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Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle (Nature…
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Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle (Nature Classics Library) (edition 2010)

by Clare Leighton

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Member:teresue
Title:Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle (Nature Classics Library)
Authors:Clare Leighton
Info:Little Toller (2010), Paperback, 176 pages
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Four Hedges by Clare Leighton

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Clare Leighton: Four Hedges

Clare Leighton (1898-1989) was a British writer, designer, artist. She is particularly known for her wood engravings; eighty-four reproductions are scattered throughout Four Hedges. These alone are worth the price of the book. They illustrate beautifully this twelve-month diary (April-March) describing the trials and joys of building a garden in the Chiltern Hills in England. This is an area of chalky soil, the challenges compounded by Leighton and her partner purchasing land on a uplands, much more subject to gales than the lower, more protected areas.

This is not a 'how-to' book about gardening. It is a recounting of the planning and sheer physical hard work that goes into establishing, growing, and maintaining a garden. More than that, it demonstrates Leighton's acute powers of observation at all levels, observations tempered with great respect and even love for everything she sees. The woman who penned the introduction wrote: "Art, like gardening, is an artificial activity, but at its best it can extract the essence from whatever it seeks to portray." The art of Leighton's writing and wood engravings does this wonderfully. She writes with a clean, unencumbered prose that flows and captures the reader in the vision and feel of light, weather, soil, birds, animals, flowers, plants, trees.

Leighton's observations are also astute in other ways. One is the growing dissonance between our lives and the rhythms of nature (something that has only accelerated since this book was written in the 1930s). The other is the observations as parallels to, and even guidance for, the comportment of life. The latter, I think, is not the objective of the book, and Leighton does not belabour the point, but she is aware of the connections and draws them herself at times:

"The grasses undulate in the breeze, with the motion of a slight swell at sea. As we walk round the orchard, now facing, now backing the sun, they change colour; they are pale silver fawn with the sun full on them, and darker and redder against the sun's light. And as the men and women of a vast crowd have their unremarked, individual beauty and character, moulded each in his own fashion, differing from each other in shape and colouring, so are the grasses in the orchard composed of multitudinous varying forms, some fail and fine, some erect and sturdy, each with its own pattern of life."

Leighton returns often to the imperative of opening our minds to appreciate the variety of forms: "I know that it is wrong and wasteful of us to look at things only in their habitual light." There are, for instance, "subtleties of colour and beauties of form in the autumn and winter that are lacking in the more obvious sunshine of the summer." For Leighton, it is also critical to enhance observation by changing perspective: "I think we are too much inclined to look at things from our ordinary standing or sitting eye-level."

The trammels of hierarchy are not absent from the flower world where, "It is extraordinary how many people do have snobbish attitudes towards flowers." And, as a corollary, the vagaries of fashion also hold sway: "...there are fashions in the flower world as arbitrary as those in the world of clothes." A third element is, "finding the dividing line between utility and beauty", something that bedevils life as much as gardening.

Even oddballs such as weeds can be welcomed. Leighton speaks of the bindweed that, "is so lovely, with its flowers striped like the pink and white common frocks of young girls, that one is tempted to say that it is not a weed." But vigilance is always required. When the bindweed threatens to strangle the garden, it has to be dug out to "search the earth for the loose white strings of its roots.". What grows out of sight can belie the splendour of appearance.

Jealousy is to be fought against: "Do we perhaps get so much attached to the plants in our garden that we love the particular plant rather than the type, knowing each turn of stem and bud, each rib of structure?" For Leighton, the privilege is to help all living things, not to own them: "A really good man should want to tend a garden, even if it is not his own; this is the decisive test."

Individuality and environment matter. Some plants and trees can be planted, or transplanted, easily. Others require more understanding, support and nurturing. Some even require especially shaped holes, "to suit their individual eccentricities," because it is the eccentricities that form the whole.

Progress and life-style work against our knowledge, and appreciation, of the cycles of life, of the rhythms of nature: "...science shelters us from all the hardness of life, gardening gives us our only chance of a stimulating battle with the elements." The struggle matters. At first envious of another garden, Leighton discovers that the owner had hired a landscape gardener who brought in everything: earth, plants and all. So the owner had an immediate, beautiful garden, but, "she had known so little of the joys of gardening, for she had not had to fight." The results of one's labours through the trials and errors of life are to be prized. Contrasts and challenges give perspective and appreciation: "The year tastes best to those who do not fear the bite of the wind or the drench of the rain."

We are poorer for the loss of our intimacy with the rhythms and even the sounds and smells of nature:

"In the city summer merges into autumn and a man going to work suddenly sees that the leaves are falling from the trees; as autumn changes to winter, he notices that nightfall comes earlier, and the cold grows stronger. But to live vividly one should have vested interests in the weather....Our senses feel each change of the weather and watch the great arc of the sky from horizon to horizon for signs. The keyboard of experience expands."

