Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

mary quite contraryOne way you know you’re really listening to a story is if you find yourself inside it.  The teller, be it your grandma, the bloke down the pub or an award-winning novelist, opens the door to a world which you imbue with your own images and experience.  You might be peering through the eyes of one of the characters or skipping around a poetic description of a parallel universe you have once visited.  Or you even might find yourself hovering around a particular moment in the unfolding plot.

I recently began reading my favourite childhood story, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and I found myself and re-found myself over and over again in the tale.  The story is of the sour and ‘contrary’ Mary from England who has lived in India all her life until at ten years old she is orphaned and has to go to live in rural Yorkshire with her brooding humpback uncle in his austere mansion.  Having been waited on all her life, without other children for company; she is rude and spiteful to her servants, at times even violent.  With little to do, she decides to explore the gardens and both her time in the fresh air and the friendship she cultivates with a robin begin to transform not only her sallow complexion but her attitude problem too.

This transition accelerates when she finds the key to The Secret Garden; a place that has been locked up for ten years, after her Aunt (her Uncle’s only love) met her death there.  It is in the moment of this discovery that I have found myself.  Mary finds the garden at the time when the winter storms are about to pass and the promise of spring lingers in the damp air.  She finds brittle brown rose brambles all around her, so dense that they are matted and she wonders if their dry exterior indicates that they are dead or just dormant.  If they are not dead, this garden could be abundant with thousands of roses in the summer, it would be a wild haven of beauty.   As she wanders further into the garden she finds the short green shoots of spring crocuses, not yet flowering but nevertheless a sure sign of life in this wild yet sleepy garden that no one has set foot in for a long time.   This inspires new hope in Mary.  The garden, though hidden, has never died, it has only grown more wild and complex.  With a little weeding and the sowing of some new seeds, the garden will breathe and flourish and be more beautiful than ever.

In my own garden, in my new house in Moss Side I have begun to sow and to weed.  On my windowsill there are rows of propagators made from recycled strawberry punnets and life in the form of marigolds, basil, courgettes, nasturtiums, tomatoes, thyme, broccoli and so much more is bursting out of them.  Every day, like an eager child, I peer into them, seeing how much they have grown and if there are signs of new shoots.  I cannot tell you the joy this brings me.

Like my windowsill, there is a wildness shooting up inside me.  Like Mary in her secret garden, this wildness is hidden from view for the moment, and the only signs of life are tiny green shoots.  But there is hope of life and everybody knows roses are perennials and beneath the brittle winter bark, the stems are green and strong awaiting the change of season.

Just the other day I dreamt that there were little green shoots springing up all over my body.  Whenever I pulled them off to plant them, some fear or sadness drained out of me like the pus beneath an angry spot and I felt liberated of something.  Growing this garden, letting the wildness breathe, feels like embarking on a new adventure and I feel a new sense of freedom.

This idea of re-wilding ourselves was a theme we also explored in our last 1YT meet-up and we looked at ways we could connect with our own nature by exploring our connection to nature.  As one of my coursemates mentioned, it is naïve to idealise nature as some sort of peaceful, moral idyll as it can also be violent and ferocious in it’s untamed form.  Anyone who has experienced the force of an earthquake or a stomach-churning jealousy could tell you that.  There are risks in this rewilding process, and there might be new beasts lurking in the shrubbery, but I’m letting go of fears and preparing my pack ready for embarking on a lonely and seemingly ‘contrary’ path, especially whilst I spend more time in The Secret Garden, talking to robins and staring at soil.  But it is also a path filled with adventure and abundant with life and the creativity that accompanies it, one that will be all the more scary when I open the gate and let others with their unfamiliar seeds plant on my patch.  But that’s later in the story.

Spring is well and truly here and the summer is in view.  The rains haven’t passed (in Manchester they perhaps never will) but in the meantime I’m sowing and observing all the wildness with a childlike wonder to see what blossoms in the summer.


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