The garden is at Eagles Nest, Zennor in Cornwall where I grew up. In 1806 a cottage was built there, probably by a Mr Batten from Penzance, becoming known as Batten’s Folly. It is uncertain if he lived there but it had already been named Eagles Nest in 1873 when it was sold to Professor John Westlake from London. Within three years he had doubled its size, later renaming it Tregerthen Cottage. Further extensions were built in 1890.
In 1921 Professor Westlake’s widow Alice Westlake sold it to Will Arnold-Forster who completed the current structure of the house and revived the name of Eagles Nest. He lived there until his death in 1953 and his book ‘Shrubs for the Milder Counties’ – Country Life 1948 – was based on his experience in making the garden. In 1955 my father bought the house from his son, Mark Arnold-Forster, and my family – my father Patrick Heron, my mother Delia, my sister Katharine – and myself, aged five, moved there from London.
body and mind
mind and spirit
memory and ghost
past and future
eye and seeing
seeing and understanding
The photographs in this book were taken over a period of four years, between 1988 and 1991, a time when I had returned to the garden at Eagles Nest, becoming involved with its regeneration after the severe frosts of January 1987.
Unlike documentary photographs or representations of the past, some of the photographs have an independent existence. They seem to be taken at a moment when something has happened and is about to happen, a shifting moment full of potential. They are often a surprise to me, I saw one thing and was given something else. They generate ideas and continue to inform me. Others are simply a presentation of a place, this place, how it is.
In the garden it was hard to know what was alive and away from it I began to work on a series of bronze sculptures, working directly in the wax that creates the mould. They concern things unseen, buried, underground, internal, subconscious; involving sources of energy, generators, messengers, nerves and roots.
A garden is a complex thing, it exists within a period of time and is neither finite nor static. The garden at Eagles Nest is perhaps unique in its severely exposed situation and closeness to the elements. It requires the intervention of people, although to try to control the garden in such a place would be folly. Change is in its nature.
When I was in Cornwall I worked on the garden, watching it and taking photographs. I decided to make a book. I wanted to make something that is accessible to people in the same way that a garden is accessible as part of life. Like the photographs, the main text is in the present: it incorporates fragments that were written in notebooks in 1987 and runs as a parallel text to the series of images. I have called it ‘Shima’, a Japanese word for ‘island’ and ‘garden’ bearing reference to both boundary and containment.
It is on the map at 621 feet above sea-level, the Ordnance Survey bench-mark is on the house. In winter the hills to the south cast an early shadow on the garden, to the north the sea completes the circle. The Victorians added gables to the house and made the lawn, a tennis lawn on top of the hill, cupped by hills and continuous thunder and high bracken full of tennis balls. A lawn floating in air high above the sea.
Below the lawn there is the croft, then a shelf of small fields and farms, the cliffs forming the second drop to the sea. There is the big view of the sea and the sky -that huge blue sky that came so vividly into all my dreams as a child when we moved there.
Seventy years ago the garden began.
Already there was the lawn, the vegetable garden, the greenhouse. There were rocks, white granite bleached rocks pushing up through the soil black earth. Help it along a bit. Pack a few stones to make a wall between the rocks. Fill it up with earth. Shelf. Make some steps. Paths take you round, sometimes in circles, the levels changing all the time. Paths of red rab mined from the hill like rust, but later breaking in a wave of smooth white shingle – a salty tide creeping up the arteries of the garden.
The garden is huge and complicated. In three parts on different sides of the house, each part containing a series of smaller gardens each with a different characteristic: Round Garden (the perpetual passage of path amongst shrubs), Long Garden, Lower Garden, and so on.
Above, the garden is exposed to wind from every direction, and not just wind but gale force hurricane force winds loaded with salt. No sooner have they stopped from one direction than they start again from another. And so it was planted with trees and shrubs from other islands and sometimes from mountains, shrubs that had had time to adapt to the wind and to the salt, that grow tougher here than any grown on lusher coasts. For here no native tree or shrub can reach a height before growing horizontally.
My parents shaped and nurtured the garden. My father cut the ragged hedges making clear the shapes that were there. My mother planted new windbreaks in the moor, plugged holes in the garden with trees of Senecio to stop the turbulence, moved shrubs in drought and cut the tops off trees in gales to prevent them from splitting or being uprooted. When the twenty foot heather tree outgrew that shelter, growing too soon to be cut, it was felled by the wind and allowed to lie horizontally to grow up from its new position.
