In anticipation of Mandy Haggith's Walking With Poets residency at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden for the month of July, we visited Little Sparta for a little contemplation on the act of walking, nature and poetry.
Little Sparta, created by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, is nothing less than a work of art in the form of a garden, nestled in the Pentlands just beyond Edinburgh. It is not easy to find, especially without your own transport, and doesn't advertise itself, and this is why it remains so wonderfully peaceful and untrodden. Sssh! Don't tell anyone – this is just between you and us.
Within the garden 'made of trees, plants, stones and water, and of the imagination', are almost 300 works with the recurring themes of sea fishing, WW2, the French Revolution, philosophy, literature, mythology and classical civilisation.
SPL was accompanied by academic Ruth Burgon, whose area of expertise is walking in contemporary art. She mentioned a book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit, in which the author contemplates walking in relation to culture, and the range of possibilities in this most basic act.
Solnit calls for greater 'time and space in which to walk in an evermore automobile-dependent and accelerated world', and Little Sparta, aside from the need for wheels to get here, is certainly a great spot for slowing down and meaning-seeking. In fact, space and time seem rather flexible here. She suggests, 'the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour'.
Writer and advocate for introspection Rousseau too is quoted as saying 'My mind works with my legs'. He was an inspiration to to the leaders of the French Revolution and, in turn, to the revolutionary Ian Hamilton Finlay.
In Little Sparta, Julie's Garden is named after Rousseau's heroine in Julie et St Preux, ou La Nouvelle Héloise, in which a garden is the setting for the lovers' trysts. In Julie's Garden, a ceramic basket of cherries represents the writer's delight after 'accidentally' dropping a handful of the fruit into the bosom of a charming young cherry-picker, as described in his Confessions.
This is just one example of the rich cultural links and layers to be revealed on a wander here, or several, in the same way a poem gradually reveals itself upon each reading.
To explore walking and poetry further, join our Walking with Poets resident, cybercrofter and environmental activist Maggy Haggith at the RBGE this month for free events including a 'Listening Walk', and read her poetry and musings online, here.