Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Gates of Eden

Leaving the "Garden" images to season quietly for a few years has turned out to be a good move.  As so often seems to be the case, my conscious eye has matured in the intervening period to understand more clearly what my unconscious eye saw at the time. Last year I began to copy every file that looked as if it had been made in the Valley Garden or the Old Dairy allotments into a single directory; over the weekend I finished the job and found I had just over 3000 images.  That's a lot, obviously, but many are duplicates, or very similar, or sub-standard, or just not very interesting.  There are more -- probably quite a lot more, including a substantial amount of work on 120 film -- but I only have files going back to 2005 conveniently available on a backup drive, and the oldest of these are 8 megapixel files from a Canon 350D, which have begun to look a little noisy next to their more recent 16 megapixel neighbours.  A decade's worth seemed a suitable quantity to work with.  A first pass through these 3000 candidate files for items of obvious merit quickly produced a more refined subset of just 150 selected photographs.  Perfect!

The pleasure of starting work on editing a new series, with the prospect of a new Blurb book as the immediate end result, is tempered by reminders of the disappearance of its subject matter.  For me, for many years, the Valley Garden was a place of profound personal significance.  It was where I realised that my photography depended not on finding exotic locations, but on an extended engagement with the "spirit of place".  That place might be anywhere, but it happened to be here.  I was originally led there by following the stream that runs through the Highfield campus, the subject of my first extended photographic series in the late 1990s.  The campus site was originally a brick-pit, and in a neglected corner behind the Students' Union the stream flows into a steep sided, broad-bottomed valley, which had been developed into a gated botanical garden by the Biology Department for its own purposes, but which had gradually been allowed to revert into a low-maintenance semi-wilderness.

There were the traditional raised beds, borders, cold frames and greenhouses with gravelled paths, all arranged taxonomically with neat metal labels, but these were all slowly falling apart and the livelier plants had escaped the bonds of classification and self-seeded everywhere; the groundsmen had gradually abandoned their attempts to tidy the place, so many of them having been laid off as budget cuts began to bite in the 1980s. A small hillside orchard still bore large quantities of beautiful apples each year, but nobody bothered to collect them, or even compost the windfalls.  Some of the larger greenhouses were still partly in use, but most were semi-derelict and full of the detritus of long-abandoned projects and experiments.  For a photographer with a liking for the aesthetics of patination and the patterns created when human structures are reclaimed by nature, it was a little Eden.

For years, I had the place to myself, especially in the cold months, when the stream often flooded and the valley bottom became boggy. In summer and autumn, while they were at the university Day Nursery, I would take my children there to hunt for the sweetest apples in the orchard and to wonder at the enormous, thorny umbrellas of Gunnera manicata, the giant Brazilian rhubarb.  In February a pond, concealed among tall stands of reeds and bamboo within a grove of trees, would fill with improbable numbers of mating frogs, their resonant croaking chorus audible from a distance, as they clung to each other ecstatically among glistening piles of frogspawn. It became a major part of my daily lunchtime circuit of the campus, checking out what was new and what had changed, and photographing whatever caught my eye.

Inevitably, though, the tidy-minded university planners eventually turned their attention to this idyllic haven, two acres too many of messy green chaos at the heart of the campus.  In 2008 the Valley was shut, and the (admittedly hazardous) greenhouses torn down. The days of poorly-paid but dedicated "plantsmen" had gone, and the biologists had their brand new Life Sciences building; the Valley Garden was destined to become a bland park where, on a few sunny days, staff might safely eat their lunch where once the Solanaceae, Brassicaceae and other tribes had run riot.  For the rest of the year, when the stream still floods and the lawns become sodden, it would be about as interesting to the connoisseur of wabi-sabi as a plastic sandwich box.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic rooted in a Buddhist awareness of the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of existence, a bitter-sweet acceptance that nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect. The qualities it values are usually said to include simplicity, roughness, asymmetry, modesty, intimacy, and the revelation of natural processes at work. It is the difference between appreciating the patina and wear on an old coin, and scrubbing it off with Brasso. A semi-derelict greenhouse with algaed window-panes inscribed by grazing snails has wabi-sabi; rows of concrete planters and picnic benches do not.  Not yet, anyway; nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect.

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