The Dirt: Adam Simpson

“One of the things I like about being a lawyer is I get to get in very close to issues and lift up the bonnet, have a look at the details. I kind of thought of the garden as a refuge from my work, but maybe it’s just an extension.” Adam Simpson and I are drinking tea in his garden in inner-city Sydney. It’s a tiny, layered and meticulously tended space. If I were alone, I’d likely be lying flat on my stomach, my nose pressed up to the moss covered rocks poking out of the water rill running between timber deck and bamboo. Looking, looking, looking. I’d immerse myself in the tiny world of lush green mossy carpets, burbling water and miniature hillsides of stone and time would float away. But I’m in company, good company, so I settle for sitting still and attempt to contain myself.

A garden’s composition is most obviously a response to spatial opportunities and constraints, but it’s also, often less obviously, an expression of how a gardener sees. Adam Simpson’s garden, in this regard, is rich. It’s a garden that reveals itself – layer upon layer – the closer it’s examined. There’s nearly an austerity to it when viewed from the kitchen of the home Adam shares with his wife Mandy and their two daughters, but this soon transforms into intricacy when I’m in the garden itself. Adam is right, his garden is about the detail, but it is clearly about refuge too, in a way particular to him. “Part of me is in complete shambles. And then part of me is very organized. The two kind of come in and out of focus.”

There is nothing shambolic about Adam’s garden, but it does certainly speak of a mind at home in both the macro and the micro realms.”

Large stepping stones lead out from the kitchen and wind around to steps up to a raised timber deck. Two of the four sides of the deck are flanked with shallow water rills filled with small rocks. My hands are already in the water, moving the rocks around, when Adam explains that each rock has been placed intentionally, as their shape beneath the surface influences the sound and movement of the water. I remove my hands quickly and pretend (badly) that I haven’t been shuffling stones before quickly admitting that I have. He’s very forgiving. “Every stone in there has been carefully placed so that you get a little bit of a ripple effect but without ruining the flow,” Adam tells me. “And if I were to change any one of those, the flow would change and the noise would change. And that’s the way I like it… it’s a soundscape.”

The level of detail within the garden is intentional. “I wanted a place to work in and escape to. I thought that a garden in which I could be particular was a way of doing that; it might be nice to spend time picking up leaves, or on my hands and knees getting microscopic.” It makes sense then, with Adam’s penchant for particularity, that he’s slightly obsessed with moss.

His infatuation began during a trip to Japan. He and Mandy visited Saiho-ji Temple, famous for its moss garden. Before then, Adam tells me he’s not sure he even knew moss existed. “I probably put it into the category of stuff that people like to get rid of on brick driveways.” Nowadays, he’s trained his two daughters to spot moss on the streets around his home. We examine a small clump that he found growing on a plastic electrical box on the street, now happy on a small limestone island in the water rill. “Moss is a quiet achiever,” Adam explains when I ask what draws him to it. “Moss and lichen are the first colonisers of harsh and destroyed landscapes – they’re pioneers. When the lava cools and hardens, sky-borne detritus, insect bodies and dust, arrives first. They provide a tiny foothold for the spores of moss and lichen – the bryophytes. Plant seeds then nestle in to the moss and drop their roots. I’d expect to see them on the ships that might terraform Mars.”

And yet, “moss is often overlooked, under-appreciated, trampled on, poisoned. I cringe when I see ‘Moss Killer’ at the hardware store”, Adam says. “Moss can be exceptionally beautiful and interesting if you drop to your knees and have a close look. Consider the great moss gardens in the temples of Japan. Consider the moss that colours the cracks of the footpath in winter. It’s also wonderfully adapted – it needs a relatively moist environment to thrive, and so has various techniques to trap, keep and share moisture. There are mosses that have survived complete dehydration for years, before bursting back into life. And if you think humans have weird sex lives, check out moss!”

Moss is just one of Adam Simpson’s many infatuations. He’s the sort of person who has the capacity to pursue any number of creative and intellectual interests. “I could happily live a thousand lifetimes, each one having a different focus,” he tells me. “Music is a big part of my life. I play guitar and dabble with the piano. I love photography. I write a little bit… I love creation. If someone gave me a lump of clay, I’d happily get stuck into that.” Adam’s garden, containing his burgeoning moss collection, is one of the many creations he attends to, but he attends to it at a level of detail I find astounding. “I think part of art is knowing when to stop—when have you finished writing, painting, gardening?”

It’s a path to insanity but it’s also quite fun asking well, why isn’t this thing perfect? I feel the same way with the garden, in working out where a rock should ideally be.”

At the end of our visit, Adam leads me over to a bonsai sitting on a bench against the side wall of his garden. By this stage, I’m fully aware of the depth of consideration he gives the garden and all its inhabitants. He decides it needs a prune. We discuss the particularities of shaping bonsai and how one wrong cut can spell disaster. Before I know it, I am holding the scissors. I try to convince him it’s not a good idea – I’m pretty slap-dash when it comes to pruning – but he insists, so I chop it where I think it needs to be chopped. Daniel holds his breath, as do I. Adam seems to be enjoying the event. We all take a step back and look at the newly shaped bonsai. Thankfully, we unanimously agree it looks better minus the limb. I breathe out.

As we leave, I hand over a couple of small pieces of moss from my garden to Adam, for his collection. I know he’ll look after them. The slow, soft calmness of moss echoes of a way of being that resonates with him. “I guess it brings a little peace. Moss reminds me of the calm of a forest floor and the slow passage of time. Places covered in moss have often been left undisturbed for many years and are still full of life. Perhaps that is what I aspire to; being undisturbed but full of life.”