The act of letting go, abandoning and relaxing the grip on something we thought we desired seems contrary to our modern world, where energy and achievement have greater purchase on our imaginations. And yet we all know we cannot have everything we want. We should perhaps learn to exercise the muscles of release at an early age, the better to let go of what we cannot really have. Or is that sadly defeatist? And how is gardening to help us learn to liberate ourselves from our more unreasonable desires?
Simple really, and everyone who gardens has experience to help them. You sow a packet of seeds, and admittedly sometimes only three spindly plantlets survive, two of which are chickweed. But sometimes hundreds emerge, falling over each other, masses of glassy white legs. As soon as you can, you must prick them out, and you must stop and destroy the remainder when you have enough. It's pointless to have dozens more than you need, yet it is hard to resist the wordless pleas of the dependent little seedlings. Buck up, pull yourself together and throw what you don't need away.
And gluts. How dreadful it is to have too many courgettes, too many plums or quantities of lettuce all ready at the same time. Everyone is trying to give the same things away, it's a nightmare of useless abundance.
This year in Italy the trees were bowed with cherries, both cultivated and wild, making good on the promise of the their tall snowy grace earlier in the year, when I marveled at the number and distribution of them throughout the woodlands. But the endless picking, the cleaning, the stoning, the cooking, the bagging, the freezing! And there were more, and still more, ripening and glowing seductively among the leaves. No end to them and the sticky entrapment of red fruit, Only one solution - extinguish the desire, turn away, turn them off, liberate yourself.
And then there are the plants I have longed for, and often acquired, only to fail with them. They now hover in my mind's eye, beautiful, incorruptible, too good for me. They are pearls beyond the price I can pay and I renounce them. The list is long, and the cost often includes moist acid soil, excellent drainage, endless precautions against slugs and fiddling with soil amendments.
Here are some of them - mertensia virginica, galax aphylla, cornus canadensis, veratrum, kalmia, corydalis flexuosa, ligularia, iris ensata, trillium, watsonia, enkianthus and delphiniums. Gentiana asclepiadea and lutea, most hostas, tender ferns, celmisias, some of the more complicated salvias. Monardas because of the mildew, the better kind of phlox, because of the watering required. Eremurus because they are inexplicable.
|ligularia dentata 'Desdemona'|
Perhaps this is a strange list, perhaps you might feel I have given up on plants I could succeed with. You might be right, but I will not try again, I have made my peace with that, and it is indeed a kind of peace, to choose to pass by. These are not plants I dislike or think little of. If I moved to another garden with completely different conditions I suppose I might try some of them once more, but there again hell might freeze over.
My most poignant relinquishment is geum rivale, Leonards variety - those nodding tangerine heads. They are a perfect combination of delicate form and colour, but they can never be mine again. And I can't even find a photo of them.
The word relinquish is beautiful, offering acceptance and grace along with loss. I have not succeeded with these plants, and the comfort is, I no longer want to. In truth I long to relinquish, I relinquish whenever I can, it gives me a small but thrilling sense of control. I doubt it would ever get out of hand - I'm unlikely to end up with peas in my boots, weighing six stone and a lunatic light in my eyes. But giving up gracefully, on what you must lose anyway, that seems to me a good skill, one that ought to help with some of the worst trials of life, as well as the smaller nuisances.
There are so many chances to hone your renunciation skills when you take up gardening. For example; as we all know, too many different plants wreck a scheme and subtract rather than adding to each other. Dead heading and cutting back involve sacrifice if they are to be effective, plants easily swamp each other, you need to choose and eliminate, or nature will do it for you. Practice, practice, sometimes with regret.
Currently I am struggling to hang on to something I decided would be best to deny myself when I first started making my garden in Italy. From the front of the house, where the main garden is, the view across to the town of Mondovi is something to which your eye is ineluctably drawn. I decided the garden's theme, on that side of the house anyway, must be exposure and openness, to that view, to the air, to the sun.
The house, the nameless metal structure in front of it and the covered agricultural area below provide shelter, shade and sense of enclosure and that has to be enough. Simple then, stop right there, you can't plant trees, large shrubs or even very big perennials on that side where all the current planting areas are. Renounce such ideas. Think twice and let go.
And yet you can imagine what is happening. I find myself drawn to the framing of views, through bending trunks or pillar like structures. I fantasize the dappling of the ground with shadows, the walking through, under and out, to clearings hemmed with trees, to hidden places, to kindly shelter. I want what I cannot have and I find that discontent a most uncomfortable, unreasonable sensation, one I must rid myself of, with effort and energy. A person as fortunate as I should try not to mourn the unlived life, not for long anyway.
