Sarah Coles

3. GARDENING FOREVER. Awareness: Sky, Wind, Rain and Night.



The Sky 

‘The sky is sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two moments together, almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity, it reflects what is immortal in us’ wrote John Ruskin. *  I would take away the ‘almost’.  Victor Hugo wrote, ‘There is one spectacle grander than the sea, and that is the sky.

Look up anywhere any day from any garden, and you see the sky, usually with clouds.  Storm clouds, solitary cumulus clouds, or wispy flights of cirrus bearing ghostly armies and angelic hosts.  They become warriors, gods, babies, horses, trains, dogs begging, horses racing, battles fought, a vision of sybaritic comfort, anything or everything.  ‘O! It is pleasant, with a heart at ease

Just after sunset, or by moonlight skies,

To make the shifting clouds be what you please …’ *   At dawn and dusk, the numinous hours of change, they become suffused in purple, puce, orange, fire, magenta as apocalyptic rays shoot from the divine.  Beyond lies infinity.  As Rachel Carson wrote, ‘What if I had never seen this before?  What if I knew I would never see it again?’

‘I go forth each afternoon and look into the west a quarter of an hour before sunset, with fresh curiosity, to see what new picture will be painted there, what new panorama exhibited, what new dissolving views’ wrote the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  ‘Can Washington Street or Broadway show anything as good?  Every day a new picture is painted and framed, held up for half an hour … And then the sun goes down, and the afterglow gives light.  Then the damask curtains glow along the western window.  And now the first star is lit, and I go home.’

At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield an invitation is extended by James Turrell, a ‘sculptor of light’, to view the sky.  For over forty years he has used light and space to extend and enhance our perception, and here he has created ‘Skyspace’ within an 18th century deer shelter.  You enter a large square chamber with an opening cut into the roof, and lie on a marble bench to view a heightened vision of the sky, seemingly transformed into a trompe d’oeil painting which moves as colours change and clouds come and go.  It is a space not only for contemplation but revelation.  Turrell underscores what is available to us all, wherever we are, if we look above.  We discover beyond.

In my garden I found my own Skyspace, a patch of grass surrounded by trees.  I lie down and look up at the leaf framed sky.  Not only does the sky change each moment, but the frame too over the year, as leaves turn colour, fall, emerge and unfurl again.  The same, but never the same.

Since visiting the Yorkshire park, I became a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, ‘uniting cloud lovers round the world’.  Some days I am emailed a picture of a cloud – a photo by NASA, someone in their garden or travelling in a plane, a painting by Constable or an etching by Rembrandt.  Each comes with a nugget of science or poetry.  The Society’s Manifesto says: ‘We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.  We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays.  We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.  Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on a therapist’s bills.

‘We pledge the fight blue-sky thinking wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.  We seek to remind people that clouds are expressive of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance, and so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds’.

In the sky, as in life below, nothing is absolute.  Everything changes, everything moves.  Nothing is predictable.  For the urban dweller, the sky is the last true wilderness.


Wind and rain blow through the garden.  The north east wind pushes clouds bearing winter storms, freezing rain and snow, the west brings warm rain, the south dryness.  Ancient civilisations, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Norse, native American and Asian felt the various winds not as mere daily phenomena, but as characters, male or female, each with its own soul and life.  The Koreans revered Yondung Halmoni, a goddess worshiped by farmers and sailors.  The Mayans performed rituals before Chaac, their powerful god of rain.  Fujin is the terrifying Shinto god of the wind, usually depicted in a leopard skin wildly swirling his bag of winds.

In Europe, the most ancient site depicting weather gods is Athens, where along the sides of the octagonal Temple of the Winds the gods still fly.   Nearer home, beautiful 18th century copies can be seen on the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.   Boreas is on the north, holding a conch to symbolise his roaring sound; his name means the howling one.  Bearded Kaikas is to the north east, with a shield of hailstones to pour on all below.  Apelios to the south east brings rain, while the dreaded southern Notus brings a desiccating wind and then crop destroying storms in late summer.  Lips to the south west, holding the stern of a boat, blows the ship to harbour.  Unbearded Zephyrus to the west, is welcome spring holding a basket of flowers.  Skiron to the north west is the bringer of winter, holding an inverted cauldron.  Today, when we look and feel, we meet variants of these gods in our own gardens.  They are not empty conceits, but living realities to be experienced, call them the Beast from the East or what we will.


Rain gives an immediate facelift.  Paths glisten, stone gleams and pebbles shine, their colours intensified as if still under the sea.  It’s one of the best times to take garden photos.  (The other times are the hours immediately after dawn and the hours before sunset).

Droplets hang along branches, each reflecting an inverted microcosm of the garden.  Raindrops on ponds ricochet back, or create a continual play of expanding circles.  On another pond, they momentarily twin the water lily leaves.


The photographer Brassai said that during the night we are freed from the domination of reason.  We may see the moon, the planets or stars, but not invariably, and not always clearly.

Night does not show things,

It suggests them,

It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness.

It is night in my garden.  This is what it’s like to be blind.   Dense darkness.  The longer I look the more shapes I discern, but even in full moon it’s hard to see.

The place is full of strangers.  A vandal tears up newly planted seedlings.  Another tears leaves into shreds.    A cat yowls.  Something rustles.  Something scrapes, then patters.  A rat?   The place is weird, awkward.  Alien.  I cannot see, I trip and fall.  Night is not where we belong.  It’s when others take over.

Clouds part to reveal the moon behind the trees.  It’s mysterious, more beautiful than when glimpsed in daylight.  In the morning I see silver paths meandering over stones.  Snails.  And smashed snail shells.  Thrushes?

Weeks later I go to Winterbranch, a dance at the Edinburgh Playhouse.  It’s dark, though gradually we see more as our eyes adapt.  A light here, then a light here.  A flash,  Rustles.  Patters.   Silence.  Squeaks like a rasp or nails on a blackboard – painful to hear.  Sustained dissonance.  Is it an animal, feeding or mating, or in distress?  A cat on heat.  Or the hums of electricity and machinery?  Or the drone of the celestial bodies?

A brighter light, briefly, when we see shapes, but not their outlines, and I cannot make out what they are doing.  Some of the audience edge sideways to walk out.  Are they part of the performance?  No, just disgusted.  ‘Rubbish’.

The night garden transposed into dance.

The sounds stop, the curtain drops, the lights go on, and we move for a drink.


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