In Possession of the Place
By Adam Nicolson
In times of economic crisis, we city dwellers remember the land. When food is scarce or expensive, that back bit of garden becomes not only a luxury but also a chance to plant tomatoes. When money is tight, people turn to free entertainment and, with a renewed interest in country walks, people reconnect with their local landscapes. As the environmentalist ideas of local and organic food gain traction in Europe and the United States during this current Great Recession, so too, in the 1930s, people returned to the land. Literature also participated in this return. Pageant plays enjoyed something of a local revival, prompting forays into the genre by Forster, Eliot, and others. And Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, revolves around the production of a village play.
Thus, too, in 1930, Vita Sackville-West, excluded from her ancestral Knole House on the grounds of her sex, found in Sissinghurst Castle a derelict ancient estate (with centuries-old Sackville connections) to restore. For the next 30 years (she died in 1962), she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, would work to make Sissinghurst one of the most celebrated gardens in the world.
Adam Nicolson grew up at Sissinghurst, his grandparents’ home and then the home of his father, Nigel Nicolson. Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s purchase of the castle in 1930 and Adam Nicolson’s boyhood there provide the germ not only for this fascinating book, Sissinghurst, but also for a major turn in his life: in 2005, he and his wife, the cookbook author Sarah Raven, took up a tenancy at Sissinghurst and, as a “resident donor family,” began an ongoing process of revitalizing the farm to reflect the best current practices of organic, sustainable, local agriculture.
Critics in England have dismissed Nicolson as a “hippie-squire,” but, wonderfully funny as the phrase is, it is also unfair. In fact, judging by this account as well as reviews of the book and the BBC series about Nicolson’s efforts to change Sissinghurst, the battle in England to keep Sissinghurst “as it was” has been intense and occasionally bitter. One of the most fascinating features of this book is his recovery of the long history of the castle and its surrounding land. In doing this, Nicolson uncovers an irony at the heart of his grandparents’ great achievement; by recreating the garden, Vita Sackville-West was realigning Sissinghurst with its Elizabethan past – a time when the pleasure garden was most detached from the farmland surrounding it. In fact, during those years, farming almost ceased; what had been farmland for centuries was returned to meadow. Before the reign of Elizabeth and after it, Sissinghurst was a thriving farm – but during her reign, as Nicolson puts it, the place was “thrown back to an artificial naturalness, which was both self-consciously relaxed and self-consciously luxurious, a holiday zone for the well-born.” It is not hard to see why Vita would revere an Elizabethan past. After all, Elizabeth I gave Knole House to her ancestor Thomas Sackville, and the Elizabethan scenes in Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando are its most magical and vivid.
Those National Trust traditionalists who yearn to preserve Vita and Harold Nicolson’s vision are not preserving the past of Sissinghurst. Instead they have fallen in love with a single moment in a long history. Captivating as this 1930’s Elizabethan vision may be, Nicolson makes a powerful case for another vision: the great house at the center of a working farm.
As he admits, there is a way of seeing what he is doing as simply a grab at another market share, a method of retaining the old “heritage horticulture with a lesbian-aristocratic gloss” while attracting a new generation of urban middle class visitors interested in the “holistic agenda.” But one does not need to read far into Sissinghurst to hear Nicolson’s infectious love of the land, of its dirt. You can hear it in his description of his adolescent love of wandering along the Hammer Brook:
Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin … It was an entrancing and different world, a green, wet womb, a place of privacy and escape. Along the banks, the alders and hazels were so thick that the wavering line of the stream was like a strip of wood run wild. Once beneath them, you were in a liquid tunnel, arched over with leaves, gloomy in its hollows, suddenly bright where the sun broke through.
When a writer asserts that the land is like a vein, we want to see that land, and this wonderfully sexy, messy, description of a wild streambed offers us that vision with Dionysian splendor.
