Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Forgetfulness is my favourite poem by Billy Collins, the dog-loving, piano-playing, one time US Poet Laureate. The poem begins by describing that feeling that you have forgotten everything you’ve ever read: ‘The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion?’.

I repeat these lines like a mantra as I struggle to remember titles, authors, movies, dates. Right now, I am trying to remember the date of a little miracle that changed my life, searching for signposts that will trigger memory two years ago? three years ago? although, as the poet says: ‘Whatever it is you are struggling to remember, it is not poised on the tip of your tongue’.

My small miracle also had a poetic ring to it, an ophthalmic rhyme called Zap and Flap. One day I was living in a fog, a human museum of different spectacles required for seeing the world, for seeing computers and price tags, for reading. A torn cornea (10-month-old baby’s finger in the eye) meant that I was a poor candidate for contact lenses. As much as I would have liked lenses on dressy occasions (only The Queen looks good in tiaras and spectacles), my biggest complaint about my feeble sight was being outdoors. Pruning vines in the rain. Feeding chickens in the rain. Walking dogs in the rain. In general, farming in the rain is like driving down the M11 in a rainstorm without windscreen wipers.

All this came back to me this week at the Chelsea Flower Show where I had long stretches of the show gardens to myself as the rains fell in tropical torrents. I could see the stems of hydrangeas emerging from clouds of box (the Daily Telegraph Garden, and sheer heaven it was, too). I could identify rare slipper orchids shuddering in the cold, resisting the pleas of the American gardeners to ‘open, open’ (the Lake Forest Garden Club’s Ravine Garden). Even when I darted into the grand marquee to shake off, labrador-style, no steam clouded my vision. I could see every sepal, petal and polenia of McBean’s incredible orchids, which, in their perfection and masterful display, were as close to a horticultural miracle as I’m ever likely to see.

Like genius, miracle is a word to use cautiously. Whole religions are based on a handful of miracles, so the notion of the miraculous demands restraint. But the Chelsea Flower Show feels like miracle territory. Creating in a matter of days gardens that look like they have been established for years seems like a biblical achievement. And, in a gloomy world of war, crime, drought, debt and fear, to have this oasis of beauty and energy and joy (and some ego and commercialisation the real world doesn’t just vanish) frankly feels miraculous. Blessed are those who live in a country that gives six days of primetime viewing to a flower show, who are citizens of a nation of proud gardeners.

In fact, it was standing in the rain at Chelsea that I had a vision, or rather, remembered my own miracle of vision. Thanks to Mr Gartry, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital, a miracle worker, who restores sight to the blind, and who gave sight to this foggy eyed gardener, making it possible for me to stand in a patch of rainforest (the Gorilla Garden by the Zoological Society) in the pouring rain and see bamboos, sedges, grasses. Perhaps the rain washed away my ‘miracle amnesia’ which is, in truth, a terrible form of forgetfulness.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 1, 2006.