Monday, August 06, 2012

The titan and the dolphin

When we bought this site 34 years ago, it was just a couple of acres of nondescript Irish hillside, covered with low gorse and heather, grazed by cows and sheep. It had one thing going for it: a spectacular view, over Ventry Harbor, Dingle Bay and the Atlantic.

There was no big decision about where to put the cottage: a single flat spot in the middle of the site. And so we did. It was, as we moved in, a rather grim wind-swept demense of weeds and mud.

In his autobiography, the Kerry-born poet John Moriarty, who worked also as a gardener, writes of the two ways we can relate to nature, which he calls the way of Prometheus and the way of the dolphin. In the Promethean way we shape nature to suit us; in the way of the dolphin we let nature shape us to suit it. Everywhere, he says, we see evidence that we have chosen wrongly.

Nevertheless he knows that as a gardener he must necessarily embrace something of the Promethean. "I saw genius everywhere I looked in Nature," he writes, "but that didn't mean that it was everywhere benign."

Our philosophy on this hillside was to be as dolphinian as possible, letting nature dictate how the site would evolve. Early in the game my wife spent £200 to plant 200 trees, mostly willow twigs stuck in the ground, but broadleafs too, and a few conifers. Nature decided which would thrive and which would wither. The trees in turn directed the wind. The wind orchestrated our garden plantings.

Today the site is mature. Mostly a wild tangle of bracken, bramble, heather and gorse –- nature having its own way. But also around the cottage and subsequent earth-covered studio a multi-leveled domain of domesticated plants, stone walls and steps, benches, bowers, nooks and crannies –- an oasis of benign Promethean suitability pressed closely on every side by a wild dolphinian sprawl.

We hewed close to Moriarty's philosophy: "The compromise was to live as though it mattered to not make too much noise in the world and to continue surrendered to Nature in places deeper within me than my grip on scythe or spade."