Slow reading in the Garden

by Daphne Loads

As part of the Festival of Creative Ideas in August 2019, JL Williams and Daphne Loads facilitated two reading workshops in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh; one for staff and students of the University of Edinburgh, and one that welcomed the general public.

There is something particularly satisfying about reading in a garden, pausing from time to time to look up from the page and to take in fresh air, sky, trees and flowers. Reading indoors has its own pleasures, and the professor’s room in the historic Botanic Cottage provided a cosy hideaway, up a flight of stone stairs, filled with curious objects and with windows looking out onto neat plots of colourful vegetables and ornamentals.

Beginning in the cottage, Daphne and Jennifer offered an introduction to the ancient contemplative practice of Lectio Divina which allows the reader to slow down and engage deeply and intuitively with a text, so that a range of layered meanings emerge. Together we reflected on six concepts:

  • Presence
  • Trust
  • Slowing down
  • Embodied response
  • Embracing ambiguity
  • Transformation

Jennifer asked participants to think about silent reading versus reading aloud, and about individual reading experiences versus collective reading experiences. She asked them to consider the feelings associated with different types of reading; reading for pleasure, reading poetry, reading newspaper articles, reading a speech or lecture while delivering it, and so on.

Daphne encouraged participants to read “Heron” by Robert Macfarlane with their whole bodies, enjoying and becoming aware of the taste of the words in their mouths, the movement of the air through their lips, where the sounds touched them and moved them, in their hearts, their guts or on their skin. This was embodied reading.

Readers’ responses to “Heron” were funny, insightful and honest.

Moving outside into the rain-fresh garden, we each took a song lyric, a piece of prose or a poem, to be digested slowly, in the open air. On our return, we brought two or more small items discovered in the garden: twigs, berries, even a dead wasp (!) and shared our responses to the readings with reference to these objects.

Interestingly, according to Illich (1993):

‘The root of the English word “to read” connotes “to give advice,” “to make out,” to “peruse and interpret.” The Latin legere comes from a physical activity. Legere connotes “picking,” “bundling,” “harvesting” or “collecting.”’(p58)

Again we were re-embodying an abstract concept and enjoying its physicality. Together we re-enacted a richer form of reading, in contrast with the frenetic skimming, scanning and scrolling in search of quick information that so often seems to be expected of us today.

Illich, I (1993) In the Vineyard of the Text: a commentary to Hugh’s Didiscallion Chicago: University of Chicago Press

With thanks to Laura Gallagher of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.