When does gardening become art and when does art become gardening? This was the question that fleeted through my mind as I stood watching a video of one of the great land artists of our time at work in the brilliant David Nash: 200 Seasons exhibition at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne.
The exhibition reflects Nash’s work since the late 1960s at his home and studio at Capel Rhiw in Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales. This includes giant sculptures made from wood and carbonised wood, as well footage following the journey of a wooden boulder created by Nash as it travels downstream from a river in Wales out to sea over many years. Nash also lives for part of the year in Sussex, where much of the wood for his sculptures is sourced.
But the part of the exhibition that really seized my imagination as a gardener is the material relating to Cae’n-y-Coed (Field in the Trees), a 4.5 acre plot of hillside land in the Ffestiniog valley which Nash has managed since the 1970s. Here he has gently and thoughtfully created living sculptures which have become part of the landscape.
The most famous of these is a dome created by 22 ash trees, which he planted in a circle in 1977, the same year that his youngest son was born. In 1983, he began fletching the trunks, by cutting a wedge out of each trunk, bending it clockwise, bandaging the wound to allow it to heal and then staking the trees, so that they would bend and lean in, almost like dancing maidens in a stone circle. What interests me about this is how the skill of a gardener is used to make art. The ash trees have now become infected by the fungal disease Ash Dieback and are slowly dying, so Nash, together with friends and family, recently planted an outer ring of slower growing oak saplings, which over several generation will form a new dome. What words could speak louder about the future of our planet?
Also at Cae’n-y-Coed, Nash planted a seven by seven square of Himalayan birch. A video showed him pruning the birch trees to keep them growing vertically upwards, framing the view of a nearby snow-topped mountain peak, and following them in all seasons, from Spring when the bluebells grow underneath to winter when the white trunks spring up from snow-covered earth. One year, Nash sowed a ring of bluebells on a bank, which lasted for four growing seasons, before dispersing into the environment. He then took the seeds from these bluebells and used them to make a blue ring which is in the exhibition.
Here is the art of the gardener, pruning, collecting and sowing seeds, fletching and binding tree wounds, used by Nash to show man and nature working together in harmony to create something that is neither entirely natural, or entirely manmade.
I will take the thoughts and impressions from this exhibition back into my own gardening practice. After all, that is the art of the gardener, to gently mould and shape nature to create space for enjoyment and contemplation.