War and peaceful gardens: in the land of Tolstoy
A visit to Tolstoy’s country estate gives writer and gardener Charlotte Mendelson an insight into the relationship between nature and creativity
Country life … Tolstoy in the grounds of his estate, Yasnaya Polyana. Photograph: George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty
Saturday 15 October 2016 11.00 BST
Springtime can kill you, but autumn is worse. If one’s soul responds to nature – and, as Louis Armstrong said of jazz, if you have to ask what that means, you’ll never know – then its beauty is painful. Whatever TS Eliot thought (the poor man was wrong about so much), autumn is the most painful time of all. Walking in the grounds of Tolstoy’s country estate at Yasnaya Polyana, yellow birch leaves turning gently as they fall, is almost too much, particularly for an oversensitive novelist. Five of us are here, imported by the British Council to broaden Russian conceptions of British literature. We have worked – by God we have worked – but, this morning, among the wooded paths and ripe, rich leaf mould, nothing else seems to matter, not even fiction.
For cramped city-dwellers, the incomprehensible excess of space is dazzling: the “cascade of three ponds”, each more invitingly cool and swimmable than the last; the fir woods thick with fungal life; the juicy grass. Even the ponies have had a surfeit. There is so much silken birch bark, pinkly tender beneath its epidermis; so many fallen, unregarded apples and ancient, lichen-spattered branches: mustard, pigeon, rose. One wants to sniff and wallow; at least, I do. Surely this is normal? A reasonable response to being knee-deep in the dew and bracken: surrendering to the space, the wildness?
Of course not. My fellow writers return home with translators’ business cards and ecclesiastical souvenirs. My case is full of Japanese quinces, oak leaves, almond shells, calendula seeds and, most worrying of all, a knobbly fir branch, as long as my arm, stolen from the forest floor and slipped past the cold-eyed, epauletted customs boys at Domodedovo airport. Did the other novelists find themselves embarrassingly weeping at the perfect transparency of a plantation of firs, bare-trunked and widely spaced to allow, as Sofia and Leo Tolstoy had intended, the pale September sunlight to pour in? They did not.