I arrived in Italy for a necessarily brief break and some fast weeding, only to be met by smashed trees and a series of landslips. I have been startled, first by the dazzling sunshine, then by the meaningless destruction, snagged branches like broken teeth, strange angular misshapes in the hedgerows, confusion and disorder in the woodlands. How did this happen? Has some annoying giant tramped across the land, trailing enormous hands and feet through the vegetation. How did it all get in such a mess?
A heavy fall of wettish snow in February seems to be the answer, not something that would make more sense, like a weak hurricane, or a strong wind. The weight broke the branches and then melted away, like a thief in the night. I'm left astonished that I ever thought I could plant interesting or beautiful trees here. The ones there were are dying anyway, poor drainage and alternating droughts and swamps leaving them vulnerable. Walnuts, elms and chestnuts suffer from blights, oaks seem to struggle and fruit trees drown. Only tall matchwood poplars of the cottonwood variety, silver willows, robinias and ailanthus seem to bounce back. And hazels of course. And ramshackle elders.
As a bit of a ramshackle elder myself, I turn to the song of the day with a sense of my own history overwhelming any chance of a fresh , untrammelled hearing. It's Idiot Wind, from the album Blood On The Tracks, or better, in my view, the version on Hard Rain, sung with controlled vim and relish.
It's one of the best of all songs ever, at least about this sort of thing: grief and loss in prospect and the final failure of love. And I remember the shifty eyes of the young man who introduced me to it, way back when. Poor boy, he thought a woman might feel obliged to take it personally. The meaningless hot air of the chattering beast and so on. To him, just cause for female offence. Such deep water, such endless layers of misunderstanding, how could we even begin to straighten it all out?
And so we never did. I cannot say that his view, which seemed to fit with that of many other men, did not affect me. It made me nervous of the song and afraid I hadn't understood the meaning of the anger. It felt like men were receiving it as a secret message about what they really knew about women, but were too evolved to mention. But I never thought there was any proper misogyny in the song itself, not really, just sadness and rage, the usual human stuff. Inevitable and thrillingly, economically, thoroughly expounded. Male or female, you identified with the feelings of the protagonist, not the object of his ire.
Here in Mondovi, in early April, the fierce light of spring shines without pity. It shows up every detail of what's gone wrong in the garden over the winter. Like the evidence of a crime, convincing and hopeless. Much has gone well, and there are things to be learnt from that. But how quickly I turn to what has failed, to everything that hasn't worked.
I'm a fearful pessimist: my fortunate and relatively pampered life sometimes resolves itself into a series of shocks and alarms, worries which I overestimate and concerns which shatter my equilibrium. This song reaches across the years with a reminder of misery and anger that one never imagined woud fade and yet has done so. While there's life, there's hope, they say: above all value life.
So I turn to the small stuff of horticultural hope and ambition. I am pleased with what has done well though admittedly the winter was never truly cold and I strive to be less disheartened by what hasn't worked. My transplanted celtis australis, grown from shrivelled scattered berries, found in the parks of Turin, seem to have survived their move, dying back only a little. I have great hopes they will prove tough and graceful trees. though they grow in a thanklessly droughty position at the top of a bank, still currently running with water making its way downhill. I plan a delicately shaded woodland area, cyclamen and bulbs at their feet.
A two year old gaura lindheimeri is dead as a doornail, but surrounded by seedlings, themselves stained with purplish red, like holy relics. I redistribute some, leaving the others in the places they have chosen, for they are likely to do better there and why look for trouble? Gaura works best as an active, moving annual, or biennial, rather than as a static perennial, just as long as it will seed for you. None of these things are as fixed as one might think.
|Gaura in July last year, with unknown blue erigeron in front|
Many low-growing small-leaved Mediterranean evergreens with small tough leaves have survived well in the sandy mulch I put down two years ago - there are tracts of micromeria and thyme, rich pickings amongst the oreganos, expansion in the hyssops and varied sages. Oenothera missouriensis and acualis are breaking through strongly and my slender pale yellow hemerocallis, variously named, are looking happy and much increased. Peonies, santolina, iris and echinacea have all survived, as of course they tend to do - I have not chosen difficult plants.
