These poem-objects, made from garden tools and nest-boxes, were commissioned by Paths For All and Tayside Health Fund, for two gardens adjoining wards for long-term stay patients at Murray Royal Hospital, Perth.
The photographs, by the writer, dry-stane dyker, and photographer Kristie De Garis, were taken in October 2023.
I invited Kristie as I have long appreciated her photographs of gardens and flowers, and concern with healing; she was the ideal person to respond to this setting, where hospital care meets garden care. As someone who also works with stone, and with words, Kristie has a natural affinity with the objects which shape us and with which we shape our belonging in the world.
Some of the tools are permanently installed, others are intended for use by patients and staff. I chose this family of objects for their practicality and the associations they hold, especially for the aged and those with dementia. In some cases I had to restrict the selection of tools for reasons of safety.
I have memories of my mother, Sue's, trug–no handbag for her!–which she lugged around the garden, with secateurs, twine, and thick gloves; of watering cans around the rainwater butt; and the rake sleeping against the wall.
Among the poems there is a short suite for watering cans composed in remembrance of G.F. Dutton (1924-2010), gardener, poet, mountaineer, and Professor of Biomedicine at the University of Dundee. These are inspired by his writings on marginal gardening, which have long influenced my thinking on the relationships between ecological remediation and human recuperation.
Dutton created one of Scotland's most remarkable wild gardens, on hilly woodland near Bridge of Cally. He refers to a marginal garden as one which is in close sympathy with it's wild surroundings. That marginality also reflects the situation which, at 700-900 feet altitude was coincidentally the same as Stonypath, Little Sparta, where I grew up, requiring the garden to be ingenious and adaptable to the conditions, especially the long winters. Not every garden includes a waterfall which freezes in winter, and which the gardener ascends with an ice axe.
Dutton wrote insightfully on the practice of gardening in hill and Highland ecologies, blending native plants with those imported from other upland settings around the world. To me the importance of those ideas is the way a gardener can create a microtonal landscape, in which many details are gathered, with winding connecting paths and small areas.
Such landscapes offer those with limited walking an experience of wildness and botanical variety made available within a small patch of land. The need for shelter from the fierce wind makes the 'areas' necessarily like a succession of intimate 'rooms'.
While that model garden is slowly being absorbed back into the wildness it came from, the poet's ideas define a philosophy of environmental and social change that remains central to the 'place-aware' movement. Dutton's thinking is characteristic of the 'lad of pairts', combining a love of science, poetry, climbing, and gardening, revealing and revelling in the connections between each of those perspectives on nature and our place in the natural environment.
I wrote many of these short poems last summer, inspired by a garden in Ruchill, in a cottage that was part of the old hospital grounds; call it a 'convalescence garden', somewhere to watch different species of finch feeding, and rest from Long Covid.
There's more information on the wider hospital project here. Again, I think it's important that Paths for All are showing how the creative arts of design, poetry and landscaping can combine to enhance these environments, within which people have to spend weeks, or months, away from their homes and family.
A limited edition A3 risograph poster was published to accompany the project; this features all the poems and is available for £10.
The poems were painted by my long-term collaborator Chris Ellis.
Rather than poems being hidden in books and brought into the light when we fall in love, someone leaves, or dies, or for weddings, we could live with a poetry of things.