Landscape and Memory: Simon Schama’s book is still sitting on my shelf. I’ve read a lot in lockdown but I’ve also allowed myself the pleasures of memory and landscape. At the moment the landscape is our Suffolk garden. Here we have enjoyed a near perfect spring, as if nature has offered us a certain kindness in return for our folly. Sunshine warmed a soil moist from the winter rains and our garden has flourished. Temperate evenings mean the roll call of scents – lilac, wisteria, clematis, honeysuckle, rose – can be savoured. So often the gloom and cold means they are merely sniffed before swiftly closing the door again. Beyond the fence are arable fields. Most of the garden was an arable field until the barn was converted in the early 1990s. Before we bought the house the garden was full of chickens and horses owned by the previous family. The weeds that sprout such as field bindweed and creeping thistle are a reminder of this recent past. The horsetail fern speaks to longer, deeper memories. Horsetails are plants of the Devonian. Our weeds are the direct descendants of plants that were doing very well 350 million years ago when the UK was south of the equator.
But while I’ve been weeding in the garden my mind has wandered to memories of other landscapes that we have been privileged to scrutinise for what they tell us of time and place. There are the verdant folds of the Andes. Here an early morning bird walk along a path cut into the side of a slope brought us close to the orchids and bromeliads that also live high up among the trees. The harsh lava islands of the Galapagos have waterlines softened by jumbles of mangroves, dipping into the water and reaching up to the sky. These salt-adapted plants support an entire ecosystem. To sail into a sheltered bay in a silent panga, everyone quiet, the motor off, the occasional dip of a paddle in water is to live for a few hours in a unique union of land and sea. It is unforgettable, a place on earth where we have had no part to play, are insignificant and can do our best by leaving, and leaving it as we found it.
The immense variety of the Caribbean’s wet and dry islands, each with their wetter and dryer sides, sheltered and exposed to the power of the Atlantic’s weather systems, remind how we have done the opposite on the other side of the isthmus of Panama. Delightful as they are, so many of the glorious plants are imported from elsewhere, when Europeans established their colonies. The flamboyants, originally from Madagascar have been naturalised enough to be the national flower on St Kitts and Nevis. Such plants were brought to re-beautify lands cleared for a single crop: sugarcane. But the Barbados fig still strangles its host and despite the damage from Hurricane Maria, the native canopy of Dominica’s forested slopes is regrowing. The opportunistic burst of climbers will lose their light once more as the chatanier trees extend their branches again. Rising above the hubbub and multi-coloured temples in the plains, South India’s Western Ghats are home to elephants, monkeys, and a mosaic of grasslands and dwarfed trees which form a unique vista, the shola. Untrammelled nature shares the slopes with spice, tea, coffee, rubber and eucalyptus plantations. The taste of a peppercorn freshly picked from its vine teaches me a new meaning of pungency. All these places are biodiversity hotspots. This means there is more to see and to understand than in many other places on earth. To read the landscape here is to encounter an excess. It is more than most of us can comprehend without years of research, but to take in, to experience the thrill, to stand and wonder in quiet contemplation, that all of us can do. Those are the images that dance through my mind and I can feel my heart quicken as I remember, as the memories flood back.
All these places are biodiversity hotspots. This means there is more to see and to understand than in many other places on earth. To read the landscape here is to encounter an excess. It is more than most of us can comprehend without years of research, but to take in, to experience the thrill, to stand and wonder in quiet contemplation, that all of us can do. Those are the images that dance through my mind and I can feel my heart quicken as I remember, as the memories flood back.
Travel is anticipation, moving on, visiting the new and perhaps after a time, returning to appreciate change and find again what has endured. Just at the moment travel is in suspended animation and we must rely upon our memories. These are a precious resource, they nourish and sustain. We find them as living plants in the garden, edibles and ornamentals that have travelled here from around the world. Those from places we have visited gain a new meaning. We have our mind’s eye, digital images to enlarge and scrutinise on screen and perhaps best of all the shared contact with those we have travelled with. Recipes, photos of home cooking and personal gardens, excited announcements of the birth of a grandchild. These are new memories added to those created in a collective consciousness that began as we stood together and looked at a landscape. Let us do it again, when we can.
Join Helen and Bill Bynum on their next botanical tour South Africa during the spectacular flowering season from 4 – 18 September 2021: Wildflowers, Wine and the Cape Floral Kingdom – Botanical Histories in South Africa
The next Spice, Trade and Botanical tour along the Malabar coast of South India will run from 8-22 February 2021.
The next Ecuador and Galapagos tour runs from 26 April 8 May 2021.
Contact Jon Baines Tours now to book with a special offer fully refundable deposit.