I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together. ~ Oliver Sacks in “The Joy of Old Age”
Oliver Sacks’ “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” is a elegant rumination on the beauty of transience and the closure it brings. A garden likewise is a powerful representation of mortality. The fussiness we once applied to weeding, edging, and planting gives way to acceptance of some untidiness and spontaneity, and it seems as if we finally took ourselves to exhale deeply and relax enough to bask in the hours, days, months, and years gardening. The exigencies of youth hardly matter. We are no longer concerned about living long enough to witness the mere oak sapling tower into its aristocratic self, knowing instead that subsequent generations will enjoy it as we had enjoyed our predecessors’ legacies. Somehow picking the right shade of pink to chime with purple or white seems trivial when the plantings are robust and healthy. One reaches to that point where the experiences from the triumphs and tragedies of gardening allow us to feel liberated, not constricted as novice gardeners would be. That release can be a cathartic one. I remember listening to Pam Lewis reflect on the freedom and relaxation she left from the expectations of her garden Sticky Wicket in Dorset. Her husband’s untimely death and her recuperation from a horse back riding accident crystallized her decision to let the garden run wild. The wilderness may not appeal to the throngs of paying garden visitors, but expectations were no longer relevant.
Sacks’ essay reminds me why the dilapidated grandeur of old gardens, especially those in Europe, still enchants. It is not longer about the division between the antiquity and artifice, ancient and modern, but rather the blurring of both that reminds us how youth and old age are the same. The estate of Sissinghurst Castle is older than its celebrated garden, and one can easily assume that the garden existed at the same time as the Elizabethan Tower, only to be surprised that it harks back to 1930s. While the notoriety of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson may account for the estate’s appeal, the principal lure of Sissinghurst Castle is its intimacy and mystery. The garden wears its venerable age in the setting, and its mature plantings heighten the effect, which we struggle to achieve on our home grounds. Said to be ‘the most beautiful and romantic garden in the world’ by Charles Quest-Ritson, Ninfa in Italy achieves the same idyllic paradise for the old Gothic palace and fortifications are ornamented with plants of all sorts. Ninfa’s romanticism draws from its sad and troubled history, and of the Caetani family whose stewardship led to the garden’s creation. Needless to say, neither Sissinghurst nor Ninfa are free of human intervention – plantings need to be renewed and structures repaired, and their preservation is costly, but what is irreplaceable is that elusive feeling of comfortable serenity achieved through old age.