It seems hard to believe with drifts of snow heaped against the door, but today’s World Book Day coincides with the first meteorological day of spring. To celebrate, here is a review of Four Hedges by Clare Leighton, a book that rejoices in the earthiness of the garden.
Four Hedges is a pocket-sized delight. First published by Victor Gollancz in 1935 and reprinted by Little Toller in 2010, the book charts a year in Leighton’s Chiltern garden of the 1930s. Born in London in 1898, Clare Leighton was an artist, writer, designer and wood-engraver who emigrated to America in 1939, where she settled in North Carolina and taught at Duke University. As well as creating the woodcuts used in her own books, she also illustrated the works of Thomas Hardy, Gilbert White and Henry David Thoreau. Studded throughout with Leighton’s gem-like woodcuts of plants, flowers, birds and garden scenes, Four Hedges is part art exhibition, part memoir, and part discourse on the individual’s relationship with their home and the natural world around it.
Beginning in April with the ‘piercing grey winds’ of early spring, Four Hedges walks us through Leighton’s garden month by month. It begins by drawing parallels between the worlds of horticulture and theatre: ‘[t]he drama of the year is late in starting and I am in time for the first act.’ This is no how-to-garden guide, but a psychogeographic exploration by an artist of a place intimately known. Arriving back in the Chilterns from a holiday in Corsica, Leighton notes that her return brings with it a sense that her ‘year is out of focus’, the heat of the Mediterranean putting her disjointedly out of step with her garden.
Leighton reconnects to her garden – and to her reality – through digging its earth with her bare hands. Even when she spikes her foot on a thistle, ‘there is this feeling of goodness coming up into me from the ground’. In the 1930s she was already warning her readers against growing too detached from the physical world:
‘We are losing much, these days, when we no longer get this naked contact with the earth. The sensation of touch seems to be fading, and lazily we look at things with our eyes, and smell the more pronounced scents around us, ignoring the vast range of emotion that is within the scope of hand or foot […] we are poor creatures that we should call ourselves civilised, we who have only these blunted powers’.
Four Hedges, p.92
Although Leighton’s book is no gardening guide, it nevertheless imparts snippets of countryside lore from generations past. Lacey, Leighton’s gardener with a ‘rumbling, earthy voice’, is a Chiltern native who embodies the folk wisdom of an older England. The adage that fair weather at Candlemas is the sign hard winter weather still to come introduces Leighton’s February chapter, and I see that 2018, like 1935, has a February that disappears into a blizzard:
‘By midday the snow has started, blown horizontal across the land by the violent winds, it lies in a thin scatter on the hill-tops, transforming them into high mountains. By nightfall it has begun to settle, and […] I listen in bed to that absolute silence without, which comes upon the earth only when it is covered with snow.’
Four Hedges, p.147/8
As I write this the weather is bitterly cold, snow whirling around the house like an icy dervish. Our village’s main road passes by our house, but for the last two says snow has muffled ‘the ugly sounds of civilisation’, plunging us into a near-silent world. Reading Leighton’s winter chapters makes me feel doubly connected to this weather as it rattles hail down the stove pipe and flings gobbets of snow at our windows.
Standing in the kitchen window I see three goldfinches jostling for space on the bird feeder, and by the hedge a blue tit pokes its beak into the brittle orange beech leaves that still linger from the autumn. As Leighton observed, the white blankness of the snow makes the colours of the birds jump out as its white blankness ‘heightens and burnishes the greys and browns of sparrow and thrush […] dull colours that would pass unnoticed against the usual background of earth and field become infused with life when they stand against snow’. Two bullfinches bounce bright into my garden, puffed up against the weather. The male, vivid coral pink at his breast, swings from the slender branches of the bare weigela, pecking off its buds in his hunger. Under the nearby cypress his pale buff mate nestles her feather-bulk into the mulch of leaves, twigs and grass on the ground, flicking over leaves with her beak in the hunt for insects. The gold finches flash their war-painted red and black faces at each other as they attack the nyger seed, their black and yellow wings a fluttering blur as they compete to perch on the feeder.
As Leighton and I share our gardens and the weather, I feel closer to both through comparing our worlds, seeing my world the sharper for its reflection in hers. Like her woodcuts, Leighton’s prose is precise and clear, clarifying the smudged, untidy world. With her I luxuriate in the ‘gentle, growing rain’ of April with its ‘silky rustle’; thrill at the prospect of ‘sunshine and swallows, apple blossom and cowslips’ when ‘the skirts of the hedges froth white with cow parsley’ in May; and imagine holding my new baby come June when ‘the garden is a nursery of nests and young birds’. My favourite season, autumn, arrives with apples knocked to the ground in a thunderstorm, this new year-spell ‘gently showing the marks of its fingers in heavy morning dews’.
Leighton’s is truly an artist’s experience of the world, alive to movement and colour, smell and touch. It seems only fair to let her have the last word, on this day of spring and books:
‘Spring is upon us, and will not be hindered by winds or rain, or scurries of snow.’