Saving Grace: Bill Henson Moves his Childhood Garden

This story was first published in Wonderground Issue Two.

‘And herewith attached a few snaps of the dismantling of the sixty-five-year-old garden I grew up in,’ writes Australian artist Bill Henson via email in early June. I might recognise, he suggests, the ‘smooth bone-coloured trunk of a 60-year-old sasanqua camellia’ laying prone on old brick paving. Rootball wrapped, flatbed semi-trailer waiting in the street. And what about the ‘beautiful red flowers of an eight-meter-tall stenocarpus’, suspended at an unlikely angle from the arm of a crane while men in hi-vis guide the old tree to its temporary rest. Their role as carers obscured by their fluorescence.

‘Oh yes! Don’t let me forget the mossy rocks – 60 tonnes of them!’ Bill adds. He is a mad man. I tell him so. He returns with more images. This time, a photo of pot-upon-pot of bird’s nest ferns obscuring the entire floor of his photography studio, an old truck depot in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Northcote. Some of them are five meters in diameter. Taller than him. He stands in the back corner, glass of wine in hand, dwarfed by what he has saved from his mother’s garden.

We need to talk, I write. I ask him – an internationally renowned artist, photographer – if he has any ‘proper photos’. He takes it well, and we line up a conversation.

Most people just walk away. Parents, grandparents die or move elsewhere, and homes and gardens that were once the centre of a world are sold. Don’t go back, they say. But so much of what is meaningful in a life exists in, and grows from, the landscapes of childhood.

Bill Henson grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley. Sixty years ago it was cow paddocks and apple orchards. As a child he watched the semi-rural landscape bulldozed in service of progress. ‘And then out rolled this brand new graph paper which was the housing estates … There was no trace of what had been there before,’ he says.

Bill’s mother Jean lived in the family home until her death in 2016. She was a gardener; a woman who cared, who paid attention, attuned to ‘the magic of things’. ‘If you were going to move a rock around, you wouldn’t roll it over onto its mossy side because you’d scrape the moss off,’ he says of her way of being. ‘It’s that mono no aware thing.’ Bill tells me his sister Elizabeth says she never heard an argument or an angry word between him and his mother in her whole life. ‘It was just one big long festival of agreeing.’ I tell Bill agreeing doesn’t seem his style. But, of course, mothers are different.

Erasure circles our conversation, which is in itself, a kind of vortex.

We are ostensibly speaking about how he transported many semi-trailer loads of mature camellias, trees, masses of clivias and citrus and ferns and nandina and more from his late mother’s garden, what that means, and why. A straightforward enough premise. But Bill always takes the scenic route.

‘The sense of continuity and belonging in the landscape is constantly being undermined and diminished by so much violent destruction,’ he tells me. ‘John Berger said “home is at the heart of the real” … It’s absolutely true. One of the traditional ways of weakening people is to move them around – as they do with refugees – so they no longer know the landscape, no longer have a connection to land. They no longer have the things that give them a sense of their own identity. With that goes power and agency, the ability to interact in a constructive way with the landscape.’

And then this: ‘We’re doing it to ourselves. We haven’t even been bombed by anyone yet.’

The disregard shown to the Australian landscape, might, according to Bill, be related to the idea that the landscape hasn’t become ‘sufficiently enough symbolic’ within white Australian worldviews. I think of the ‘pushing back the scrub’ of the pioneer; the settlers’ incessant ‘improving’ of the land, which means, writes historian W.K. Hancock in Discovering Monaro, ‘doing everything that a man can do to make it look like “the old country”’.

‘All of this pertains to the simple business of trying to save my mother’s garden,’ Bill tells me. ‘Or as much of it as I could.’

‘In a funny kind of way, it’s as though the garden holds the chance that they have not gone. There’s still the presence of someone who has worked in the garden for years, they’re there.’ After her death, Bill and his sister would visit their mother’s house each Sunday. Bill would tend to the garden and his sister would cook lunch. They were not ready to sell. I ask him what changed. Time, he says. ‘We just went through this natural process of getting to a point where we thought, well, constructively, what do you do?’

