Thinking back to this moment in my life I’m not surprised at all that I thought that these ‘messy’ areas should be outside the garden boundary, and that they belonged in the countryside and not within an ornamental setting where people pay an entrance fee and expect to see something more manicured. Tom Wright questioned my views but I now know that I was too immature and my senses too underdeveloped to see it any other way. I reacted negatively to Dixter’s wilderness having been accustomed to an environment in which total control of nature was the norm, with very little acceptance of anything else. Not much was said about wildlife at home or at school. Nature surrounded us but we grew up ignorant of it. Even when I was at university, horticulture was all about taming wilderness and, were it not for Tom Wright, our three years of studying could easily have passed us by without much consideration of the subject.
While at Wye I became obsessed by garden plants. My notebooks were filled with Latin names, with colourful descriptions and sketches of petals and flower shapes. Looking at my notes now it amazes me that whenever I visited a garden I hardly remarked on anything to do with atmosphere, or spirit or sense of place, or the landscape. I never for once took into account how a gem like Dixter would connect to its surroundings, let alone to natural life and biodiversity within and outside its boundary. At Wye, rural environmental scientists studied the environment and horticulturalists studied gardening – the crossover was limited. But it was that visit to Great Dixter and meeting Christo that paved the way to my being more aware of everything that surrounded me. As is often the case, this response didn’t happen overnight – the thread that connected me with Mother Nature remained hidden for many years. I started late, and so teasing this sensitivity into the open was a gradual process, developing and accelerating as I matured.
Christo liked the way I took notes – we struck up a friendship and kept in touch by letter. I often visited him at weekends along with another Wye student, Neil Ross. Neil and I both loved being at Dixter, surrounded by amazing garden plants, vibrant colour and always new and exciting combinations. My fixation with individual plants continued, and I ticked them off one by one like an obsessive twitcher, encouraged by the stamp-collector mentality that sits so embedded in many young people – especially boys. Christo’s encyclopaedic knowledge fuelled my fire and the lists in my notebooks grew and became more exotic with every visit.
But being with Christo wasn’t just about generating lists. He made me look at everything – opening up my senses with long walks into the woods and walking across the fields at Dixter. He made me look at birds, butterflies, fungi, mosses, and made me aware of the changing seasons, the sounds and smells of the countryside, from autumn colour on the trees to leaves on the ground. He was close to nature and through him I became acutely observant and suddenly my surroundings took on another meaning.
APPRECIATING THE WILD
Shortly after Wye, a friend I had met through Christo accompanied me on a trip to Turkey, where I had spent a great deal of my childhood. We went to the Western