In this climate, and under these soil conditions, plants are required that can create an extensive root system, well underground, so that they search out any moisture in summer and recover from the effects of serious cold in winter. Thrifty growth is what's needed, an almost unimaginably old-fashioned virtue. I don't want height and overfed expansion, masses of rich leafage, followed by large flowers, then panting expiration and collapse. Summer-dormant perennials would be good, disappearing underground when the heat and drought strikes, but, of those, the oriental poppies hate the drainage problems and I have lost two out of every three. Dicentras, in the same group, are worth a try, though I have become unreasonably tired of the maudlin bleeding heart. Geranium tuberosum though, that's something I must get hold of, delicate flowers in May followed by complete disappearance till next spring.
In general, plants need a good deep root system to give them a degree of drought-resistance and stability. Plants that need a lot of dividing cannot be considered stable and have no time to develop deep roots. So I ought to practise a little resistance myself and avoid those daisies that need frequent division - many asters (now called symphotricums), erigerons and tanacetums. But I don't, and I can't, they simply give me too much pleasure.
|Oenothera missouriensis and Erigeron White Quakeress - both flower for months. Here they have just begun, in May.|
Years ago, I learnt to divide these daisy relatives in spring rather than autumn, finding they needed to move fast and keep on moving, that a morose winter after splitting spelt death to their simple hearts, but that leaving them alone year after could mean another sort of death by overcrowding of the new shoots. Not true of the real species asters or the old Michaelmas daisy, ramping around at the back of the border, but those with masses and masses of small bright daisies, those hybrids with complicated sap-lines like Little Carlow, like Esther, like Erlkonig - they don't have it in them to stay in the same spot and keep at it year after year without human intervention. They reappeared this spring, their shoots crammed together and exhausted-looking, old woody roots exerting a stranglehold, a relationship on the rocks for all to see.
So I have intervened, fearful only that the threat of hot dry early summers and spring division would be mutually incompatible. All my daisies did well last year, the pale yellow anthemis tinctoria became enormous; erigeron White Quakeress, solidaster Lemore flowered beautifully. This year they could do with rescuing from self-strangulation, and, not to be sniffed at, I need more plants to cover more ground, so it's time to turn to and do the dividing.
|Solidaster Lemore - flowers for ages if dead-headed, from June onwards|
I started this in April of course, and since then have had to return to England. I ripped the plants apart, and replanted them, straight into my unpromising soil, watered them well and walked away. It felt precarious, balancing the one imperative against the other and steering between opposing forces. All I can hope is that there's enough moisture around for the next month so that the plants can start to grow independently and make it through to flower later in the year.
So my theme is rescuing a disaster in the making by risking another, trying to find a way between them. It leads us into the song, which starts completely off the point, with a complaint, followed by a complicated joke about being lucky. Already we're staggering about, trying to fit apparent contradictions together. Anger and sorrow at a dissolving relationship follow; the song can be seen as an attempt to reconcile snarling and crying, rising above the one on the back of the other.
I love the song for the emotional precision of its striking imagery about the way the protagonist feels. The burning boxcar, the running boards, the cypress trees - that's destruction, flight and sorrow in a couple of phrases. He has lost his love - lost his love in two ways for he now feels something close to hate, and she has completely changed, even her face looks different.
I remember the same moment of shock as he expresses, when I too was breaking up, and was faced with what looked like a completely altered mouth and evasive eyes. We've all noticed that, probably, but I can't think of anyone else who pinpoints that detail, at least in a song. Here we get everything: domestic life, an exhausting series of arguments and scenes, culminating in frantic baroque imagery about holiness and howling wolves. Reconciliation cannot work, sorrow cannot temper rage, all is lost.
The song is most marvellous for its lengthy elaborated insult, the one that worried the youths of my day, the one about the idiot wind blowing across the world, out between the teeth of the estranged partner, out of her empty corrupt mouth, saying and meaning nothing of worth and intelligence. I can't help it, I just love that level of accuracy and care with a metaphor, however corruscating. Such descriptive diligence should be rewarded with release from the grip of the emotion, but his anger damns him, perhaps even in his own eyes, out of his own mouth.
So finally I return to the damaged trees and landslips, the smashed road edges, the general destruction now disappearing under the rolling waves of green. To be honest, they are far more like the sentiment of Idiot Wind than any of my complicated notions about oppositional forces and clever steering between them. That final conciliatory "we're idiots" weighs too little against the devastation and blame described in earlier verses, the sentiment is too effortful, human but flawed. And that, of course turns out to be the whole point of the song. We're not talking about anybody getting anything right, it's not a song about things going well, it's a song about an uncontrollable veer in one direction, straight into disaster.