Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Tag: garden (Page 1 of 2)

Yellow maple leaf over blue sky

Writing weather

I’ve always been the kind of person whose mood is influenced by the weather. Not in some New Age in-touch-with-nature sort of a way, I just notice things. Rainy days make me melancholy. Strong winds give me the fidgets. And sometimes I notice the seasons change.

Ever since I was small, too young to feel the relentless march of the calendar pages turning the way an adult would, I’ve associated autumn with crows. I say crows, but really I mean all the corvids we got where I grew up: rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows (no ravens or hoodies in the north east of England). In early September, they got restless, swirling across the sky in great raucous flocks before settling back into the tall trees next to my parents’ house. It always meant summer was ending for another year.

I went into the garden this morning and the first thing I heard was the rooks. The sky was still blue and patterned with housemartins, the air still warm, but that dolorous cawing made me feel change was afoot.

Now the clouds are blowing in. A fretful wind is tossing the jackdaws around, and the trees are hissing like surf over shingle beaches. It feels like autumn. That means it’s writing weather.

Featured image © Illreality | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Photo of straw bales in a field

Season’s End

Tomato seedlings in pots

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was very small, my favourite place in the world was Dad’s greenhouse. It was an old-fashioned, timber-framed Alton, and I remember it as a place of endless dry warmth, with the cat asleep under the cucumber plants, and air that smelled of paraffin and Jeyes Fluid and long drowsy days.

In the greenhouse were rattling canes and balls of twine, a resident spider, dusty jam-jars full of plant labels and pencils that did double-duty as makeshift dibbers. Thompson & Morgan seed packets, sacks of John Innes No. 3, stacks of seed trays that it was my job to rinse out with the hose at the end of each season so they could be used again next year.

Under the potting bench lived big clay pots that were too heavy for me to lift but if Dad turned one upside-down for me, made a perfect stool from which to watch, with that grave solemnity possessed of four year old girls, the gardener at work.

It’s from Dad that I get my love of growing things. I was helping him plant seed potatoes, onion sets and runner beans before I went to school. He taught me the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumbers, how to remove the side-shoots from tomato plants, and, when I was old enough to be trusted with the small, rusty but still very sharp greenhouse scissors, how to tie the plants in to the canes.

Afterwards we’d troop back to the house for tea with my fingers all yellow and smelling of tom-cats (if you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you’ll know exactly what I mean). That tea often included home-grown new potatoes, carrots, peas or string beans from the vegetable patch: plant to pan in maybe 10 minutes – take that, Bird’s Eye! On the table would be a vase containing sweetpeas, or heady roses, and after dinner the peelings and spent flowers would be taken to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden to start the cycle all over again. Dad was an organic gardener long before it became fashionable.

Tomatoes on the vine

Image courtesy of zdiviv at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I got a bit bigger he’d sit me on the tall stool at the potting bench and get me to prick out seedlings to pot up. In those days he grew everything except the cucumbers from seed: tomatoes, bedding plants, trays and trays of them that I’d water and patiently inspect each day for the first green shoots. Alyssum and marigolds for the borders, salvias, lobelia and petunias for the hanging baskets and planters.

Looking back, I can understand why he got me to do it: my Dad has hands like two pounds of butcher’s finest sausages – you’d never think he was quite a pianist when he was younger – so my small, nimble fingers were able to handle the tiniest plants with ease, and I had a strong young back and patience to spare.

In the autumn I’d help to harvest the apples – old English varieties, like James Grieve and Cox’s Improved – and then Mum and I would make batches of apple sauce, and crumbles and Eve’s pudding. Autumn was also the time of the chrysanthemums; whenever I smell that woody, spicy scent, I know that summer is over for another year.

Every child should get earth under their fingernails from time to time, and understand where their food comes from. Not out of a packet, or a cellophane-wrapped tray from Sainsbury’s, but out of the ground, off a plant. Some of my favourite memories are from Dad’s garden: leaning on the handle of a fork to lever up a potato plant and seeing the earth crumble around the pale pink-eyed King Edwards underneath; picking raspberries off the cane and cramming them into my mouth, warm and unwashed, with the taste of summer bursting on my tongue.

Apple blossom photo

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The apple and plum trees are long gone now, as are the roses. Dad’s getting on in years as well, and can’t manage the heavy digging for potatoes and the like, but he’s on his third greenhouse, and still carpets his garden with colour every year – though these days he buys micro-plants in vast trays and grows them on, rather than nurturing them from seed. He still grows his beloved chrysanthemums, and every other year or so sends me onto the internet to source just the right kind of greaseproof paper bags he needs to tie over the developing buds on the outdoor varieties to protect them from the rain.

