Welcome to the shadows at the garden's edge
On literature's journey from darkness to light
Literature has a long history of equating darkness with sin and shade with evil. Speaking frankly, this is not literature's problem but society's. Because if the culture takes us to the heart of darkness, then that's only because our leaders and governments got there first. Writers more eloquent than me have shed light on this, whether that's a white liberal journalist like Rian Malan acknowledging the irrational fear of the dark heart of Africa in My Traitor's Heart or black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks in 'Primer for Blacks', writing of how 'blackness marches on' in a variety of wonderful shades: 'rust-red', and 'olive and ochre.'
And so to last summer. Light and heat bleaching our lawns. Water a diminishing prospect. Our earth and soil suddenly closer in appearance to the Australian outback or South African veldt. We moved into our new house on one of the hottest days of July, to a house with a larger garden than we'd ever planned to have at a point when the term 'down-sizing' is usually relevant. Well, the house is smaller than our previous one. But at the end of the lawn, there is a cluster of towering trees - firs, oaks, birch, beech. Add to this camelia, holly, laburnum and a number of other shrubs and bushes which my limited understanding of plants cannot identify, and it makes a wall of many shades. Under the oaks and firs, I scraped away an old path which led to ancient compost bins, a leaning shed, a buried water-butt and several enormous holes made by badgers and foxes. Most of our immediate neighbours have removed their trees but the neglect of our own property, uninhabited and then tenanted for several years, has allowed the cluster of trees and bushes to rise up and create a billowing shield. I say 'neglect' but perhaps others would call it 'wilding', even if accidental.
How we love that shield of trees! Apart from the obvious physical advantage of it creating shade in that searing heat, there is the simple beauty of our mini-wood beyond the lawn. There is, of course, a huge leap from my comfortable enjoyment of our own shade to promotion of other types of blackness, shadow and darkness. And we are no different from other home-owners in seeking out the light. Our house is much brighter inside than our previous one - but when it comes to the natural world, while the sublime may arise most powerfully from vast, empty prospects seen from the top of mountains, entering a forest has its own rewards. When we turn over a log we experience a different sort of sublime - the thrill of small, hidden gifts in the proliferation of insects and fungi, or when moving on again in the richness of leaf mulch and damp loam beneath our feet.
That shade and dark nourish life is not new, of course. In the harrowing images of people walking across a barren landscape during drought, most notable is the lack of shade. The sun at its zenith beats down on spiky, leafless bushes around which skeletal cattle gather. And as we watch countries such as Somalia suffer, we cannot help but be reminded of earlier disasters, of other decades. In reality, drought never really went away - but we did, our attention taken by other conflicts, other climate emergencies in terms of flood and storms. Most pertinently, the emergencies have now come for us in our neat suburban bungaloes, our flower-decked proms and our city centres, our cathedrals and cafes, our arcades and avenues - if not to the same degree as those in the developing world.
What all of this means is that we need to re-evaluate what we deem natural and beautiful. The default for the surburban householder to 'create more light' by removing trees (something I confess to having done in the past) will need to change. I notice how in the autumn rain which has deluged our street and garden, the trees have done a job too, absorbing much of the moisture, turning what would have been a muddy lake in a treeless garden to a verdant, and predominantly well-drained patch of land. The huge fir my neighbour would like me to remove has dropped its brush-like spines and covered the old path, keeping it usable through the rain.
Dark worlds abound in literature. Often, as in Dante, the underground signals an entry into evil or madness. Forests offer the ancient, the hidden and the illicit. In my unpublished fantasy novel 'Rise of the Andahar' (I hear agents turning their phones off!) a subterranean empire called 'The Core' yearns for the light and to enjoy the benefits of the upper world, The Folm. But the reality is that the Folm, suffering drought and crop disease needs the Core much more than it needs them. Why? Because all the underground aquifers and the water table are controlled by the powers beneath the earth's surface. The dark, the hidden, and the shadowy may prickle the skin when we encounter them alone, but embracing what they offer - whether its shelter or nourishment - may make us think twice before we bulldoze them to oblivion or mine their depths for a diminishing supply of resources. We would do well to remember that for every Inferno there is a Farthing's Wood.
We live now on the edge of a local park, Broad Oak Park. Our garden's trees would have been part of the same woods which ring its edges before the main residential road which runs the other side of our garden was built and intersected it. Perhaps before that there was a great forest here which spread across the entire footprint of this part of town. Or perhaps it was more of a mixed scrub-like landscape, not defined by the binaries of forest or field (and now 'street'). We can't turn back time and uproot the concrete routes which everyone uses, but we can speak about the dark beauty of forests and 'holloways', of tunnels and caves as Robert Macfarlane does in 'Underland', and of underground lakes and rivers. We can write about the solace they give and how the shadows the great oaks and beeches cast provide a different sort of light - perhaps rust-red, ochre or olive. A darkness that has in it all the colours we'll ever need.