06 April 2009

Dead Close to Nature 1: Portrack House, Dumfries

This begins a series of blogs about Scotland and its evolving landscapes and history. If you believe (although I hardly see how you could) that the Borders and Central Scotland are in fact the fiery gates to a nauseatingly folkloric hell-world, then you should turn away now. This is the Dead Close to Nature Blog. I know! So catchy and hardly funny at all – a perfect tone to match my seriously gingham all-in-one country smock and killer farm boots a juego.

You’ve never heard of me, I dare
Say. Well, I’m here.
Voice from the Tomb (5) – Stevie Smith

Blogging is a morbid format for anyone wanting people to read what they write – it is a license to bombard a virtual audience with whatever the blogger wants, and the complaint stands that this destroys the ‘proper’ writing process and its dissemination. It does, however, democratise a literary world rife with nepotism, greed and snobbery. I’m all for the latter – as I said to my old friend Cybill Shepherd the other day: “Cybill”, I said, “Vive la Democracie, don't you think?” And she of course agreed, with tears in her eyes. Blogging gives a pathetic sense of community to its wide-eyed slave the blogger, however fantastical, and the billboard slickness of the computer screen renders everything in a finished glow, ready to post off into cyber space. 'Dead Close to Nature' is a rural blog so that should neutralise some of the high-falutin’ ideals and get down to what is important in life: hares, hills and hip flasks. It should be read whilst wearing a good country coat, sturdy boots and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ on full blast. A blog with a dress-code! But I digress:

‘Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten –
That’s an unbeatable hand!
But this is football.’
Adrian Mitchell

The Scottish lowlands have for many centuries been a highly cultivated area. Even the moors with their sweeping heather and dark squares of pine forest have represented an industrial landscape for hundreds of years. Think Easter Island but with slightly less disastrous consequences, that is if you don’t regard the demise of the Scots pine a disastrous consequence. However, by means of reparation, you can make a pretty fair pact with the countryside by carving a garden out of it.

The gardens at Portrack in Dumfriesshire, designed by Maggie Keswick and Charles Jencks, continued by Charles, John and Lily Jencks, and executed by the head gardener Alistair and his team, is a constantly evolving dynamic project that marries reverence of the history of the existing garden with a flight of science and fantasy. Since my last visit five years ago the garden has been much added to; a bridge that is a comet shooting into a copse, with ground that actually gently moves when you walk on it; a triangle of black-and-white painted poles (a primitive clock? a black hole? a pagan dance-floor?) looking back over the house with moss-covered mushroom-shaped wide-arching steps leading back to it; the old railway bridge turned into a sculpture hanging over the River Nith and the railway re-sited to flow past a record of the Age of Scottish Enlightenment by serpentine green hills; a row of trees recording the history of Scotland, no less; Fishhenge, a man-made stone circle – stone spiral - that is the start and beginning of universes by the riverside.

Portrack is so obviously committed to the continuing genesis of the garden in its theoretical and physical entirety that the sensation of walking the garden has an almost hypnotic effect – it is a benign place, and a humbling experience. It is also a learning experience which is accessible even for strangers to the theory and work behind the garden. Portrack’s sheer majesty, contrariness and precision, its utterly ballsy and barmy exuberance, are exciting and infectious. I fully recommend a visit; this year’s single open day is on May 3rd.

Many snapshots stand out: a heron landing on the top of a spiralling hill at the base of the uphill waterfall 'The Universe Cascade'; the carefully careless log sculptures that dot the hinterlands of the garden; the drip-drip of water under the railway bridge, one of the many irregularities the garden threw up that were received with glee by the Jencks; two yellow wagtails dipping and playing across the causeway on the lake by 'The Snail'; a gigantic swan flying low and loud along the river past 'Fishhenge' as we dragged driftwood from the stone skeleton; covering up plants with muslin for the night under the warning of frost; listening to Gram Parsons whilst nestled in the trees looking out over the valley; standing on the old railway bridge and waving madly at the passing trains; examining purple-sprouting plants that grow in profusion in the greenhouses like something out of C.S Lewis’ ‘Out of the Silent Planet’; waking up to all this in the morning, rolling a cigarette and stepping out into the garden.

Anyway. Everyone will have a different opinion about it, but mine is keenly favourable. However, to give a sense of balance read Stevie Smith’s unlikely assault on Iberian art – just goes to prove beauty is in the eye of the beholder:

Dr Peral
In a coat of gray
Has a way
With his mouth which seems to say
A lot
But nothing good to hear
And as for Dona Ysabel Corbos de Porcel
What a bitch
This seems to me a portrait which
Might have been left unhung
Or at anyrate slung
A little higher up.

The Spanish School - Stevie Smith

Finally: Portrack also boasts one of the few remaining successful red squirrel populations, which added to my list of key fauna to see this spring, my healthy obsession with hares aside, of which more (as always) later.

Photographs by Nicole Eldredge

1 comment:

  1. Subject matter spot on, "Wagtails" evoked memories of a book of poems i once read by author Jack Mapanje "The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison" well worth a read.