Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence
By Maria Popova
“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”
Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.
“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.
“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.
But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).
In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.
At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)
As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.
The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.
On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:
Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.
It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:
Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.
Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:
The wind calls my name, Prophesy!
Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!
But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.
In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:
The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.
I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.
In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:
I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.
His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:
Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.
He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:
My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.
And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:
to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.
Published April 4, 2021