Haven for birds, butterflies and poet

2008-10-02 00:00

"It needed to be a refuge for birds, butterflies and a poet," Clive Lawrance explained to me when I visited his quirky garden that he recently established in the suburb of Prestbury.

"Having returned to Pietermaritzburg after 13 years of quiet living in the Karoo and Grahamstown, I was troubled by two things. Firstly, I couldn’t find a calm place in the garden to think. And secondly, all the birds were up in the tops of the trees. Not down on the ground where I could see them."

Although that is natural in a garden belonging to eight-, five- and three-year-olds, Lawrance decided to do something about it. After a round of tough negotiations with the resident children, he was allocated a section of garden that had previously served as a dumpsite.

"The first thing I did was erect a fence to keep the rampaging dogs out." And it’s quite a fence. It begins with a gate made from an old window frame and some dry-stone walling. It then extends through a number of sections — a dog kennel built from unpolished floorboards, old tree-stumps, discarded branches, outdated farm implements, rusty metal sculptures, large pot plants and a metal gate sporting an old Chrysler hubcap. All this is arranged in a crooked line to make an unusual but beautiful fence. Not your average palisade.

"Next I consulted the experts to see which plants would attract birds and butterflies. I was told to plant mainly leonotus, aloes and plumbago. I did, and soon the birds started coming. First sunbirds. At any time of day I see three or four sunbirds in my garden. But soon mossies, finches and canaries also.

"Then I established a stream. Water runs along a course of shale and is recycled by means of a water pump. Besides bringing a peaceful sound of trickling water to the garden, this also attracted birds — doves, bulbuls, mannikins and hadedas."

Some of the existing vegetation proved to be a problem to Lawrance, however.

"There was a huge mango tree in the garden which was too large to cut down. So I pruned it into a sculpture. And now it not only looks good but it also attracts the barbets. Another problem was blackjacks. They had overrun one section of the garden. Initially I tried to pluck them out. But then I noticed that their flowers attracted butterflies and small birds. So I thought to myself ‘if they like blackjacks, then I like blackjacks.’ And I stopped trying to get rid of them."

When Lawrance’s three-year-old granddaughter announced to him that his garden was full of weeds, he said, "Jo, some people might call them weeds, but I don’t. The butterflies like them, some birds like them, they grow all year round and they have beautiful flowers."

When I next visited I saw that he had a vase, full of weeds, on his lounge table.

But this garden, that at any time of day is quiet and cool, fluttering with butterflies and hopping with birds, hasn’t only become a sanctuary for nature. Lawrance, having previously published two volumes of poetry is working on his third. A substantial amount of that work is done while he is curled up in a strategically placed wheelbarrow in his garden. There he waits until his muses usher him inside to hammer out a poem they’ve just delivered. "I sit for many hours in my garden and every now and again the garden gives me a poem," he says.

"In many ways it’s less a garden than a forest-cum-art gallery." That’s true. Especially when compared to the pristine lawns of the garden service operator who lives next door. But in Lawrance’s garden you’ll find beautiful pots that serve no purpose, site-specific artworks made from old tree branches and a number of rusty metal sculptures.

These Lawrance made while living in the Karoo. "I used to sculpt wood, but there wasn’t any wood in the Karoo, just lots of old, rusty metal. So I started finding spanners and turning them into ballet dancers. It’s not serious art but humorous. I call it cartooning in metal." Dotted around the garden are spades that have been made into beetles and bolts that have become young men.

"So," Lawrance concludes (I sense that he’d like to get back to his wheelbarrow now), "the garden has become a haven for birds and butterflies, a sanctuary for me and it’s been accepted by the children."

More than accepted, I think. It has become a quiet place for all three children to drink tea and to potter. "You know Granddad," five-year-old Hannah muses, "I was very angry with you when you first told me I couldn’t swing in that tree anymore. But I’m not angry with you anymore, because you’ve made a lovely garden here."

And he has.

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