May 2, 2007
HOME FROM THREE WEEKS IN New Zealand, glowing and confused. glowing from the pin-sharp sunlight that turns every landscape into a cinematic panorama, confused by the kaleidoscope of plants, native and (mainly) non-native, that makes Kiwi gardens some of the richest anywhere. I was wary of ‘Kiwi’ when I went. Was it a loaded workd like ‘Pom’? Far from it, I found: it is a proud label for everything New Zealand.
‘Bush’ is the other term that commands respect. It means the native flora, where it still covers the land, whether as high forest or low scrub or an exotic coastal tangle of palms and flax (the Phormiumof our gardens) in total control of dunes and cliffs mile upon mile. You can’t keep out of the constant discussion about native and non-native nature. Predatory mammals introduced from abroad play havoc in a land that had none of its own. Our problem with grey squirrels is nothing compared with the damage done by rats, mice, stoats, deer, rabbits and especially Australian possums to a fauna that includes birds that can’t fly.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is an impressive organization. Its combat troops fight for its native animals and plants. Its communications arm provides, among much else, interpretative trails through bush of every kind. Five miles into a walk in rain forest you can still come across labelled trees. Getting your mind round the towering podocarps, the immense cypresses, cousins many times removed of the ones we know, the six species of southern beech, the prolific ferns soaring into trees and wonders such as tree fuschias and the bizarre lancewood is not easy. Nor is it helped by the mix of Maori and Latin that confronts you. Hebes and olearias and pittosporums are the genera that feel at first most like familiar ground – until the ground gets boggy with unfamiliar species and strange behaviour.
Bush tends, admittedly, to be brown – or rather a mixture of greens and tans and greys that fall somewhere short of conventional garden ‘colour’. Perhaps the pollinators of the antipodes are colour blind. You can make a comforting, well-furnished garden with Kiwi plants alone, but scarcely a cheerful one. ‘Our’ garden plants, on the other hand, do spectacularly well in the brilliant light and ample rainfall. The national arboretum, Eastwoodhill near Gisborne on the North Island, grows trees from round the world at alarming speed and
the roses of Christchurch, on the sheltered east coat of South Island, are enough to give you a complex.
The shift back from late summer in the southern hemisphere to early spring in this one is brutal. I confess it took me a couple of days to see the point of my own garden again. Perhaps the most important factor is transparency. There is a good deal of everygreenery here; more than in most gardens. Plenty of walls and hedges too. But how sketchy and unclothed – unpainted might be a better image – an English garden looks as colour starts to erupt in March. the severity of winter in Britain is at least simple. Coming home it all seemed too complicated. Colour is in spots rather than blocks; shape in lines rather than masses. I know – it is my garden – where the volumes are meant to be and where the voids, but it is my mind, not my eyes, telling me.
By the third day, jetlag receding, I was happy: things had clicked into place. Instead of random detail I was seeing my own intentions. Had I learned anything by going away? To make things simpler and more obvious, perhaps. How else are other people to know what you are trying to say?