Gardening Wilderness: Ruskin at Brantwood


James A. Holliday

In autumn, when we visited, Ruskin’s garden was caught in the rain and wet through. Water had soaked into every surface. Drops balanced on large, flat leaves and ran down long ferns. Moss that blanketed rocks and trees, held water like a sponge in the bath. When it stopped falling, it still sounded all around. Between the layers of leaves in the treetops, raindrops continued to fall. From leaf onto leaf, drops fell and spat their sound. The sun was finding its way in and as I looked up to follow the raindrops’ sounds, I saw it soak into the leaves and whiten them. If we had been closer, we would have seen the skeletons that hold the leaves together.

Raindrops fell through the layers of leaves in the treetops and pattered onto the slate paths. These were washed purple. Like the hills around Coniston and the rest of the Lake District, purple slate drapes the surface. The paths here are slate; made from, and laid onto, the earth they are dug from. Ruskin, with no interest in straight lines or neat paths that kept natural growth hidden under stone, made paths that unfold through the garden. Stones were laid crookedly, with spaces between. In these spaces, wildness would grow. When we walked, the wet ferns that hung over the paths, soaked our jeans and shoes. The wet lichen and moss on the paths made it slippery underfoot while grass and weeds came up between the stones. But, we were walking a landscape, through the textures that grow in open land. Ferns and bracken cover the fells we had earlier walked through. Here, Ruskin gardened, but it was gardening to provide space for nature to take over.

As we moved through the garden, it was clear that Ruskin was a gardener who, rather than pruning and decorating, wanted to create a landscape that could exist without him. Ruskin was apprehensive towards mechanical aids to gardening and this extended to the glasshouses that were built – with his reluctance. For a man who believed so deeply in God, it must have been an oddity to try and control the sun and heat. But, while he was sceptical of the growing potential offered by the glasshouse, he found joy in the cracks between the bricks. Here, as with his crookedly laid paths, weeds and wildflowers would appear. Again, nature came through.

The treetops, so full of rain, canopied the garden at Brantwood and we stood surrounded by what felt more like woodland than garden. It was another reminder of how Ruskin stood aside to allow the natural world to come to the fore.  Before Ruskin moved to Brantwood, the woodland around the house was heavily, and frequently, coppiced. Trees were cut back and the wood turned and used for burning charcoal. We tried to imagine the absence of trees in the garden; tried to mute the sound of birds resting on branches and ignore the still present sound of raindrops falling. As the garden unfolded and we went deeper into it, trees were a constant presence. There was seclusion given by their height and the light changed as it fell through the leaves in different places. Now, we think so much about the impact of deforestation. Photographs of vast forests being blanked out and left exposed and weakened are so easily brought forward. It was strange, and sad, to think of the trees at Brantwood being absent.

After Ruskin’s arrival, the exercise of coppicing the trees was stopped. All over the grounds, the oak and hazel trees were allowed to grow. Held in his mind was the image of Botticelli’s Ascent to the Heaven of Fire. In this, Botticelli drew the Garden of Eden filled with trees. This was an illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy and it was from these trees that Dante and Beatrice ascended. In the illustration, the sun hangs low, breaking through the trees. And, so it was when we visited. Through the treetops, the sun found its way into the garden.

There is engineering here too, but it is well hidden and we didn’t notice it as hand built. Ruskin’s interventions have been left and nature allowed to grow over and into them. In the garden at Brantwood, Ruskin exercised his long held interest in water and encouraged it to move throughout his landscape, redirecting it and digging into the hillside to allow water to flow down the face of the garden. The sound of water wasn’t only from the last raindrops above our heads. Stones and steps positioned in the water, allowed it to form waterfalls. We followed the paths that went alongside, but also over the moving water. Ruskin’s design meant that moments to pause were orchestrated to meet dramatic natural moments. On the wooden bridge, we stopped and looked below at the stream falling over the multiple levels of stones and listened as this gentle stream frothed and foamed at different levels.

Ruskin did not garden from a distance. Tools were kept by the back door and he could work the garden after his daily writing. But, while it was Ruskin’s hands that laid stones, he was not alone. His politics, perhaps more in line with Socialism that had yet to be fully realised, were not only theoretical or for espousing. Politics as strongly believed as his were for practicing and shaping a life with. Brantwood was a collective endeavour that allowed Ruskin’s imagined landscape to be created. It also allowed him to use the skills and strengths of those around him to build a landscape that, when it had grown, would be seamless with what already surrounded it. Not only appear seamless but truly be so.

Tired and slumped in the ground is ‘Ruskin’s chair’. This, like the paths and waterfalls, is made of stone from the ground it sits on and moss and weeds grow on and around it. In a photograph, Ruskin leans against a garden wall. He looks old and relaxed as he rests his elbows on the wall. Between each stone, flora grows and is slowly covering the wall.

As Ruskin aged, his garden bedded in. As he stood back, the landscape could fully grow.

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