Just as those who consume large quantities of waxed Californian pornography often grow to be revolted by pubic hair, so those who dwell mainly in sky-scraping penthouses often fear the natural world. It’s only to be expected; for them plants only exist crisp and viridian in window boxes and vases, so to see the woods in Autumn is traumatic. Bits of the plants keep going brown and falling off, they’re like squalid vegetable lepers; it’s disgusting, repulsive, probably dangerous, certainly unhygienic, and “oh darling look there’s another leaf! call for the gardener!!”
They don’t realise that the gardener is a complex instrument and that to produce the sweetest music he must be finely tuned – body and mind working in perfect conjunction like a samurai. Recently I have become discordant, the folia-phobic super-rich have had me guarding them from leaves for up to eight hours a day, and my mind has ruptured – I have developed a leaf fetish.
Not fetish for leaf-sweeping, which will always be about a billion shades of tedious. (Once, God knows why, I was a panellist for a seminar on ‘volunteer management in the garden’. I said goodhearted volunteers should be forced to do boring repetitive tasks for months on end just because paid staff can’t be arsed. I mentioned leaf sweeping and a vastly more experienced panellist rejoined: “actually Ben, if you teach someone to sweep leaves properly, they will be grateful and happy to work at it for long periods.” Nonsense then and nonsense now. Be aware readers, a well known garden in the South of England is lobotomising its volunteers). No, my fetish is for the fallen.
Previously my interest in Autumn colour had been conventionally arboreal; I liked ‘em red and hanging off a tree. But now I have been conditioned to see a fallen leaf not as a pragmatic reaction to diminishing light levels, but as mother nature’s “up-yours” to the international oligarchy and I seem to find delight in everywhere they pile.
You see, leaves once fallen cede so much to the garden, they dislocate familiar vistas, they give movement to the static, they crunch most pleasantly underfoot, they hide all the mistakes and casualties of summer, and they bind a garden to the calendar as evocatively and as essentially as deep snow or golden daffodils. Our latitude has blessed us with four seasons and our gardens must be allowed to express them all. If Autumn is ever to compete with coquettish spring She must not just wear Her coat of many colours, but throw it to the floor and romp wantonly on it.
My favourite wanton days are the very windy and the very still. When I leave my work in a gale and walk over Hampstead Heath to the station the leaves whip headwards like sniper rounds, blinding the joggers of Parliament Hill and burying their dogs under orange drifts. A nice bit of apocalyptic chaos to go with a paper cup of tea. While on the crisp calm days leaves fall straight from the boughs and lie in an exact circle under the branches, every tree mirroring itself perfectly on the grass. A field of sugar maples and prunus reflecting on the heath trumps any effect you could ever create with bloody cornus and lake-water.
In the distant future I hope to have gardeners of my own, and I know that come Autumn they will never be made to sweep up all day. Instead they can clean sparkplugs, plant bulbs and look forward to December when leaves are boring and I make them pick up every single one.