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.