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12 March 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 7:05am

The day the Devil found my secret garden

I loved the walled garden until one day a sign appeared, placed there by developers and warning me to keep out.

By John Burnside

When I was 14 years old, I discovered what remained of an old, walled garden. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere: no house nearby, the walls clotted with weeds. When I found the ruined door and blundered in, the interior looked like it might have done after a fire, the fruit trees doused in winter rain and moss, paw prints of charcoal in the grass, smuts from nowhere clinging to the cold frames.

I made my way inwards over pieces of glass and flakes of paintwork. In the corner of a broken cold frame, I found what looked like a moleskin bag full of tiny bones but I couldn’t identify the animal it had once been. I had no idea who owned this garden; but then, no self-respecting boy believes in property, beyond a pocketful of marbles and a few trinkets, and even these he will gladly exchange for an old beer bottle. The idea that place might be owned is something that has to be learned. Any child of sound mind will find the great house and the big estate a mystery for as long as he lives.

You may say I am overstating my innocence, but I don’t think so, for the notion that any one person or corporate group can legitimately own many thousands of acres strikes me as absurd to this day. That kind of property relation to place is not only unnatural; it is also hugely destructive. When the first settlers came to “America”, with their gifts of beads and blankets, the indigenous people there had no concept of buying and selling the land to which they belonged: many simply thought that these new friends were offering them gifts. For them, belonging was not a property condition. It involved complex and magical relations to the land, to their fellow creatures, and to the systems of kinship that had emerged from that terrain over centuries.

Once I had made my discovery, I returned often to that garden. By summer, it was thoroughly overgrown with brambles and stands of nettles seemed to spring up overnight – but among all this, stray roses and delphiniums climbed towards the sun, the apple trees put on their blossom, several large buddleias drew butterflies and bees from miles around and, along the walls, the inevitable horseradish prospered.

That was the summer I started to believe in “for ever”. The garden seemed far enough from any commercial concern that I thought it would remain miraculously wild, an Eden with apple trees and maybe a chance snake, but no God with his arbitrary rules and no Devil to incite rebellion. By then, I no longer believed in my parents’ religion and I had doubts about Beelzebub that might have come full term, had it not been for the day I arrived at my secret place and found it boarded up, a developer’s sign warning me to keep out. Clearly God had made Himself scarce but the Devil was still around. The only difference was that he was trading under a new name.

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Later, when I was grown, it struck me that, had a famous gardener designed that walled space (Gertrude Jekyll, say, or William Robinson), its ruination might have been avoided. But in my view its beauty – a result not of human intervention but of natural “accident” – should have made it just as precious. By then, I was employed at Robinson College, Cambridge, and working with an extraordinary head gardener named David Brown. Sometimes, to pass the time, we would play a game in which we imagined the botany of post-apocalyptic landscapes.

Single and childless as I was, I found it comforting to picture a world without us, where wildness could practise its arts unhindered. Ever since, I have been in two minds, love of the land competing with loyalty to my destructive species. Some loyalties run deep and cannot be discarded. More often than I would like to admit, I find myself wishing that were not so.

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho