I am on a train travelling west from Stockholm towards Karlstad. The carriage is clean and comfortable, and almost empty of passengers. Outside, the day is startlingly bright. Thin clouds hang loosely above us, failing to disguise the pale blue of the morning. The sun comes and goes, making me squint as I look out at the white world, watching it all pass hurriedly by.
Forests and farms appear and disappear as we gallop westward. Fields covered by snow stretch out all around, punctuated by red barns and farmhouses, each much alike to the other. The track is fringed by birch trees: leafless, white frosted and delicate. There are lakes too, distinguishable from the fields only by their uniform flatness. Most are marked by lines of footprints, sometimes human, sometimes not. And here and there a paddock of horses puff their hot breath into the frozen air.
I close my eyes, rocked by the motion of the train, and begin to daydream. I am carried towards home.
Even now, with eyes tight shut, I can see the snow, that great expanse of whiteness, flash printed on my retinas. But the farms and field are all gone. The lakes and horses are all gone.
I see our front gate, in need of painting or replacing, and I walk through it, down the steps towards the house. No one has been here yet today, and the snow is unbroken. My feet leave their impressions on the path.
But I don’t continue that way. I turn into the back park, where the snow seems deeper. It comes up almost to my ankles there, and I step carefully through it, trying to leave only clear unbroken prints.
Out from the park, I walk down the lawn on the far side of the house, past the cottage and the greenhouse and towards the trees. I reach the bottom gate, and touch the loop of rope that holds it closed. It feels brittle and frozen, but I lift it and open the gate wide, then step down to where the ground is rough and lumpy underfoot.
There between those trees is a long silence, one that seems to stretch out not just in space but in time, too. It is a silence that both encloses and includes me, and I submit to it without question, as though to make a sound would be to lose my place, somehow, and to be gone.
The trees feel taller than they ought to be, and I cannot see from where I stand the edge that I know is only a few metres away. I cannot see the loch at the end of the garden, nor the park where the sheep should be grazing. The trees are thicker than they were before, and I wonder how they can have grown so much in the short time I have been gone.
Perhaps these little trees have rebelled and risen up, like a mutinous army, to join the boreal forest of Scandinavia, Siberia and North America. No longer a tiny island of pine and spruce, willow and larch, they have reached out and caught hold of their neighbours across the water. They have become an unbroken line.
Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am no longer at home at all, but lost somewhere in that great forest that wraps itself like a shawl around the north. I may never find my way back from here.
But no, when I turn around I can still see the open gate, and beyond it the house. And so I begin to walk in that direction, my feet now slow and heavy beneath me.
Halfway across the lawn, I stop. Things are less clear now, and I am no longer sure of where it is I am supposed to be going. I stand still for a moment, feeling lost and unable to think, and as I do so I begin to shake, gently, rhythmically, and I remember that I was not at home a moment ago. That I am not at home now. Instead, I am rushing westward through Sweden on a clean, quiet train.
The garden disappears, melting from around me in an instant. And all that remains is the snow.
I have begun to think of the year ahead, and I have begun to act on those thoughts. Yesterday, walking back to the house from the hen’s shed in the morning, I tried to imagine how things might look in six months time, and what I could do to help that happen. I thought about jobs that needed attending to, and others that soon would. I began, quietly, making plans.
Perhaps it was the sight of those green fingertips emerging from the soil, all around the garden – the little bulbs returning to life after their long slumber. These are the first signs of change, and they are as welcome as the sun after a storm. In every bed they are emerging. Beneath bushes and trees they are coming: tiny spears of life; tiny shoots of anticipation.
I got up late this morning, but with no other plans for the day, except to be outside. I dressed, ate breakfast and drank my coffee, then put on my outdoor clothes and opened the door.
The garden has been neglected over the winter, and it shows. On the lawn, leaves have fallen and rotted in ugly piles. The job of clearing them up, which I avoided when they fell, has now become a more difficult task for yet another day. In quiet corners sweet wrappers and plastic bags have blown and settled, and found new homes. Last year’s blooms have lain where they fell; the beds still are cluttered and untamed.
The trouble is, I’m not a gardener. Buying this house we have inherited a piece of ground that was created over six decades. And though different owners have shaped it in different ways, it has taken consistent care and effort to keep it as it has been. But it has also taken knowledge – an understanding of what was required to make things as they were supposed to be.
I don’t have that knowledge, or that understanding. Out here I am ignorant. And blind, too: blind to the possibilities of this piece of ground.