"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 then smell more pronounced scents around us, ignoring the vast range of emotion that is within the scope of hand or foot. Few think of caressing a flower and enjoying the feel of its form and texture, the tightness of its bud, the hardness of its seed pod, or know the pleasure the hand can get from the surface of a tree trunk or a vegetable marrow. The peasant in the field will see a small bird afar off, or smell the change in the weather, or get happiness from the feel of his soil. We are poor creatures that we should call ourselves civilised, we who have only these blunted powers."

An essential rhythm that we have lost is death as part of the cycle of life, and the appreciation that death begets life. In the garden, the straw of dead flowers in the fall becomes fertiliser for growth in the spring. In animals, succeeding generations perpetuate the endless cycle of birth through to death.

Harmony in life between the controlled and the wild is essential: "A garden should never forget its origin. It should never become so remote from field and lane and coppice that the link is smashed. Part of it should be allowed, even encouraged, to lean back into the wild. There must never be a cultural fence between one's garden and the neighbouring meadows." Nor should the meadows themselves be disparaged. The very roughness of an untilled meadow, "is a corrective to the civilisation of flower beds and lawns." Again, the value of contrast and perspective.

The power of observation works on three levels to unify this fine book. First is Leighton's ability to describe and convey the challenges and joys of nature in, and through, the garden. The second is Leighton's thoughts on how we are losing, to our detriment as sentient beings, our engagement with the natural rhythms of life and nature. And third, how her observations parallel and limn conduct in life. This is the "keyboard of experience" that can be played moving back and forth among the three levels. The book is a hidden gem.

Four Hedges reminded me of two other books, for quite different reasons. The first is Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee; published in 1959, but set in a small village post-WWI. The similarity lies in the clean presentation of gentle, detailed descriptions of time and place and change. The other book is H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald; an entirely different book, but one that also contemplates what we have lost in disconnecting from the rhythms of nature and natural life.
  John | Jun 28, 2017 |
Something remarkable happened while reading Four Hedges. Curled up in front of the fire, while snow fell outside for the tenth day in a row and hundreds of kilometres of local roads were closed, I was so caught up in the description of fall cleanup and renewal that I found myself making plans for the next day. Then I looked up, reality dawned, and I was back in the real world.

This does illustrate though the immediacy with which Clare Leighton wrote this record of her rural world. Leighton was actually an engraver in wood, and the book is liberally illustrated with eighty-four images of her engravings of country life. In fact, it was the prints of these engravings that brought the book into my hands. Far away in another country, the person who gave it to me saw prints of some of Leighton's engravings in a window and stopped to ask about them. She was shown the book and knew it was one for both of us, so ordered two copies.

Oddly, this was similar to the experience of [[Carol Klein]], who wrote the introduction to this book. Klein owned reproductions of Leighton's work without knowing the artist's identity, and had not heard of Leighton until asked to write the introduction.

Leighton herself doesn't mention her art work at all in this book, although she had a studio on the property. Instead she concentrates on the world around her. This was the Chiltern Hills in the 1930s. The best land was gone, so Leighton and her partner bought a windswept hilltop place on flinty land. In detailing the cycles of the year there, she gives a picture of a vanished way of rural life. There are wonderful expressions. An "idle wind" is not at all the breeze I took it for, but rather a wind so strong that it "goes through you without taking the trouble to go round you instead". To "have a picture" is to have a gentle snowfall, the kind you see on Christmas cards.

Leighton is alive to the elements. She gives a wonderful description of wind: There is nothing more satisfying than to lie in bed at night, secure and warm, with a whistling wind outside. Windows creak and flap and grumble; one's senses are limited by the darkness to hearing, and so the moan of the wind lifts and falls, strengthens and diminishes with a range of sound that is unimagined during the daytime, when hearing is distracted and distempered by sight, and wind means the racing of clouds across the sky. In this keen hearing of night-time we can distinguish the roar of the wind against the elms in the lane from the swish of the swaying poplars.
These are sensations to which she worries urban dwellers will become oblivious, and she ponders the differences between the two worlds, worrying they will become further and further apart.

Not only did I discover Clare Leighton and her woodcuts from reading this book, I also discovered Little Toller Books, a company which "republishes classics of nature writing and rural life from the British Isles." Wonderful midwinter reading indeed.
2 vote SassyLassy | Jan 19, 2015 |
This is a true gem of a book. Simply written, it is a month by month account of Leighton's garden and gardening. The prose sparkles with a quiet love and a joy of nature and the beauty of the seasons. The new Littler Toller Books version contains mainly illustrations which are woodcuts by Leighton, who as well as being a wonderful nature writer was also a very talented wood engraver as well as a designer of mosaics and stained glass.

I assure you that reading this book will leave you smiling and potentially sighing at the beauty of the prose; and you will almost definitely be driven to go outside and observe the world around you. ( )
  ForrestFamily | Nov 3, 2011 |
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Hilarious read for juniors as Keith tries to change his mum and dad. Sequel to Ẁorry worts'.

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