The View From Federal Twist- Book review

By James Golden

Published by Filbert Press

UK publication day 28 October 2021 £40

ISBN: 9 781999 734572

The publishers have kindly offered one copy to give away. Please leave a comment at the end of this review, and one name will be randomly selected on Sunday 31st October 6pm.

Books have a power to move. To tears, to joy, to despair. Sometimes they transport you to another place. James Golden takes you by the hand and leads you through the garden he’s created, and it’s one of the most beautiful, inspiring journeys you’ll ever take. In his new book, The View from Federal Twist, he describes what it’s like to create a garden from scratch in western New Jersey, USA. His garden is set in a clearing in the woods. He made a conscious decision not to improve the land. Instead he ‘listened to the site,’ placed large competitive plants into rough grass and watched and waited as sustainable plant communities emerged. The result is a magical place, a naturalistic garden -with a difference.

James describes the book as a retelling of the making of his ‘first serious garden.’ It’s a triumph of ecological planting and clear design aims. James is part philosopher, part experimental horticulturist. The result has such an emotional power- it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Evocative photographs capture the effects of light shining through the canopy of trees, grasses and shrubs. Just the scale of planting is mesmerising.

A view of garden taken from a drone. The stone circle is the largest structure in the garden. It’s made of a hard local mudstone called argillite ( ‘blue jingle’ in the local argot, because the stones ring when hit together) that is ubiquitous in this area. Here the circle is like a plant dam, preventing spillover of the prairie into one of the few open spaces in the garden. Like the rest of the garden, James says, it has no utility. It exists to add visual weight, atmosphere and to serve as a stopping place, perhaps to “sit, observe, or let your mind wander.”
James writes: “Further along the terrace, towards its sunny eastern end, this small rectangular reflecting pool makes an elegant contrast with the surrounding naturalistic plantings. The juxtaposition of the sharply defined pool, the repeated domes of miscanthus, and the flowing vegetation give this part of the garden a ‘designed’ look not typical of the garden as a whole.”
Views through the seasons
Planting the garden.
Clockwise from top: Hosta sieboldiana, Iris virginica ‘Contrabrand Girl’ Cephalanthus occidentalis, the canal pond, the bare garden in spring after cutting back, Euphorbia palustris, Dryopteris erythrosora, Maianthemum racemosum – about to flower.
The garden in winter.
A clearing in the woods. The Federal Twist road is not well-known. It’s hidden in the woods above the Delaware and is only four miles long. James says “I accepted a very ungarden-like place as my garden destiny.”

The book is dedicated to Philip.
Front cover

“I am Federal Twist,’’ says James. He realised this when he looked at photos of the garden from above. He put the images side by side with those taken from ground level. “When I put the two images side by side, my reaction was immediate- and astonishing. I felt icy fear. The drone image showed a flat piece of earth totally devoid of feeling, offering no comfort, no warmth, no humanity, no place for me. I felt as if I were seeing with the eyes of an alien being. In contrast, the ground-level photography held me firmly within the garden; it gave me a place to be, a protected place under trees; it made me feel a part of the landscape. I felt comforted, and a sense of belonging.”

Later, he writes “…my life and emotions are closely bound with this place I call my garden. I understand physics well enough to know that my physical body intersects with the garden, interacts with the garden, responds to the garden in some kind of mutual way. I ‘live’ the garden every day. I am Federal Twist.”

Thank you for reading my review. I believe some books come into your life at just the right moment. It’s almost as if they were ‘written’ for you. To give you joy, to give you inspiration; to give you hope. I haven’t been able to write for a while. Grief affects people in different ways. I’ve sat with grieving friends and relatives and they’ve wanted to talk non-stop for hours. Others write sonnets, pen poems, write books. Grief suddenly and unexpectedly silenced me. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to write, I am someone who tries to make things better for everyone. Perhaps I just didn’t want to make anyone else feel sad. There’s no easy path back from grief, it takes time. But reading this book has helped. It’s put into words how I feel about my own garden- how my little plot has kept me afloat these past few months. I, too, feel I ‘live’ my garden. It responds to me; it’s like enfolding arms around me, lifting me up and helping to turn my face to the sun again.

Home. Sunshine lighting up the field maples. There’s tiny hazel catkins forming in the native hedgerow. They will sit there and wait till spring. Rosehips and sloe berries for the birds. Viburnum and hawthorn berries shine, sealing wax red. Life goes on.

39 thoughts on “The View From Federal Twist- Book review

  1. Few people will ever have such an amazing opportunity to create a garden from scratch. What a joy for James. For me this is my ultimate dream. Top of my bucket list! I work with nature every day of my life, and am well aware how nature can heal a troubled heart, and provide solace. I spend many a happy moment indulging in my reveries of achieving such a garden. I would so enjoy reading how James creates his!

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  2. In the rain earlier, which really was too much to be out gardening in, better to be indoors knowing what good it was doing for thirsty plants in the drier areas, I hit on visiting some old acquaintances online. Rather like you describe this book arriving at just the right moment, I dropped in first on Alan Clements and his Cascade Gardens in Bonsall, Derbyshire. I’ve never met Alan, and have yet to get to his cascades, but I completely ‘get’ the way he explains that making his garden helped his path to recovery from sickness and loss. It’s been a few months since I last visited the Bramble Garden blog and I’m sorry to learn of your sickness and loss too, but this power for good in the process of gardening is really what it is about. You both describe the importance of sitting in the garden. I’m at that well known stage where it’s impossible to sit without immediately noticing a job that needs doing! But being able to sit, to stop, commune, meditate or whatever, is surely the goal. Thank you for this review, Karen.