For gardening is not just a response to what is already there. It is also a response to what is not yet there – to the imagined garden. A space like this requires steering. It requires the vision and will to push it in the right direction.
There are many things I would like to change here. And in my head I can see – vaguely, distantly – the garden that I wish one day to have. But as yet I don’t know how to get there.
Up by the workshop – a one-room building referred to by us and our predecessors here as ‘the cottage’ – two tall bushes had been threatening the gutter and the roof, with the help of a persistent ivy plant, whose sticky fingers had already reached in beneath the profile sheeting. I had decided, on this mild, still day, to do something about it.
It was a simple and satisfying job, with long-handled shears, to cut the bushes back to a manageable size and to strip the ivy back to the ground. I enjoyed feeling them take shape as I worked, and the hours passed quickly. When I had finished, twigs and branches lay all about me in a tall, chaotic pile, and one corner of the garden had changed entirely. It was neat, and under control. It was as I wanted it to be.
As the sun began to soften in the afternoon, I finished tidying the branches away and stood by the gate to the back park looking around. I tried then to see the garden not as it was, or as it would be this summer, but as it could be in five or ten years time. I looked behind me, to the park still matted and overgrown by grass, and I tried to untangle it and to create something good. I made sweet, black earth rise from beneath the grass, and I made vegetables rise from beneath the earth. I reminded myself that all this once had been a hay park – before the house, before the garden – then I returned to the work of imagining.
I have recently hung a bird feeder from the willow at the back of the house. It is a modern looking contraption – rocket shaped, with a clear plastic saucer at the bottom to catch some of what is spilled.
It has been fastened halfway up the tree to make it easy to see from the window. After all, feeding the birds is only ever partly for the birds’ benefit. Much of the pleasure belongs to those who provide the food.
Though strong winds have several times made it unusable over the past few weeks, it has been a popular addition to the garden.
Yesterday, once again, the feeder was hanging empty from the branch. And so, once again, I went out and removed it, unscrewed the top, poured in the dry mixture of seeds and mealworms, returned the feeder to the tree and then returned to the house.
Nothing stirred at first except the hens, who shuffled confidently beneath the tree, kicking about in search of anything I might have dropped. They found little, but knew not to stray too far.
The first to the feeder was the robin, nervously looking about before taking a mealworm in its beak. The bird twitched furtively, as it always does, and stayed only a moment before retreating to the safety of a bush.
Then, at once, came the starlings and the sparrows – a horde of twittering, bickering birds. The sparrows held back on the outer branches but the starlings had no such patience. They barged each other out of the way, fighting to be closest to the action. Beneath a torrent of wings, the feeder swung precariously.
Down below, the hens’ patience was being repaid, and the pair made short work of anything that fell. Two collared doves, then three, landed on the lawn and joined them in the flower bed. And a blackbird, last of all, came to take its place in the shower of seed.
But something spooked them. All activity ceased and the birds were still, as though listening for something. One starling flew, and then all were gone. The sparrows, doves and blackbird too. And the feeder was left unattended.
Five minutes later, the procession was repeated. The brave, nervous robin came first, alone, and left. And then, a flurry of wings and feathers.
This afternoon, sitting writing at the dining room table, I could hear the birds were still about, though not in such numbers. When I lifted my head, I could see only a single starling in the tree.
This one bird remained for much of the day. Every time I looked up, it was there, scraping the last of the food from the plastic tray. I could hear it too, talking loudly to itself in the absence of companions.
And then the noise grew more insistent. In a second, it rose to a fearful squall, three times, four times, then nothing. I stood up and went to the window. On the ground was the sparrowhawk, pacing about in the flower bed beneath the tree, three metres at most from where I stood.
Arriving after the event, it wasn’t exactly clear what had happened. I could no longer see the starling, though there was no doubt it had been hit. The sound alone was confirmation enough, but from this close I could see blood on the talons, and a little puff of downy feathers lying on the soil. Perhaps it had escaped the hawk’s clutches and managed to hide in the undergrowth. That, anyway, was what the hawk seemed to think.
It was wary – too close to the house for its comfort – and it stopped repeatedly in its search for the starling, looking and listening, then rummaging about again in the dead leaves and stalks of the bed. For a moment it disappeared, pushing its way behind the bushes, against the fence, and then it was back, the look of bafflement and frustration almost palpable in that perfect, expressionless face.
The hunt couldn’t go on. It was reluctant to give up the prey, but the starling had disappeared. And so, suddenly, did the sparrowhawk. It lifted and was gone.
All that was left was that little clutch of feathers, and the feeder, once again hanging empty.