For the last three years I have observed my garden bench as it morphed from an often used, aesthetically pleasing addition to my garden into a drab collection of wooden slats, in danger of being claimed by a snaking wild bramble. By last summer I utilised it rarely, due in some part to the dismal weather but largely because my once favoured place had become a neglected corner, visited only by local cats to sit for a quick wash after which even they declined to linger more than a few minutes before departing in search of a more comfortable spot.
Purchased some fifteen years ago, the wood had long since lost it’s natural beauty, fading gradually from a rich cedar tone to a silvery hue quite charming and delightful, before subsiding to a dull dark brown, stained by time and nature. After the first few years I failed to cover it in the autumn but still expected it to to flourish with welcoming comfort the following spring. With the first appearance of cracks I gave the bench the attention it was calling for in the form of linseed oil applied with an old rag, which it consumed like a hungry child giving it a healthy glow once more, the affect of which lasted but a few months and provided little sustenance to see it through the cold, wet winter. Tree branches overhung the seat providing welcome shade from occasional burst of strong sun but were also a favourite with the birds. It soon became a chore to clean the bench before it was habitable and gradually I didn’t bother and somehow this previously cherished place in my garden had become an eyesore and it in turn stared resentfully back at me.
Finally, I have taken notice. And what a journey we have been on: half a dozen sheets of coarse sandpaper to remove a decade of debris, along with several hours of elbow grease. No electric sander for me! If this effort was rewarded as the colour and grain of the wood revealed itself once more, it was surely the gentler application of fine sanding that helped it glow with life. The benefit of this transformative action was not for the bench alone; for me the physical effort blended with the creative activity – taking one thing and through a series of processes discovering another – is one that cannot be matched for pleasure, satisfaction and achievement. It distracts from the ever present background ‘noise’ of the mind, taking you deep into the present moment where worries about what has been or what might be, do not exist. It’s the reason art therapy is offered as an alternative to drugs for those who are strugglimg with anxiey and depression and I was witness to it’s gentle transformative effect when I worked in a centre which used anthroposophical therapies, including art, for people with long term health conditions. The reason it works has little to do with the end result but much more the process it takes us through, allowing the mind to gently find a way free of the unhealthy groove it habitually remains stuck in.
I do wonder, if we engaged with activities which have an underlying creative experience on a regular basis, whether it would promote a healthier, more satisfying life experience. So much of modern life is stripped of the opportunity to strive, experiment, experience and feel, make mistakes, get it wrong and spend time finding a solution. From mass produced goods, where imperfections result in a ‘return for our money back’ attitude rather than seeing irregularity as the signature of the craftsman; from the preference for uniform supermarket produce over the knarled vegetables which, freshly dug from your garden and sweet smelling are proudly presented on your plate. The digitally produced music to which our ear has become accustomed but fails to quite move us in the same way as the old vinyl and the photographer who enhances the image in order to please the constant demand for perfection, belying the truth he witnessed and perhaps too his own sense of satisfaction. In this manipulated and ‘perfect’ world how can we hope to be truly connected to the reality of life – are we not by default always one step removed? Could this be the reason for the modern ‘dis-ease’ of vague disatisfaction that so many of us experience yet can’t quite put our finger on why? It is as if much of modern life has been stripped bare of the very things which nourish the soul and maintain a healthy equilibrium.
I could have ditched my bench in favour of a new one, the buying of which may have provided a moments pleasure. But I figured that one tree had already given it’s life for me to have a comfortable place to sit in my garden and with a little work and attention it would provide me with a good few more years. After some deliberation I decided to paint the bench in the hope of protecting it a little longer. A once mass produced item has now become something personal, complete with imperfections and nuances and a history all of it’s own with which I am now uniquely and intimately bound.