On staying

What does ‘We are Curious’ mean to me? What do I hope to get out of it?

I’ve been kicking some memories around so I can answer those questions here for you truthfully, because not so long ago, I wanted to leave Cumbria.

My route to working with nature began early in life. Albeit a rudimentary understanding, I learned about human nature and natural history in the garden of my early childhood. Lives and deaths, loves and losses. I worked in this garden alongside my grandfather, JW. I came to know that JW had no truck with contrived or manicured gardens, his observations and approach gave our garden its wild grace. The act of gardening as a natural therapy will be familiar to many. I could sense, even if I couldn’t understand, that gardening was my grandfather’s therapy from an entrenched sorrow. Gardening helped me express my own struggles, too.

This and that career change aside (characteristic of a highly capable neurodivergent adult with dual exceptionality) my creative practice as a writer and erstwhile filmmaker has been meaningfully and financially sustained by working as a professional gardener for thirty-odd years. It was a side project for a time. I’d help my future husband, Taff, build, plant and maintain gardens in Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire. Gardening was my anecdote to the pressures of a city job in London. On the Friday night commute, I’d anticipate a couple of days, say, camping in a client’s garden. One such weekend we foraged for our dinner and cooked on a makeshift spit after spending our day sploshing around in boggy earth. Invasive bamboo had overtaken the garden, we severed and removed the rhizomes with a fork. Hard going, but I was in my element.

In time, I studied horticulture formally, while cutting my teeth as a garden designer working with Taff’s landscaping practice. I’d work at planting designs on a big old drafting board. Instead of making the shift to computer aided design, I still hand draw garden designs today; and survey even large sites using fifty metre measuring tapes. ‘Walking’ a garden, over as many days or weeks as I can get away with, helps me become acquainted with the space. It’s the same using pencil and paper.

Back in the day, I’d get involved in the hard graft of landscaping. Laying paths, digging ponds, pushing wheelbarrows up a plank onto the back of a van. I enjoyed restoration projects most of all. There was a tangled, secret garden in a forest, belonging to a grand house destroyed by fire during the war. The thrill of rolling back a carpet of leaf mould to find the entrance hall, encaustic tiles still intact. I remember stepping into the shell of a billiard room cloaked in ivy. In a space between the drape of foliage hanging over a mullioned window, I saw a grass snake swimming across the pond. My design brief was to capture the mysterious labyrinthian mood of that garden.

Fast forward time to early 2022. Taff and I have lived in Cumbria for many years. But the last time we visited Dorset, in Summer 2021, camping in a meadow surrounded by woodland, a powerful sensation of homesickness got hold of me; and when it was time to come back to Cumbria, I didn’t want to remove its fingers. No matter years of happy memories, supportive friends, community spirit, making gardens in spectacular valleys, cracking sunsets… I’d fallen out of love with our home. For context, back in Cumbria, our family was navigating our way through a spiralling crisis. Though, imagining a future away from our home while managing the here and now made my head spin. Examining my privilege, too faced with so much wrongdoing and tragedy in the world, became a paralysing experience. Who was I to complain that our cottage, the village, the county, no longer held any enchantment for me?

I downloaded a flight radar app on my phone, ostensibly as research for an article, but which I now think was because I wanted to be somewhere else.

On a walk up the hill, one day, the app told me the 747 flying overhead was heading to Luxembourg from Chicago. Apparently, the plane had a blue nose, new livery called ‘Not without my mask.’

I masked, as a person with ASC is wont to do, through the following months. During this time ‘We are Curious’ was born after months of planning. Something positive to focus on. And yet, I still came up against homesickness, but for where? and was uncertain of myself as a parent, partner, friend.

An ugly spat in our community, and the death of a beloved parishioner mounted up to a debilitating condition. While autistic burnout manifests as a unique set of experiences for those of us with ASC, I’d say the common ground is fatigue, disillusionment, vulnerabilities. It takes longer, for example, and requires greater physical and cognitive effort to perform simple things.

In the thick of my fatigue, though, I was shaping and planting a natural, relaxed garden I’d designed earlier in the year. That the garden was a short distance from the cottage where I live, and its custodians are gentle, undemanding and creative people, was a gift. At home, we were still experiencing a family crisis, and I missed writing deadline after deadline because I couldn’t multitask anymore, or even pretend to be superwoman. But this garden I was working in took me back to early childhood: it became and remains a refuge. And it was in this garden that I worked something out.

Moving home, perhaps far away from here, would be a hassle, but doable. It takes courage to stay, though, to dig deeper. I want to find out what’s not working for me and change that, one step at a time. For me, ‘We are Curious’ is about connection, and this question:

Can knowing a place, its geological composition and geographical features, its ancient, natural and social history, engender a greater respect for where we live, and for each other?

Here’s to finding out.