Nicolson shows us his love of the land in other moods, too, as when he details the arrivals of the various trees to Kent—the birch by 8,000 B.C., alders 2,000 years later, and the beech a thousand years after that—or when he asks “Why does the oak live with the holly? Because the holly, when they were both young, looked after the oak.” Caught up in his hopes for an abundant farmland, he lets himself list every single thing he hopes to grow and raise on the land he loves: “raspberries and strawberries, blackcurrants, apples and pears, hops, dairy cattle, as well as cereals, beef cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, pigeons, and ducks.” Here, then, we have land passionately loved in adolescence, studied for its evolution, understood for its biology, and cultivated for all the abundance it can provide.
This is the story of land not merely owned but loved and understood. Nicolson’s own class position is complicated, of course, but his uneasy awareness of his own aristocracy means that he takes great care to write full portraits not just of his famous grandparents but of the farmers and yeoman who worked the land in partnership with them. Watching his careful dance around his own self-consciousness of privilege is one of the tense pleasures of Sissinghurst. Sometimes, it is simply funny, as in this story about an influential National Trust committee:
When a man called John Smith was proposed as a member, the chairman, Viscount Esher, said ‘I suppose it is a good thing to have a proletarian name on the Committee—anyone know him?’ ‘Yes,’ said the earl of Euston, ‘he is my brother-in-law.’
Elsewhere, however, Nicolson shows his dual heritage—part Nicolsonian public servant, part Sackville—as in this account of a meeting:
The NT high-ups were there…. ‘I always introduce people at this thing,’ Sue said to me, ‘but they always know each other already…’ So, indeed, I met my first cousin once removed, John St. Levan, who lives on St. Michael’s Mount, a National Trust house in Cornwall. And my second cousin once removed, Robert Sackville-West, my oldest friend, who lives at Knole, Vita’s beloved childhood home and now a National Trust house in Kent.
I know this kind of coziness drives my English friends mad, but, from the Western side of the Atlantic, it has real charm. And charm is not all. Nicolson’s ability to be friendly with both Sue from the NT and cousin Robert Sackville-West, to sympathize with the harried outsider even as he, the insider, warmly greets his cousin, also shows how his love of Sissinghurst has fostered his social and political skills.
But, for all the family ties, Sissinghurst is mostly an example of a long tradition of natural history writing, from Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) and Gilbert White’s Selborne (1789), through Vita’s The Land (1926), to Robert Sackville-West’s recent book on Knole and the Sackvilles, Inheritance (2010). All kinds of literature reflects this deep love of the land, including, perhaps most influentially, literature for children. There, however, we see the difference between the English and the American landscape. In that difference, we see, too, one of the challenges facing Nicolson—or any natural history writer who begins with a fertile, local spot. Small, local landscapes teach us lessons that do not translate onto the vaster scale of places such as the American Midwest. In her 1935 classic Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder described her family’s failure to make a home on Indian Territory in Oklahoma. As they leave their house and plow behind, “they all looked back. As far as they could see, to the east and to the south and to the west, nothing was moving on all the vastness of the High Prairie. Only the green grass was rippling in the wind, and white clouds drifted in the high, clear sky.” From childhood, Wilder’s readers learn about landscapes as endless, vast—and also threatening. Her accounts of a prairie fire or a plague of locusts temper any sentimentality about that cabin on the prairie or that sod house by the banks of Plum Creek.
By contrast, the landscape of southern England is land on a human scale, as we see throughout Sissinghurst as well as in another children’s classic: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). Take, for example, Mole’s delight when, emerging from spring-cleaning his hole, he has his first glimpse of a river:
Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.
Everything is moving here. Instead of an empty vastness, we have a cozy hubbub. Little Mole, nervous, responsible, and nearsighted, delights in the river because it offers just the right level of adventure for a creature such as himself, and it is not hard to see the appeal of such a world for children (and their sentimental parents). When, a few pages later, Rat enthuses “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” we see the landscape as a source of pleasure: bountiful, rich, beautiful, and welcoming.
