I have admired Alys Fowler ever since I first watched her BBC programme called Edible Garden. I had just got into gardening and most of my experience so far was of a garden with just plants and shrubs. Perhaps the odd herb. People who liked growing veg had an allotment. However, watching her tend her garden made sense to me. To grow fruit, veg and plants in one same space was exciting and felt very natural. I would later discover kitchen gardens and cottage gardens, which I would plan to visit on our road trips. Permaculture is a practice that interests me as well.
Having collected a couple of her how-to books, I was looking forward to reading her newest book Hidden Nature. I knew the book was about her exploration of the Birmingham canals and of her journey of coming out. The design on the dust jacket is beautiful. The blurb at the back is an excerpt from the book:
“The best maps are not published, are not accurate or even sensible, but are the maps we make ourselves about our cities, our kith and kin. These maps are made up of private details that allow us to navigate our past as much as our current terrain.”
You will understand, then, why I think the title of the book is poignant. It summarises perfectly both stories. Alys set off with the aim to write a book about urban nature and ended on a journey of self-discovery. Her writing style is exquisite, and while I am not particularly interested in canals and I could not relate to life in Birmingham, I found myself thinking about how the rubbish we produce as human beings ends up everywhere. This angered me. I rejoiced when nature took back man-made waterways that were no longer in use, proving that planet Earth is allowing us to live here, not the other way round. We are not as in control as we think.
I was more interested in Alys’s personal journey and how she ultimately came out to herself and to her loved ones. This felt interrupted by her adventures in the Birmingham canals. However, when you are on a path of self-discovery, you do not find all the answers in one go. You do not make a seamless transition either. It takes time. Sometimes responsibilities come first, perhaps you are not ready to face reality. That is how this book felt to me. Her stories about the canals, while they interrupted the flow of her personal story, help the reader have an insight into how Alys thinks and digests things. This is just my perception, others might disagree and think both go hand in hand.
Right book, right time
The passages where she talks about neglecting her garden at first and then slowly going back to it were especially poignant. While I cannot equate uprooting to realising your sexual identity, I have felt disorientated and have struggled to feel settled since moving down to Oxford from Manchester, where I lived for 6 years. For the first few weeks, I was not interested in the garden. Or rather, I was not ready for it. I’d look outside the kitchen door and look at it, only watering when necessary. I had to process the change in my way. This, apparently, involves reading 4 books a week and a lot of staring into space obsessing over Brexit and getting a job.
Then, one day, I woke up and told myself: “mow the lawn. Just do that.” The following day I did a quick sweep of deadheading. I dealt with the neighbour’s fallen apples on our drive. I cut back the passion flower suffocating the lavender bush. After a week, I told my husband I wanted to go to the garden centre. He was thrilled. Not because he likes going, but because I was showing signs of overcoming whatever slump/mood I had fallen into.
I finished this book during my slump. Isn’t it funny how we recognise feelings and patterns in others, but it takes time to see them in yourself? Hidden Nature has become one of those books: you remember exactly when you read them because there was a before and an after.