I’ve never had the time or the land to have a vegetable patch or a greenhouse of my own, and lately my poor health has made it unlikely that I ever will. I can’t express how much I regret that. I miss those quiet hours of just me and Dad and the simple pleasure of things that grow. I miss them with a sharp sad pain that they’re gone and will never come again.

Or maybe I just miss being a kid, when we had proper summers that lasted forever and I had all the time in the world to enjoy them.

Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore — Virgil

Featured image © Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Of music and magic

Entrance to Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave, the Isle of Staffa : Karl Gruber

One of my earliest memories is of listening to music. On Sunday evenings, to lull me off to sleep, my parents used to leave the radio playing just outside my bedroom door, tuned in to a programme called “Your Hundred Best Tunes”. It featured popular classics, like Morning from The Peer Gynt Suite, and the largo from the New World Symphony, forever to be known in the UK as “the Hovis music” after an inspired television commercial for bread.

That radio programme was my introduction to classical music. Long before I knew the names of the composers, I recognized the pieces by the pictures they painted in my head: the surging surf of Fingal’s Cave, Night on a Bare Mountain with its witches’ sabbat, and the gilded curlicues of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Through music I began to explore the landscapes of my imagination, as the pictures prompted questions of who and where and why, and from those seeds, stories grow.

When I’m writing, I almost always have music playing. There are sound practical reasons for this: it blocks out ambient noise that would otherwise distract me, such as the school playground across the road, and creates an aural bubble in which I can focus utterly on what I’m working on, but there are other reasons too; reasons which are equally practical, if a little more ephemeral.

On those days when the creative fires prove difficult to ignite, music provides an extra spark. Whether it’s a mood or a mountain range I’m trying to invoke, the right piece of music can serve as a prompt – and sometimes takes me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t always have to be a classical piece, either: sweeping movie soundtracks, rock, country, any genre you like. If you put my mp3 player on random, it’s entirely possible to segue from AC/DC to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon via Thomas Tallis and Nina Simone, and I’ve found a use for all of them at different times as my stories unfold.

Certain pieces of music also have the power to evoke profound emotional responses, which I can use when I’m tackling a scene that goes beyond my own experience. It’s all very well saying “But you’re a writer, surely you just use your imagination?” but if I want the reader to feel what my character’s feeling, the words have to come not from dispassionate choices made in my head, but from deep inside.

Waterlily in the rain

Waterlily in the rain

I’ve never knelt in the rain with my first love dying in front of me, but start playing the adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez and I’m there, in that moment, and yes, I’m sobbing my eyes out.

Music has power. Music, to me, is very close to magic. Standing in my garden one summer’s morning, with the sun barely up and the dew still sparkling on the plants, I thought for a second that I could hear the flowers grow. In that moment of whimsy, I heard the songs of the earth, and learned the name of the music Gair heard in the dark as he waited for his sentence to be handed down. With that, another story took flight.

And if that’s not magic, I’m not sure what is.

 

This piece was originally written for my German publisher to promote me as a new writer. I stumbled over it when doing some housekeeping on my PC, and thought it deserved another airing.

 

Harvest

I harvested the first pears yesterday and today: Williams Bon Chrétien; the Conference ones on the other tree aren’t quite ready to come away, although I suspect today’s high winds may have a say in that matter. I see pear and almond crumble in my future!

It’s taken seven years from planting for the Williams to mature enough to fruit – there is some truth in the old saying ‘pears for heirs’. In previous years we’ve had plenty of blossom but that’s been it. The Conference crops heavily in alternate summers; this is its third ‘on’ year and the fruit is so heavy the lower branches are barely inches from the ground. This making it somewhat awkward to reach the shed . . .

 

La belle dame sans merci

Clematis Madame Le CoultreThere’s a clematis at the bottom of my garden.  A vigorous, large-leaved, free-flowering variety called Madame Le Coultre, which produces glorious paper-white flowers the size of tea-plates, in great abundance, every year, in spite of–or possibly because of–my sporadic attentions.  Like this one.

This morning, I discovered that Mme had fallen under her own weight, and was drooping forlornly into the hellebores.  I say “fallen under her own weight” because I wouldn’t dream of implying that my neighbours had pitched her back over when she scrambled clean up the 6ft dividing fence and made determined advances on their trellis, rather like a dark green, many-armed Napoleon across Europe.

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