As Nicolson strives to articulate the larger significance of his vision for Sissinghurst, it is this contrast between the cozy and the vast that remains difficult to compass. Nicolson’s accounts of his efforts to bring farming back to Sissinghurst are among the most compelling sections of the book. He describes the many forms of resistance he encounters every step of the way: the National Trust worries that the smell of pigs will put off tourists; local farmers hate the National Trust; employees are skeptical of the work involved in going organic; board members insist on a more rapid road to profits; restaurant cooks fear that the busloads of tourists still want lunch to be “a meat and two veg.” Nicolson’s efforts at Sissinghurst have many current counterparts: the efflorescence of food tourism in Tuscany; the many restaurants in every European and American city that now tout their relationship to local farmers; the appreciations of microclimates in viniculture in France and the Napa Valley; the writers such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman who advise us yearly on the healthiest, most local ways to eat, and the thriving farmer’s market culture of Massachusetts’ Happy Valley and New York’s Union Square. All of these enterprises testify to the ways that the values of the upper middle class consumer can be enlisted in the service of environmental good.
But Nicolson—and the movement in general—has no answer for the chemical farmer’s protest: “How do you kill a locust organically? You can’t.” And, although some counties in the American farm belt have built up limited tourism, most of what I saw in six years of living in rural Indiana was vast, corporatized fields of corn and soybeans, each field marked with the brand of seed planted there to advertise that particular hybrid crop. Fields and fields of corn and yet, come August, hardly a corn stand to be found.
For four years we lived in an 1870s farm house in Putnam County, Indiana; the farmer, Chester, lived down the road and, though elderly, still worked the fields. He alternated between corn and soybeans and we loved sitting on the old porch, watching the crops grow and the fireflies dance. Sometimes, in the lovely, crescent-shaped meadow just west of the field, neighboring cows would graze. Once or twice we had enough snow to cross-country ski on his land. But during those years I never had an ear of corn from the field adjacent to our land, nor could I find fresh milk or beef. Putnam County has some lovely spots, but it is no Tuscany. Besides, Indiana has 91 other counties, and many of them look about the same. In light of the vastness of the United States, the kind of tourism that Nicolson is able to attract to Sissinghurst is probably not a viable model for the Midwest.
In light of the vastness of the globe and of global needs for food, “Was there no way in which the plans for Sissinghurst could be seen as more than a first-world luxury, the twenty-first century Petit Trianon?” In the impassioned final pages of Sissinghurst, Nicolson asks just this question. His answer lands us back in the world of The Wind in the Willows, with a celebration of the hedgehog. Citing both Philip Larkin’s poem about accidentally killing a hedgehog with a lawnmower and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s plea that the endangered animal is “a useful chap to have around,” Nicolson argues for the preservation of idiosyncrasy, the importance of local character. Kenneth Grahame captures this valuing of detail in Mole’s reminiscences about his first summer on the river: “Such a rich chapter it had been!…Purple loosestrife arrived early…Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow.”
But after pausing over the hedgehog, Nicolson’s argument takes a more powerful turn. Looking back to The Odyssey, he sees in Odysseus’ cruel murder of the suitor-interlopers a brutal model of stewardship. Against that cruel clarity, he juxtaposes the constancy of the nightingale, its resistance to progress, its incomplete, beautiful song. The nightingale is the symbol of lyric, a bird that connects us back to Swinburne, to Keats, to Shakespeare, to Sappho. We readers are especially moved by it because in its song we can imagine that we hear what Sappho heard. Imagining that, and knowing the brevity of the bird’s life and the constancy of her song, we glimpse with poignant clarity a truth about our own mortality. Taking the nightingale as his model of stewardship, Nicolson humbles himself before the land that he loves and cares for. In the end, the hippie-squire can make himself into a symbol of how we all might come to think of ourselves in relation to the land. As Nicolson writes: “My particular problem at Sissinghurst—that I am both in it and excluded from it, that it is mine and not mine, that it has me by the heart but there is no possession there…all of this is only a heightened version of what our general relationship to place always has to be. We are all dispossessed. We are mortal, the earth is not ours.”
Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is currently at work on the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. She can be found blogging at Fernham.