And if you’re Bill Henson, a man who, over the years, has rescued many an unwanted tree from building sites and soon-to-be demolished gardens, you take the garden with you. ‘Rather than allowing the bulldozers to erase sixty-five years of gardening which my sister and I and my mother had done on this little area of land, we decided we would try and save as much of it as we could.’

Enter the tree-transplanting experts with their cranes, diggers, water cutters, and flat-bed semi-trailers. ‘The whole palaver,’ according to Bill. His mates at Established Tree Transplanters carefully lifted tree upon tree out of the ground. ‘It’s a big industrial process, but it’s done with such a high level of awareness to detail.’ Bill dug out the smaller plants himself, which were then moved by Ron Jones, who typically transports antique furniture and sculpture. ‘They gathered up these bird’s nest ferns that would be four meters, maybe five, in diameter, netted them up, and wheeled them into a giant furniture van. Not one tiny bit of dead leaf came off.’

The process of removal, according to Bill, ‘overtook the feelings of melancholy, the basic sense of shock you get seeing something you’d grown up with dismantled over a couple of days’. There was, he says, too much going on, too much to be impressed by. ‘That positive and constructive state of mind continued. That’s how I see it now. Even though there’s still that haunted space we all carry around inside us.’

Once Bill and his sister had finished removing what they wanted from the garden, the property was sold. There was still, Bill tells me, a lot of garden remaining. ‘And then it’s handed over to modern world, and the modern world cuts down every single thing that’s left on the block … with the exception of two giant old gum trees.’

‘I don’t have this idea you can recreate what was there, because it’s not possible … There’s a spirit of place which is not transportable,’ Bill says. The moving of the garden seems more about being constructive, protecting what is meaningful. Refusing erasure. ‘Any dickhead can smash a statue up with a hammer. Construction is much harder than destruction. The challenge you lay at the feet of people who want to silence things, erase the past, erase the physical evidence of the past is the challenge to bring something formidable to the conversation, something that offers an alternative perspective.’ Bill is on a detour, talking about cancel culture, not his mother’s garden, but the parallel is clear.

The thing about taking the scenic route with Bill Henson is this: By the time you get to the end – via Vlad the Impaler, Spike Milligan, a documentary on the restoration of an Egyptian temple damaged in an earthquake, the problems of population, ‘fascist revisionism’ in the garden, the joys of YouTube – you realise he’s managed to tie it all up together. We somehow end up in his garden, amid relocated clumps of Clivia nobilis, next to the sixty tonne pile of moss-covered rocks he moved from his mother’s. I imagine him placing each one carefully next to the other. Preserving the ‘beingness’ of each small wonder.

He tells me about the birds, spotted pardalotes, who have recently appeared in his garden. He’s never seen them in Northcote before, but they used to be at his mother’s. ‘I’m thinking, in some weird way, they followed the plants.’

And the magpies who sing on sunset, whose chortling he records on his phone. ‘And what it does, of course, is bring back the spirit of place. Where you grew up. Things you accidentally encounter, such as the magpies the other night, bring back the smell of memory. That sense of the lost domain of childhood.’

His words remind me of those of Janine Bourke in Source: Nature’s Healing Role in Art and Writing: ‘The artistic process itself is a journey, a specific one, the return to a lost and cherished childhood realm, the original source of inspiration and identity.’

Integral to this return journey is meaning. It is not something that can be picked up at a shop, offered by others, found in an imaginary future. Meaning exists in the layers of a life. It is the dust that settles on memory and time and place. It is the story that holds a world together. It can be found in many places, cultivated in many ways. It can be a garden.

‘I was just reading this book …’ Bill begins, referring to Walter Benjamin’s essay The Collector, from which he quotes: ‘Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which things of the world are found.’

‘In a way, that’s a bit like trying to salvage a garden. Trying to make sense, and work against the dissolution of something. To stop things being broken up or destroyed, flattened. It’s about continuity, about retaining some connection with meaning and value. What matters, you know.’