River Diaries: A Book in a Boatshed and Pondering Place

For the best part of this year I’ve been writing a book. In the boatshed leaning into the river’s edge its taken shape. It’s grown in the garden as I’ve sown broad beans, garlic and sorrel. As I’ve crouched down in the bushland to sniff boronias it’s words have been hovering in the air. The book is not about this place but its certainly of this place.

The book, called The Planthunter: truth, beauty, chaos and plants (created in collaboration with photographer Daniel Shipp) is many things. At its heart, it’s an exploration of the exceptional and ordinary ways people connect to themselves and the world around them through gardening. It’s a curiosity fuelled journey exploring the power of plants, the connection between human wellbeing and nature, and the importance of gardening as an expression of love and care for the earth.

The book has evolved as I’ve grown roots in this patch of dirt next to the river. As I’ve written it I’ve fallen in love with this place. Writing it whilst being here has made me think more about the ways a real, physical connection to a particular place informs and inspires human thought and action, affecting the way we see ourselves in the world.

When I finished high school all I wanted to do was be somewhere other than the place I grew up. The city, a far off country, the other side of Australia. Anywhere new and exciting. I always thought I’d return home when I was ready to do the things most people do at a certain age – get married and have kids. I’ve half-done both things, in my own way, but I’ve never returned. Less from lack of desire, and more from circumstance.

I lived in a city for many years, but never felt connected to it. My roots didn’t grow, yet I longed for them to.”

I knew the feeling, from my childhood, of being immersed in a landscape I loved deeply. I craved that feeling in the city but never found it. I guess, at that stage of my life, I didn’t value the feeling enough to sacrifice the things I thought were important, things like this: See the world, be where the action is, make the money to see the world. Repeat. These are the stories that stopped me returning.

I’ve returned to another place now. It’s new to me, this river landscape. It’s nowhere I ever thought I’d be, but it feels like coming home. I’ve begun the lifelong process of learning the land. Getting to know the birds, the wind, the trees.

Whilst in San Francisco earlier this year, I met a woman called Topher Delaney. A conceptual artist, landscape architect and one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met (she’s featured in the book), she decided around a year ago to turn a piece of vacant public land opposite her studio into a garden. A year on, the space is vibrant and lush and a mecca for local residents and workers. School science classes visit to look at the plants and at lunch-time every seat is taken. Topher created the garden because she is invested in the land it sits upon. She cares. Her action happened because of her connection to place.

As we were leaving Topher’s studio she gifted me a small book called It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays, by poet, writer and farmer Wendell Berry. The words within it capture the relationship between place, imagination, affection and responsible human action far more eloquently than I can:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place… As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighbourly, kind, and conserving economy.”

What strikes me most when considering Wendell Berry’s thoughts on place and affection is scale. The relationships he refers to are not big. They’re tangible, physical, human-scale connections. They’re relationships of the body and heart, not the mind, and maybe this is where their importance lies. Compassion and affection are much easier to find within the realm of the up-close-and-personal than the big-picture-out-there-conceptual. Wendell Berry, again:

“I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that ‘Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail’—and that appears to have the force of truth.”

I feel incredibly lucky to have a  small piece of land under my care that I can love. My journey of affection is only beginning – I’ve got plenty of listening and seeing to do yet. Already, though, the place speaks to my heart. Being here, I’ve remembered the wonder of solitude. Being here, I’ve gotten to know the personalities and predilections of the human and non-human lives I share it with. Being here, I’ve gotten to know the rhythms of the bushland.

Being here, I feel more grounded than I can remember. Being here, I am home.

Simplicity is something I never thought I wanted. It sounded dull to me 20 years ago. Now, it seems to me that all the important things are simpler than we’re encouraged to think. Maybe just being in a place, loving a place, and acting on behalf of love for that place is a more powerful idea than I once thought? Maybe it’s the best way to express love and care for the world – a love grounded in both truth and lived experience? Maybe it’s as simple as poet Gary Snyder suggests: “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants is published by Thames and Hudson, with words by me and photographs by Daniel Shipp. It’ll  be released on the 1st of November, 2018.

Read Wendell Berry’s entire 2012 Jefferson Lecture, It all Turns on Affection, here.