There was often evidence of the garden clinging to my mother, mimosa flowers, spiny leaves, falling sepals in her hair.
After she died I glimpsed her hair, grey hair, amongst those high camellias behind the walls as she moved along the paths.
Elusive – there – there, again –
Going about her business
Her hair blowing in little gusts.
The garden soon became full of plants, no room to plant any more. Later there were suddenly spaces underneath and the ground became open again. Gradually there grew volumes of air, full of luminous light and heavenly cool shade on a hot day.
The spaces became intimate, rarely with sights of the house. Distance comes and goes like the sound of the sea. Mist fills the garden like a cool bath, the air is saturated. Leaves for a wet climate constantly washed and dripping.
There are camellias in a high walled garden, the walls are parallel, the path off-centre. Flowers of the East, from the distant foothills of China and the mountains of the islands of Japan, growing together here with their Cornish progeny. Fine roots fill the earth, shrubs cross the path – wandering shrubs from steep slopes and stony hills, their slender branches carrying single flowers and elegant leaves, spare and exotic. Others grow overhead out of depth, dark and glossy with leaves, as tightly packed on the surface of the trees as upon the glittering surface of water, casting soft red flowers underfoot cool like flesh.
For a child the route is complicated: off the paths under the bushes over the rocks until you are in another place. A place in sunlight on a rock standing amidst the tops of trees.
The pine tree was planted as a tiny thing, its roots crept invisibly through the rock to keep it stable. Now it grows at the heart of the garden higher than the highest part, those roots going deep into the hill. The sun molten burning stuff. Hot drought at the heart. A passionate place.
Standing in the essence of things; in the nature of things, of substance, mysteriousness, of quiet, suspension, of violence, violation, of passion. The reality of it. Within and without both hidden and revealed, that sense of something happening, the present.
The garden is contained by mist, an island in the moor. Distance is close. The sky descends. The rocks arrive, hurled into the garden by Giants, passing through myth they land here and there. Once climbed in practice for Everest, once climbed on Midsummer Night for luck. Perhaps the first ascent to the invisible summit, returned to the mist, the mystery remains.
High in the top of that rock lies a small pool, a little surf blowing off the surface until gradually it becomes deep enough for debris to collect – fragments of leaves on the wind, ash from the burning moor. Now the pool contains not water but a piece of the moor, a rich garden in miniature, everything made tiny by exposure.
Skim low across the ground, through the broad winding Senecio trunks as they rest on rock (casting their seedlings into crevices) and under the umbrella of their huge leathery leaves completely unaffected by wind. There are rock pools under there, small circular pools clean and white in the granite constantly disintegrating into gravel. A little gravel lying irresistibly under clear water.
Warm mist comes in November, warm wet aromatic mist, it comes as solace after the wind, white with the perfume of sweet earth, flowers a miracle in the sudden quiet. Sasanqua.
Cool mist comes in August after the heat, when the Eucryphia are white with honeyed flowers, tall whitened trees from the forests of the South, from Chile. It is only later when their scent exudes into the sudden warmth as the mist brightens and fades that the trees might shudder with thousands of dark Red Admirals. Butterflies from the Mediterranean that arrive for a summer’s generations – more again next year but not from these: hopeful harbingers of a milder climate.
At the first breath from the south the mist evaporates into transparency. Light shatters through the trees, every invisible detail lights up mid air in a sparkling fragmented torrent of leaves twigs bushes everything in its path. Flowers flicker for a moment, then fade. They cover the ground effulgent in the unexpected light.
All day the sound travels through the tops of the trees in waves, lifting from the moor over the bushes and up into the tree-tops, streaming over and away while in the garden the rare air remains still within its many filters. The garden itself like those divaricating shrubs, twigs dividing endlessly at right angles growing in all directions at once; their small spare leaves on erratic growing points throughout the bush both insulated and protected, amidst a complicated black network of twigs fine and transparent.
All day there is that sound of the wind in the trees that is so like the sound of the waves of the sea, while low and persistent between ebb and flow, is the boiling white noise of the Atlantic – more distant than ambient.