I will admit, I have conducted a little sleight of hand, not quite paying attention to what I am pretending I am not doing. A small magnolia and a little hawthorn have crept into place on the far lower left of the planted area. A cherry, related to the newly planted concealed orchard directly under the house, has stolen outwards towards the pond area. These won't be obvious in the photographs, even I barely know they are there. I know in my heart that from the upper level, the most used, trees will look like lumpy blocky shrubs, for years and years. They will have no grace seen from there, they will obscure the view annoyingly, not enhance suggestively, or frame elegantly. I have given due consideration to planting trees at that highest level, but I have not convinced myself. Time to leave it alone.
It was a garden that depended upon a large number of brick and stone follies - twiddly towers and connected roofless walls, set among the dense evergreen cover. Now the follies are much diminished for many of the trees have become enormous and bosomy. They loom hugely against each other, begging to be thinned but the task of selecting and relinquishing such large healthy trees must surely daunt. if not overwhelm.
Now many of the heathers have gone and large areas of the woodland have a unifying cover of geranium endressii, which makes for a rather charming unshowy innocence.
It is the garden proper that struggles to find its purpose and meaning, though perennials and grasses have been inserted to lighten and decorate it. I rather loved this sort of thing.
But I found the hidden "rooms" exhausting and cluttered. They were imagined, constructed and planted with such obvious hard work and care, and yet somehow they speak only of that. I feel sorry and concerned - something is needed to give them fresh life, their ties to meaningful existence are loosening before are very eyes. Time passes, aspects of culture float into disuse and disrepair, eventually decisions must be made.
Great Comp reminds us that, even in gardens, such a delightfully healing part of life, we are presented with the endless human dilemma of when and how to relinquish, sometimes through destruction or abandonment, something we once thought essential. We spend 50 years acquiring convictions, stuff and connections, and the next 20 or 30 years hanging on, or letting go, bewildered by how things change and in what strange directions.
So the questions that arise are: how do you bring yourself to surrender something that you have grown used to, that forms part of the pattern of your life, something in which, like an old car, you have invested, something for which you are still able to feel flickers of appreciation mixed with a clammy nostalgia. Something that also arouses feelings of boredom and exhaustion, even entrapment. Gardening helps - you see the rise and fall of plants and the seasons, time and change embodied. You learn to step in and manage the situation, where you can, and in ways that you wish.
In this song, If You See Her, Say Hello, from the album Blood On The Tracks, Dylan offers us an almost perfect paradigm of a very difficult relinquishment, struggling through a psychodrama of letting go. He works through all the stages of grief, putting words to each one, trying to reach release. Sometimes he seems to force the process beyond where he is ready to go - the words ring truer as efforts than realities.
The first line, the title, is confident and casual, exactly what one would say if everything was fine at the end of a relationship, but the bright insouciance is a fraud and the song pulls it apart, showing the pain and loss it conceals, bit by bit. The melody goes round and round, the voice and the emotion spirals up as the spirits spiral simultaneously down. As listeners we hear it all, we understand it completely, we are complimented and included by the emotional complexity.
The protagonist seems most engaged in his struggle to withstand, maturely and coolly, his own distress and the power of memories of happiness and its dissolution. Reason is pitched against emotion, but neither comes off best. He's finding out how to give something up, something that hurts, something he cannot quite bear life without. He practices the words and the attitudes that might help but the loss is real.
Just at the end, as a kind of happy resolution, the door is propped minimally ajar. The future is not closed, though the renunciation is as complete as it can be. He suggests that his lost love could always look him up if she has the time. Such ordinary speech, such a banal idea, but it is another kind of surrendering and a difficult mixture of courage and despair.
In the end we have to practice for relinquishment simply because there is no other way to go. All those things that are dear to us, they will all go, as surely as the innocence of our early years, as certainly as our youth, as time itself. Letting go of others can be hard, even death does not guarantee it. This song solves nothing, it simply describes an emotional process, accurately and effortfully, and sometimes that has to be enough.
I'm quite keen on going gentle into that good night, choosing, where I can, the order of the necessary renunciations. I watch my father and see him moving through that process each and every day, That has to be the last joy and our final blessing, never to quite shut the door to more time, but stepping forward to meet what must be, managing the unmanageable.