for health and well-being) written in the thirteenth-century, Aldobrandino of Siena instructed that those ‘who knew to what extent they should work to stay healthy must also know when they should rest’. Nature in the garden in England in September is beginning to do just this! The garden is now showing signs of knowing when to rest and recuperate after a season of hard work. It’s beginning to show that Nature has always had the sense to know that it is time to take some time out.
The signs are here. Trees laden with apples that are beginning to fall, summer plants running out of the energy they need to grow and leaves beginning to change colour as the trees ‘close-down’ for the winter months. The light is changing and the temperature dropping. Morning mists after the previous day’s rain, combined with the moisture in the air, brings in the soft and downy milky-grey mildew, so that even if the peas and other susceptible crops want to carry on giving, they are doomed to failure as the mildew takes over and moisture-laden cobwebs festoon the plants. Looking closely, there are, nevertheless, still signs of growth. As if by magic enchanted purple tinted toadstools heroically push their way up through the cooling ground, appearing and disappearing in what, in Nature’s terms, must seem to her to be infinitely less than a blink of an eye.
Even though it is turning colder, any time spent in the garden as it begins to cover itself for the winter can still be a time of healing; but, as Aldrobrandino points out, it’s also time to cover your head in the night and in the morning. His readers are also advised that the autumn is a time to make sure that their food is light and nourishing so that it is easier to digest and avoid weakness that could invite noxious diseases (such as fevers) to invade the body: these could also drift in on the autumn mists and colder air. He cautions that they ‘should dress in September as they would in spring’ but advises that the fabric should be warmer. And, as for diet, the autumn menu includes, ‘capons, chicken, peacocks that are just about to fly, pork’ and drinking, ‘good wine’ – all of which was to be taken in moderation. Aldobrandino also thought that, at this time of the year, spending too much time thinking was Not A Good Thing!
Aldobrandino doesn’t specifically advise his readers that they should go out into the garden and look closely at Nature to enable their bodies to wind down and take a rest but here, at Swansea, the team working on the Enclosed Garden have been looking to see whether it does actually have health benefits. We would like to think that if only we could have chatted to Aldobrandino of Siena about keeping healthy through spending just a little of our precious time sitting or strolling in the garden, he would have been only too pleased to have added a special chapter into his thirteenth-century book of health advice. In this chapter he would have instructed all of his readers to stop for a few minutes, take some time out in a garden, and surround themselves with Nature.
LHM and TS write:
The Hortus Conclusus team were today celebrating winning an Impact Acceleration award, sponsored at Swansea by the EPSRC, to help us develop our goal of reconstructing a real, medieval, enclosed garden here in Wales, and assessing its therapeutic qualities.
Gardens as places of therapy are attracting increasing attention: a recent. A recent Gardener’s Question Time http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068yd6m was broadcast from the walled garden in Auchincruive, Scotland. This is a garden devised as a therapeutic centre for ex-servicemen and women to help them with PDSD and other traumas.
As part of our award, we shall be measuring the health benefits of quiet, enclosed spaces, as well as writing applications for sponsorship of both the new garden and of a horticultural trainee to help us realise this vision. When the garden is built, we shall be using it for medieval-themed events and performances, as well as opening it up as a contemplative space. Follow the category ‘Impact’ to see how we progress!
If you think it’s been raining in the UK this week, it hasn’t; at least not compared to the type of rain they get in Bergen. This is real rain: heavy, relentless and ubiquitous, just the sort that the extensive botanical gardens, now situated nearly 15 miles outside this pretty Norwegian city, thrive on. Ironically, it was too wet to trek out to see these during my recent trip to the university, to where I had been invited to present on the Hortus Conclusus research project at the Exploring the Middle Ages conference (November 25-7: http://www.uib.no/en/hf/90319/exploring-middle-ages). However, the smaller botanical gardens attached to the grand nineteenth-century University Museum building in which the conference was held were a little more accessible during the brief moments when the rain let up a little. In front of the museum, too, are a series of smaller, walled gardens made up of simple paths and low-growing green shrubbery and a few, regularly placed trees, now almost bare after the ravages of autumn wind and rainfall.
In summer, no doubt, these intermediary, walled garden spaces squeezed artfully between the cobbled street and the museum provide quiet areas for visitors to ponder over and process the extraordinary collection of Scandinavian medieval artifacts that form part of the museum’s collections, and to which we had special access on the final day of the conference. There was no sitting and pondering in the gardens to be had that afternoon, however. In fact, intense flooding of the main paths made them ultimately impassible, although I managed to exploit a gap in the rainclouds to photograph them before the floodwaters rose. Fortunately, I’ll be returning to Bergen in the summer of 2017 for the final meeting of the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon network project (http://blogs.surrey.ac.uk/medievalwomen/) and will look forward to seeing both botanical and walled gardens in all their splendour then.