The sky is closed and absorbed, white without light. Residual sunlight emanates from rocks and trees now the sole source of light. The wind arrives from the North West in a tidal wave, a wall the edge of new air. Wind. Wind that blows away the light of day and reason with it. Dangerous. Better to go out in it. Shrubs and trees grow to shelter themselves and in each other’s shelter. Sheltering from the wind migrating birds.
After summer drought the soil has lost its structure and the roots loosen their hold. These old trees in winter gales are vulnerable now as never before. Slate flies an axe. Debris litters the ground. Between blasts the garden churns.
Once the granite cracked and fell towards the sea but slow. Very slow. Rocks poise in mysterious balance. Stones lie scattered all around.
Steps start behind the house, you would not know they were there. They descend between the Olearia acting as guide between the trees and forming a passage through the falling rocks. Other steps lead onto shelves long since overgrown unknown to us – leading but ending. Shrubs, trees and paths come and go. Evidence invisible.
Next to the moor toward the sea, out of sight beneath the house and the main part of the garden lies the Lower Garden. It is quiet down here below the level of the trees, sounds from above have long since dispersed. Rainwater seeps down passing between the fallen rocks to water primitive mosses and ferns older than the rock itself. See how the earth wells up.
Trees once brought as seeds from the opposite latitude now grow wild here; their scent is strong and musty, new leaves and undersides are softly white and tomentose, their peeling bark a host for lichen.
The moor creeps into the garden and the garden into the moor, the high hedge forms the breakwater but the moor still floods in when it can and some plants move between the two. Within, the Chilean flame trees burn like forest fires – for garden as island the trees grow tall. In summer the ground is high with wild flowers: wade through the shallows of the moor, eddies of pink campion and foxglove, step through the brambles quick before they grow.
The ground is dense and damp with leaves, black earth so soft you sink into it, such new earth. Rare and tender trees grow here – ever vulnerable to frost they can grow for seventy years before it comes – their roots searching for those subterranean streams, tapped by the well at sixty feet, running in an invisible network beneath the garden to emerge as springs where the croft meets the fields far below.
The surface of the planet stretches like a thin skin to its edge, the line between sea and sky, the edge of the apparent; while here the lawn, the covering of grass and other plants together with its matted roots forms the surface, the veil to the underground.
Of subterranean depth on the south east side lies a sloping shelf of granite 130 feet long. Partially submerged it emerges like the wedge shaped tip of an iceberg rising to the highest part of the garden. Sometimes all that can be seen of its top is a rocky clearing amongst the trees. It surfaces in soil made deep by terracing, the change in level often concealed by boulders and trees and providing shelter for shrubs that had outgrown it and will again.
Igneous rocks hold their heat, pervaded by metal that flows through the hills from east to west, their veins of copper and tin. Hills still high enough for beacons. High enough to see the seas both north and south burning light and dark against the sky.
When the atmosphere is clear as liquid. When the sun slips down to the sea. When the air is condensed as a lens and the sun bulges and shifts at its edge.
Or when the sun hangs in a sky the colour of snow and the moon drifts up on its curve into the darkening sky through the noisy trees. Quiet beneath. When the mist creeps low into the garden, when the clouds cross the sky. When the full moon in the east holds for a while the pink light of sunset no longer visible from here, and daylight speeds westwards beyond the horizon on its course of perpetual sunset and sunrise simultaneous.
At night the earth is warm underfoot, your presence scents the dew. Step. Carefully out onto that floating and faintly luminous lawn, all the dark leaves around shimmering like shining stars, moonlight in the garden. Lie uncertain of the curve of the Earth in the sky as it passes through showers of meteorites in the path of the comet, in amongst stars so thick that each dark space contains another paler pinhole of just perceivable light.
At dawn the Earth shifts against your back expanding still, every day of calm such a huge space. And all the time the sound of breeze in the garden (it’s still in there from the night), and all the time the sun is sliding up from behind the hill, and all the time the sky is getting that little bit lighter and the pink is draining away and the moon is disappearing into the bright light. Sight of the indivisible.
Susanna Heron 1992
Copyright Susanna Heron 1992. Published by Abson, London. First published 1992, reprinted 1993. ISBN 0 9520365 0 9 Printed in Great Britain by The Pale Green Press, London. Designed by Paul McAlinden
1989-91 Shima: Island and Garden
1992 Shima: Island and Garden, Book launch, Camden Arts Centre
1989 Charcoal drawings