An Old Magnolia Flower

It was an arboretum day filled with the brightest sunshine that beamed down between dense, top-lit clouds. To my foreground amongst grassy blades clothing two falling lawns, dozens of grape hyacinths were enjoying their moment, each with clusters of flowers no bigger than my thumb nail and shaded top to bottom with the lightest powder blue almost to black.

The Japanese style resting house under whose roof I sat, looked out over those flowers and a larger expanse of mown lawn that continued to fall gently away, eventually connecting to a wide and spectacular Cotswold green valley in the distance. Aside from the impressive skies above, the staged scene was completed with tiered tree-like curtains growing in each of the wings.

Batsford Arboretum, Japanese Resting House, Gloucestershire
Japanese Resting House, Batsford Arboretum, Gloucestershire. Gary Webb

Being an arboretum, a place for trees that is, my eyes for all the day were filled with so many treasures that speak of a long history of selection, nurturing, protection and care. From my chosen bench, itself made from time-served polished grain timber, my eyes were spoiled for choice by a living theatre of plants, a stage set just for me.

Lodged in the middle of April, many trees featured bare branches still, although others were bravely beginning to introduce their foliage to the world – bringing acid yellow and minty green highlights to the margins. Others, choosing an altogether different dress for this seasonal stage show, offered crowns filled to the brim with hundreds of the daintiest and most resilient petals I know – each cherry flower joining the next to perform in the sun’s spotlight.

That view….

Winds up high showed their commitment to spring by continually moving those full clouds eastward, but occasionally they’d wend their breezy way down between the conifer spires, and over, around and through the canopies of other trees to stroke some leafy foliage closer to earth. Evergreen tips up high would be the first to sway followed by slender branches of deciduous trees down below, and below that again, daffodils would lean this way and that en-masse. As quick as the wind came though, it would go, leaving nothing but calmness, and one or two more fallen petals from the oldest magnolia flowers.

Sat for a change with nothing on my mind but absorption, this gardener just wished to soak up the scene. It did matter that the location was meant for this activity, the rest house and its orientation chosen very carefully, and it did matter that the trees had been carefully selected too, placed and grown to embellish the entire landscape around this chosen spot.

Buddha at Batsford Arboretum
A flowery offering for Buddha. Image by Gary Webb.

As I pondered, it also became clear that decades, even centuries had been devoted to the creation, tending and presentation of this calming and very special place – a place that otherwise might have very different ideas about its own content and makeup. Variation in the ornamental planting was evident with ages of trees differing widely, and with specimen trees placed to create a scene Mother Nature herself might have set out, given access to such a palette of plants, and with a simple brief of creating a place for the nourishment of human souls.

Despite the calm, noise was everywhere, and there wasn’t a true moment of silence to be had – if indeed that was ever desired. Birds in variety filled that wooded hillside, and to my left and right pheasants barked – if pheasants can be said to bark that is. Beyond nature’s callers, a far away ride-on mower buzzed with its first cut of the year, humming loud and quiet as it turned to and fro, and two chainsaws up-over the hill revved their fossil fueled engines in competing rhythms as they ripped through some wood.

That wind though shushed it all away every now and again, reminding me to stay focussed and to pay attention, and so I did. After much prior strolling I sat, I watched, I listened and explored the place around me from that very seat, and I considered my lot. Whilst looking and moving nothing but my pen, I floated to each and every element in view, and a few more besides, and traded on a million experiences of a valued life spent in such rich environments. 

Prunus ‘Shirotae’. Gary Webb.

Just a few drifting moments away, I felt the smooth sawn bamboo stakes that lined an approach to the rest house steps, and ran my fingers along the rough rope intended to keep unknowing Easter trailers away from the flowers. I sensed the rubbery old magnolia petals placed in the hand of a cold bronze Buddha, and I could hear the sound of long grass whipping shoes that would later carry me home. 

I sniffed the delicious sweet scent from my favourite ’Shirotae’ cherry blossom, and felt the cool waft of spray on my face as I rushed past a fast flowing waterfall below the house. I knew that sticky resin would persist in the folds of my fingers after picking up a pine cone, and I imagined with awe the ghostly block and tackle work that would have been needed to lift the incredibly heavy boulders in to place alongside the craggy stream sides, many moons ago.

Holford Pine Cone
Holford Pine Cone, Batsford Arboretum. Gary Webb.

As people came and went, exploring the resting house inside whilst I sat out, I continued to write and float around that fascinating place, trying not to think but to experience and feel. That whole place, like so many other historic and new gardens and landscapes, was there not only to collect plants, but to bring people together, by creating a range of experiences that moved people. Judging by the reactions of others here and there, it was certainly working.

On arrival, even with a hidden sense of expectation, I felt a bit like a brown edged wrinkled old magnolia flower, whose key task going forward was to feed the roots of the trees that should live on. Now however, after just a short day in a place filled with cherry blossom promises, I feel renewed. I’ve filled my eyes and recharged my soul with colour, grandeur and industry, and I’ve topped up my springtime tank for the days ahead – which are now loooking much brighter. Might you need to do the same?

Written by Gary Webb.