Mary seeks to help people understand that having land to look after is a gift and a responsibility. She talks to Turf and Grain about the need for change in how we perceive the land that we live on, and how as a consequence, we can better ourselves. 

“I grew up on a small farm in Wexford, so I always spent a lot of time outdoors. It was a different time- the industrial revolution that would come to farming was yet to happen and the land felt really alive. I didn’t really have much interaction with other people when I was a child, we were turfed outdoors and left to our own devices a lot.

There was a field at the top of the farm, that I distinctly remember wandering into one day, where the gap in the hedge closed behind me. It sounds mad, but that’s what happened, and I couldn’t find my way out. I remember that it was a nice sunny day, and although I was only about six at the time, I forgot about being scared as I sat down in the middle of the field. As a kid, I think you just understand things and accept them, and I began to notice that all the wildlife, all the plants and trees in the field, were looking for my attention. They were all watching, and I understood that each had unique personalities, which I suppose is just the energy of living things. That interaction opened my eyes to the understanding that I was part of this land and plant family and that they were part of mine.

 Still based in Wexford, Mary’s thoughts and methods have spread across the world through her book, The Garden Awakening, as well as through Vivienne de Courcy’s 2016 film Dare to be Wild, inspired by Mary’s success at the Chelsea Flower Show. 

“People email me from all over the world about the book, it’s one of the most popular books in libraries and bookshops in the United States, in terms of gardening. And the film- it was in the works for so long that it doesn’t really mean much to me one way or the other that there is a film about me anymore, but people were very affected by it.  The film has a very simple environmental message, though it is really only an introduction to my way of thinking. 

 When I wrote the book, I was doing it to help people work with their land better and I realised that I was doing it all wrong myself. I had to work out how to do it properly- and I found that it is important to work with the shapes and patterns that are already present, and to not block but encourage the flow of nature, become one with your land and to form a familial bond with it. 

 You are the guardian of your land, and I think the only way I can describe it to people is like parenthood- if you forced your child into doing things that wasn’t natural for it you wouldn’t get on with that child. People try and get some control over their lives by controlling and moving land around, when it should be the other way around.  We are in complete control and forcing your land to look pretty, stay still and not move is all about ego, and our weird idea that a manufactured version of nature is more beautiful than nature itself.

 Gardeners get angry and feel threatened when I say these things. I’m saying that everything that they are doing is wrong, and we haven’t got time to make anyone feel better for trying. I’m not going to pretend that I’m ok about it anymore. I had a debate several years ago on the BBC, where I was laughed at for sticking up for nature. Do people not realise the damage that has been done, that we’re fucked? Do they not see it or is it just a complete lack of empathy?

 It made me think that it is so important that we reconnect with the food we eat. If we can reverse industrial farming we can make a massive step in healing the land, and make no mistake it’s a healing process that we need to undertake. It works both ways- people don’t realise that the best way to fill the gaps within ourselves is to reconnect and develop a relationship with our land. People just think they need more and more stuff to fill in the gaps in their lives, filling gaps by going to the gym, buying fancy clothes or having more sex. Spending time with friends and family, eating together with food that you grew and made yourself together, and music make us who we are.

 We have completely forgotten our connection to the land and the idea that we should work with our land instead of just taking from it. Convenience really is the root of that evil.”

In a Tedx talk delivered in 2016, Mary highlighted that while Ireland is renowned worldwide as being a naturally beautiful and green country, the truth is that in its environmental and agricultural policies, Ireland isn’t green at all. 

“Ireland is being destroyed! The chemicals which we are putting onto crops, and which farmers are spraying to kill rushes, are getting into the water we drink. How disconnected are we that we don’t see that?

Where small farmers are struggling they are selling their land to multinational corporations. We are losing our land to American and German corporations who are destroying our land in order to order to increase sales of their chemical pesticides and fertilisers to mass produce monocultures of crops.  We have lost 40% of our song birds in the last 50 years, a massive indicator that our environment is struggling. 

We look at fields of oilseed rape and think they are so beautiful, but the pesticides used to grow those plants are killing bees. In the winter cattle are eating genetically modified grain- these chemicals reach us and we need to see the cross over. 

 People are grasping at bits of these problems by eating seasonally or shopping for organic produce but it isn't getting to the root of the issue. People don’t realise that organic food is often shipped half way around the world to be packaged before being shipped back and out to supermarkets. We need to support our local seed suppliers instead of buying seeds from supermarkets. If you want to plant a tree take cuttings, and you will have a young, strong and resilient tree instead of buying a tree and planting it somewhere that it can’t cope with the wind or soil.”

 We need to return to growing food, and to do it in such a way that allows the land to become what it wants to become, a stable, multitiered woodland system. As this is a method of perennial food production, it provides food and shelter for all the creatures that live here and creates a circle of life where we all depend on each other to survive. 

Mary’s work is not to design gardens for her clients. The purpose of her work is to help people reconnect with the land that they are in charge of and to help them develop a bond with it. Her process is instinctive and observational, and while respectful of her clients wishes she is equally respectful of an areas existing flora and fauna. 

“Whether it is design or consultancy, I always have people get a land survey of all the existing wildlife that is currently in place on their land, and then I work with what is there. 

When I'm designing for people, they won’t have me do it if they don’t think it will look pretty, but I try to get them to just relax and encourage them to see that land full of life is more beautiful. I think now when people contact me they know what they are getting. I design spaces for people within their land, spaces that are based on the shapes and patterns of nature in order to work within the flow of universal energy, but I ask people to take as little of the land as possible for their own pleasure. I want them to use the maximum amount of their land to provide sanctuaries for all of the creatures, rooted and not rooted that live above and below the soil, to make a green city.  

 It is a slow process, a healing process. My own land is damaged, I’ve been planting trees for over a year but I’m not prepared to enslave myself by paying mortgages to develop it more quickly. I want to work with it slowly and it will come around and we can enjoy it more freely. 

 I’m trying to get away from the whole design thing, if I’m honest. The Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford runs a lot of outdoor courses, especially over the summer months, and I have set up a school in the grounds where I teach people about how to reconnect with their land.”

 Although the reality of how we are treating our land is bleak, Mary sees hope in the future, through younger generations. 

“There are lots of good people who are trying to make change, but there aren’t enough of them, and it is my generation that is doing all the damage. I think the younger generation is cool- they get what’s going on and although they are young and have no power yet, they won’t put up with what’s going on for much longer. 

 I listened recently to a beautiful conversation that the American activist Charles Eisenstein had with Satish Kumar, where he remarked on how the most valuable things in human life are becoming the least valued. He remarked on how people who produce food are paid so poorly considering how valuable food is to us and that struck a chord with me. Hands-on work is devalued in our society, and the further you get away from the land the higher your perceived social status and pay.  We work in shitty jobs that we hate and we are all caught- enslaved and exhausted, and we should simplify our lives.

 I don’t think that people are directed to do things that they love- we need a deeper kind of change.”

Written by:

Simon Worthington

Photographed by:

Sarah McDonagh