River Garden Diaries: Truth, Thoreau and Design Dilemmas

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden – his two year, two week and two day experiment in living alone in a cabin in the woods.

I’m no Thoreau, and I’m not sure I’m ready for my own Walden-like experience, but I guess I’m headed halfway there. I’m at a roadhouse, perhaps, on the winding dirt track between connection and solitude. Between respite and buzz. Between the noise of the city and the quiet hum of the bush.

Somewhere where there are more trees than people. That’s been my criteria for the last 15 years of dreaming about leaving the city behind.

After so long, it’s hard believe it’s happened. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Like I’m coming home. And I am.

A house on the edge of the Hawkesbury River is now, nearly, home. Its romantic, if you ignore the lack of windows and non-existent plumbing. It’s not romantic when we pull the boat up to the jetty at 9pm at night, forget to tie it up properly and watch as it drifts away down the river (we caught it, with the help of our very tolerant neighbours). It’s romantic because it’s a dream realised, a step closer to living a life that feels right, not one that feels near enough. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” wrote Thoreau. ”… to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I’m with you, Henry.

There is a house, believe it or not, in the wilderness behind the boat shed.
The front 'garden' when we first arrived was a living encyclopaedia of invasive weeds of the Sydney region.

A big part of my dream of escaping the city involves plants. Despite having designed gardens for others for many years, I’ve never owned my own. I realised a few years back that if I wanted to evolve as a garden designer, I needed to. And now, amazingly, I am the caretaker of a small sliver of land sandwiched between the bush and the river. I’ve begun (sort-of) to nurture my own garden. It’s a curious feeling.

Prone to introspection, I’m used to having conversations with myself about all range of things. Lately, however, the discourse has reached new heights (or depths, depending on perspective). It’s all about the garden. What to do with it? Where to start? What plants to grow? What plants not to grow? And on and on and on. One of the biggest questions, and one my partner has raised a few times, is the design. Where’s the grand design?

I’ve got none. Nothing. And, you know, I don’t think there’ll ever be one. Perhaps if the site were different, if there were less layers, less weeds, less trees, if it were more rectangular and flat, it may happen, but even then, I have my doubts.

There’s a story within our patch of dirt, and its slowly beginning to reveal itself. I’m more interested in listening to it than designing over the top of it.

When we bought the property a few months back it was covered in lantana and tecoma. Most of it was impossible to access without a pair of secateurs. We had no idea what was underneath the mass of green that’d been left unchecked for over 20 years. Bit by bit, the structure of an old garden began to peek through the foliage. First, it was some sandstone steps, then an entry pathway, gorgeous old dry stacked sandstone walls, more stairs, and a series of low terraces at the front and rear of the house. Just this morning I discovered yet more stairs as I pulled out a big clump of lantana.

None of the existing structures, including the old 1950s cottage, are grand. In fact, they’re the opposite. But, particularly within the garden, it’s clear that it was really loved once. And that’s enough of a basis for a design concept for me.

So, I’ll keep puddling along, talking to myself as I clear the decades of dirt and weeds from the sandstone pathways, re-build a few walls here and there, and dream of the day I can begin planting (currently we have no water and it’s completely overgrown with weeds). That’ll bring a whole other bunch of challenges and internal conversations – how can a plant lover/obsessive/nerd/hunter like myself ever whittle down all the plants in the world to a cohesive list for a garden on the side of a river. I can’t. I wont.

“I thought we were having a native garden?” My partner asked recently as I returned home with a meter long cactus branch in my hand. “Oh darling, we’re not only having a native garden, we’re having a botanic garden,” I told him enthusiastically. Confusion turned to bemused concern and the conversation hasn’t progressed.

I, like Thoreau, want to live my own truth, not someone else’s. And you know what? I think my truth can be found gardening the weed infested sliver of dirt sandwiched between the bush and the river. This move to the place where there are more trees than people, to a patch of earth that is mine for a time, feels like the most truthful thing I’ve done in a long while.