‘Your pictures are a world away from here,’ writes my mum, about the photos I’ve sent her of Western Sichuan. ‘The rhododendrons look quite familiar though – if not their setting – as a result of their mass adoption as garden plants here. I presume cow parsley and may trees haven’t been taken back in return.’
Spring in England: frothing cow parsley and creamy, too-sweet-smelling may. Tall foxgloves and ragged robin and watery sheets of bluebells. Why haven’t these been imported to China?
Those intrepid European plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, carrying back home lilies and rhododendrons and tales of long-haired bandits and red-robed monks and levitating lamas; green tea and calligraphy and bones vulture-picked clean; outlandish customs in unbearably exotic landscapes.
I’m imagining intrepid Chinese and Tibetan plant hunters, carrying back home foxgloves and may trees and tales of – of – what? Satanic mills, stuffed Victorian parlours with piano legs prudishly covered, endless suburban streets of twitching curtains and privet hedges and bungalows named Shangri-La. Fish and Chips, Blackpool rock and salty rock pools, eleven o’clock TIME and beery fights on Saturday nights.
The rhododendrons in my parents’ garden, brought back perhaps by Ernest Henry Wilson (whose travels around here are the subject of various tours), are perfectly at home and, as mum says, hardly look exotic anymore.
I’m imagining bonsai may trees in pots in Chinese courtyards, cow parsley gone native along mountain rivers, grazed by hairy yaks.
And then I hear a cuckoo calling, and I’m transported straight back to cool leafy English Spring, green and white, the dim lacy lanes. All down this mountain valley in Sichuan the call follows me, to the hot springs, into the snow and out again, up to the sacred lake beneath the glacier where devout Tibetans circle clockwise, balancing stones in an expanding city of cairns and stupas.
It’s a world away from England. But the cuckoo seems utterly at at home.