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    • Thank you Peter. I’m so pleased you returned to the bramblegarden blog. I’m sorry there have been so few posts of late. I haven’t heard of Alan Clements, and I’m immediately googling him to find out more. Thank you for reading my review and for all your kind comments. It’s much appreciated. Gardening really does do us all the world of good, though all the trials and tribulations of life. Enjoy your garden! Take care. Karen

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  3. Beautiful review Karen,

    This is a garden on my wish list to visit. I have been to many gardens in the US Mid-Atlantic region, this is one that looks to have real soul (something that is key to a gardens success in my world).

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    • Thank you Darran. Thanks so much for reading my review and for your kind comments, which are much appreciated. I have never been to the USA, but it’s on my bucket list as soon as I am able. I would also love to visit James’ garden. Which ever of us goes first must send photos back for the other! Have a good gardening week. Take care. Karen

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      • That’s a deal!

        I have been lucky enough to visit a number of the gardens around Philadelphia, I plan to visit James one day and there will be loads of photos!

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  4. Hello I’d been looking for a review of this book and I’m delighted to say I stumbled across your blog that’s now been added to my favourites bar. The book sounds right up my street as I love books that talk of “garden making” rather than just gardening. Dan Hinkley’s book on Windcliffe, which is my favourite gardening book at the moment, seems to be very much in a similar vein. Thanks for the great review

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  5. Karen I am very happy that this book has awakened you and we can re-read your wonderful blogs and has brought you out of the lethargy of not being able to write because of the great pain you feel. Karen I feel with my heart the grief that you have been going through for months and that I have not been able to help you, but each duel is a world and perhaps you needed privacy to pass it. I am very happy that your garden was your “rescue” and your strength in these months. You know that you always have me here.
    Karen your comment on the book is wonderful. The author captivates you with his ecological plantation that integrates into the environment told in a charming way and that captivates you: I love it. The photos in the book are magnificent and show all the beauty of the garden and its plants: I love them. Karen I am very glad that reading this book has helped you so much and that you have identified with your own garden “Me too, I feel that I” live “my garden.
    Karen for me the photo of your garden is the most beautiful: it is your HOME, I love it. Life goes on and must go on for you too, Karen. Much health, strength, encouragement, positive thoughts, hope and much love for your whole family, Mr B and especially for you. Sending lots of love and best wishes for recovery. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx 😘🙏💟👶❤🌸🌺💚🌞

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    • Thank you very much Margarita. I know that you will understand everything I have written, as things have been the same for you too. Thank you for your very kind comments, and for reading my review. I appreciate all the lovely encouraging comments you send, and I return them to you too, sending love and positive thoughts back your way. Only time – and some time spent in nature- will heal. Sending hope snd best wishes to you also. Very affectionate greetings from us all. Love karen xxx 😘 🌸❤️🌸 xxx

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      • Karen you don’t have to thank me for trying to help you: that’s what friends are for. And reading your blog has been wonderful because you have written again. Nature, your garden, your furry and feathery family will help you a lot: I wish it with all my heart. Karen, thank you very much for your encouragement and your kind words. I send you all a lot of love and hope to overcome everything bad. Time helps but you have to fight to get ahead: be strong. I send you all my strength and my encouragement and my love. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx 😘🌸❤🌸🙏xxx

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  6. One’s garden does become an extension of oneself. Or maybe one becomes part of the garden. This book looks like one of those pieces of garden writing worth re-reading. For me, it’s books by the late Henry Mitchell, who wrote columns on gardening in the Washington Post.

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    • Hello Audrey. That’s so true. I feel as if the garden becomes a friend in troubled times. I’ll look out for books by Henry Mitchell. Thanks for the recommendation. Enjoy your weekend. It’s turned blustery here, after a lovely mild autumn. I’ve got the greenhouse all set up for winter though. My sanctuary when it turns cold.

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  7. Looks intriguing… might be a good read for the downtime of winter ahead. Thanks for sharing it.
    Hope you are feeling better, Karen. Grief is a personal journey and there is no short cut out of it, only time can make us whole again. Take care of yourself. ❤

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    • Thank you Eliza. Such difficult times for all of us. It seems to be one thing after another. Immersing myself in the garden and garden writing will help. Take care, and enjoy the weekend. It’s turned wet and cold here, after a lovely long mild spell. Xx

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  8. Your review has really whetted my appetite for this book. So sorry that you’ve been in a sad place. Sending love and healing hugs to you Karen. Glad that you’re wanting to write again.
    Much love, Sharon xxx

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    • Thank you Sharon. That’s very kind of you. Glad you enjoyed the review. I just had to write it! Something in the book woke me up and set me writing again. Thank goodness. Enjoy the weekend. I’ve set my greenhouse up for the winter months. Somewhere to sit with friends – and the kitten – amongst the lemon trees. I shall focus on that little oasis of calm. Thanks again. Your kind words have made a difference. Karen Xxx

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      • It’s great to have you back. I lost the sight in one eye for a while, but it’s better now. It’s still hard to read some days. Hearing aids will come next week, so people won’t have to shout at me. You need patience and technology to grow old these days.

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