Watching the watchers

I stumbled upon a quote yesterday by a guy who had apparently never liked jazz until an occasion when he watched a jazz muso playing with his eyes closed, in visible bliss.  He concludes “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.  It’s as if they are showing you the way”.

I can’t say the same of my love of gardening, or at least can’t say that it started by watching someone who loved it.  But once it started, it was largely fueled and sustained by watching (mostly in the form of reading) others love it.  Their love galvanized, framed, and vastly extended, mine.

In this light, I’ve got to thank Christopher Lloyd.  His writing is full of devotion to the subject, to which he gave his virtually undivided attention for 84 years.  A single paragraph in the intro to The Adventurous Gardener set the tone of my life.  I’m not sure how it managed this, except, perhaps, by validating the passion and curiosity I had for plants and gardens, and by making me feel a little less alone in this – making me feel a little less like a curiosity myself.  And it set the bar of enquiry way above what I’d ever known it to be, or ever knew it could be, and higher than I’ll ever reach.  What a gift – what an incredible gift! – that was.

The picture of Christopher Lloyd above… from the left: Otto Fauser (Australian bulb guru), Ed Flint (a friend of Christopher Lloyd), Me, Michael Dale (fabulous Australian gardener, then working with Beth Chatto), Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd

Jean Galbraith, (aged about 90), and me (aged about 26), in her garden in Tyers, Victoria
Jean Galbraith, (aged about 90), and me (aged about 26), in her garden in Tyers, Victoria

Delving back in my history, I’ve also got to thank Jean Galbraith.  It seems to me that anyone who looks as devotedly and carefully at anything as she did will inevitable draw the gaze of others to their subject. Her love of nature in general, and plants in particular, along with gardening, gardens and the people that made them is gently exhaled through ever word she wrote.  Jean Galbraith wrote for the press for over fifty years, so there’s probably thousands of gardeners out there whose experience of gardens was to some extent framed by her words.

Further back still, I need to thank David Grayson (as would Jean Galbraith if she were here – it was our mutual love of his writing that led to our correspondence).  This man was a superstar in his day (early 20th Century) with nine-or-so books on the simple joys of working with the soil and the seasons that went viral, and induced the establishment of

Ray Stannard Baker, a muckraker Journo who had a parallel (and presumably much more lucrative) life as farmer David Grayson
Ray Stannard Baker, a muckraker journo who had a parallel (and presumably much more lucrative) life as farmer/writer David Grayson

Graysonian societies in parts of the US.  It turns out that David Grayson was the fabrication of a busy journalist by the name of Ray Stannard Baker.  But by the time I found out that David Grayson didn’t, and had never, existed (something I doubt that Jean Galbraith ever knew), I was infected incurably, and gratefully, with the virus.

Further back again, I need to thank Kevin Theile – a fellow student in the Botany School at Melb Uni back in the early 80’s.  It was Kevin’s uncanny observation skills – able to spot a near microscopic orchid from metres away – that highlighted the total absence of such skills in me, and made me want them, badly.  I never established how I could acquire them, but simply recognizing and valuing those skills seems to set you on a slow path of acquisition.  And while I still feel like I look at the world through foggy glasses, I know that I see a lot more than I ever would have, if I hadn’t met Kevin.  If you’re out there, Kevin – Thanks!

Going back much earlier still, I’ve got to thank Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Her ‘Little House’ series loved, and thus drew my attention to, the high adventure of a life with one foot in domesticity, and the other in intimate contact with nature.

(for those of you who pick up a whiff of familiarity with an earlier piece, I wrote about the first three of these influences in a piece about my most influential books about a year back. I thought it worth making the distinction between books, and those that taught me to love gardens and gardening by ‘watching’ them love it (albeit usually through the written word).  Apologies to those who consider the distinction too fine…)


  1. Hi Michael,

    I haven’t even got past the first picture yet …… Wow what I shot!

    1. Yeah, we knew it (rather lamely) as the weekend of the three toes – Otto, Christo and Beth Chatto. Three gurus in one location. Don’t you love the girlish coy thing that Beth’s doing?

    2. Thanks for this post Michael. I really enjoyed it. Coincidentally, it aligned with some thoughts about gardening and the power of observation and involvement that I was attempting to express on another forum! I placed a link there to your piece. I hope you don’t mind?

      Cheers, Marcus

    3. Of course not, Marcus. I’m flattered. Can you let us know what that other forum is?

  2. For most of my life I thought it was my grandmother’s love of gardening that was my inspiration. Her small suburban garden always full of blooms and things to do. But, when I started delving into our family’s past I discovered centuries of professional gardeners on all sides of my family across the British Isles, in Germany and in India. Also farmers and ag labourers. Truly I had no choice it really is in the genes! Now, all those games as a child of pretending to tend garden and then my first vegie patch, and all the little patches of bulbs and other blooms I would plant as a young adult in the gardens of our many and varied rental homes, all fall into place now. Our inspiration comes from all kinds of places, but perhaps for all of us gardeners there’s some level of genetic plan!

    1. Fascinating, though for my part, my heritage is entirely horticultural-gene-free. And my childhood included absolutely no garden make-believe. I envy your generational hort-cred.

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