martes, 13 de junio de 2017

Dan Pearson: three books and one blog for inspiration

(Si prefieres leer esta entrada en español puedes encontrarla aquí: Dan Pearson: tres libros y un blog para la inspiración)

If one day I decided to ask a professional landscaper for help, I think I would choose a Spanish one. It is not a question of patriotism, it is a practical matter: we would understand each other better. And I also know some great ones. However, if I did not rationalize the question and let my heart speak, I think I would choose Dan Pearson. I have always felt a special predilection for the work of this landscaper, although it has taken me a few years to discover why. Obviously, his gardens play a significant part in this preference, and for instance I think his Old Rectory is one of this century’s most amazing gardens. The balance between architecture and horticulture of its designs and the simplicity and elegance of its plantations allow him to reach a perfect connection between romantic tradition and ecological modernity. His designs are capable of creating very special spaces. But before you tell me I am exaggerating, the truth is that there are other gardeners with jobs that I like as much as his. I have thought a lot about it and I have concluded that my weakness for this landscaper comes more from his writings than from the gardens he creates. His books and his blog talk about his landscaping experience in a language that I relate to very easily. Often, while reading his texts, I identify so closely with the writing that I’m transported to personal experiences leaving behind the subject matter. In his texts Pearson does not deal with the philosophy of the garden from complex thoughts, but from a plain language in which he talks about his more prosaic experiences. Through his success, his failures and his motivations, he reaches the core of the subject like few.  For Pearson the art of gardening does not obey arcane and unfathomable mysteries, but rather it is the sum of knowledge and skills that allow you to understand the needs of plants and anticipate or react to them. And this simple philosophy is the one that his texts emanate. The quality of the writings of Dan Pearson is not in the complexity of what he writes, but in the feeling with which he writes.
Through his books and articles it is easy to take a complete tour of his gardening experience. Beyond the plants for which he feels weak (he writes about countless flowers, trees and shrubs) or interesting anecdotes about the creation of jewels like Home Farm, Torrecchia or Milleniun Forest, his books are a journey through his gardening life experience. The influence of Geraldine, a neighbour who opened the doors of her naturalist garden to him when he was 7, appears again and again. Just as the treasures discovered in a garden which after decades of abandonment had devoured the house and the old woman who had planted it when her parents bought it. Childhood and youth experiences play an important role in his texts, which stands to reason because no one can write from the heart about their sources of inspiration without making a reference to those stages of his life. Besides, he does not write about his childhood through nostalgia, but from the conviction of practising a type of gardening based on a deep love of nature which has grown from the little things that marveled him as a child. And therefore, in each of his designs, he strives to capture some of the magic of his childhood gardens, and seeks that those who visit them are affected by their atmosphere with the same purity that a child would feel who does not question its reactions.
Dan Pearson has published five books to date plus countless articles, but three of them condense his experience through his most personal gardens. In the first one, The Garden: The Year at Home Farm, he tells us the experience of his first large project, a garden on an abandoned farm commissioned by a friend of the family when he was only 23 years old. This is a magical and naturalistic garden that already shows the author's ability to create spaces capable of generating a nostalgic evocation of nature. By then, Pearson had already made some gardens (in fact this was the third one he created together with Frances, its owner) but this was the first space that gave him the opportunity to create a garden working with nature and respecting the spirit of the place. This is not to say that the intervention was not profound, he himself acknowledges that they were as brutal to nature as she can be to you, but the choice of plants and their disposition was made seeking to appear they had arrived and colonized the place freely. Throughout the book it can be understood that the paradox of naturalistic gardens is the complexity of such a process; the enormous doses of control that must be applied to emulate something that could be described as the soft informality of nature. The English make a distinction between wilderness and wildness. It is difficult to give the exact definition of each word, but wilderness would be nature in the wild, the tangible, the one that is there, while wildness would be the quality of wild, something more related to the perception that the human being can have about the indomitable nature of a landscape. A good mass of nettles can be wilderness and be less wildness than a plantation of carefully cultivated exotic perennials. As Pearson says, naturalistic gardening involves jumping from wilderness to wildness, which he has indeed so masterfully achieved in this case.

The second book, Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City, details his experience in the first garden where he was the client himself. Pearson felt that both designing and talking about gardens had alienated him from the true practice of gardening. Although he tried to vent his frustration in a small garden on the roof of his London flat and periodically continued working at Home Farm, he felt the need to dirty his hands with a land that he felt was his own. This was the motivation for moving into a house with a piece of elongated land in Peckham. Over 15 years, he showed that no garden is more special than one done for yourself. The knowledge that a gardener gains from a plot where you see dawn and dusk every day, where he enjoys and suffers the passage of the seasons, will always exceed the knowledge of the spaces that his clients offer him. If we add the degree of freedom and spontaneity you get from not having a client, it is easy to understand why landscapers’ private gardens are usually so special.

It seems that this little oasis, surrounded by the London maelstrom, could not contain all the wishes of a gardener like Dan Pearson. Change was inevitable, he needed a space that would allow him to be closer to the earth and its rhythms. Thus, five years ago, he moved to an 8-hectare estate in Somerset. In his last book, Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden, we can follow the first steps of this evolution from a claustral refuge against the London hustle and bustle to a landscape where one’s sight is lost in distant hills. This book, published a few weeks ago, is a selection of articles taken from his work in the Observer and we can travel through it both in time and space.  On the one hand we have the space journey in which we constantly jump from his London garden in Peckham to his new garden in Somerset making stops in Japan, Italy, London public gardens, the Chelsea Flower Show and other spaces where the author has had gardening experiences during his decade’s work as a columnist. And on the other hand, we have the temporary journey because the book, like the two previous, is structured temporally. Its chapters are ordered based on the passage of seasons and months, in a clear attempt to structure its message from a foundational fact in all gardening: the need to pay attention to the here and now. What better way to organize our thoughts, experiences and garden activities than through the passage of the seasons? In Pearson's words "every week is different from the next, but there is also reassurance in the repetition, the inevitability of Spring blossom, and the flare of the berries at the other end of the growing season. A single year’s experience is like the growth that accompanies it.  It builds and layers and enriches". And in the same way these books build, extend layers and enrich. I have enjoyed few gardening books as much as these three. And the good news is that the book ends with a "Dan Pearson is now writing at". And he is indeed. Pearson has decided to stop being a columnist in The Observer, but since last year we have been able to enjoy his articles in this excellent blog, where of course he continues to obey the passing of the seasons and speaks to us from the slow freedom of creation in his own garden. The blog will last. He invested 14 years at Home Farm, 15 at Peckham and in Somerset he has already invested 5, and it is obvious that he has a lot of work ahead of him. But the road is the best part of the trip. The best gardener is the one who has had time to find the materials, structures and especially plants, suitable to the place. Time to improve the terrain and know its limitations. Time to become intimate with the genius of the place and mature your decisions. Time to make a mistake and start again. All this time we can accompany him through his blog which is a joy that invites us to continue writing and staining our hands

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